Textiles and dying in the Americas

Raw material

From Mexico to the South American Andes, clothes and textiles are traditionally brightly coloured. These colours are obtained through the dying process, using natural materials, such as purpura (purple), cochineal (red), and indigo (blue). The raw materials are boiled up to make a dying solution in which the textile or yarn is soaked.  Some dyes, such as walnut or indigo, can last without any other chemical processes to fix them.  Most natural dyes, however, need to be applied to a fabric that has first been treated with a mordent, such as urine.



Indigo, an important product of trade since ancient times and one of the oldest dyes to be used in the printing and dying of fabric, comes from a plant which is native to the tropics. It can be used in a variety of ways, to produce different shades of blue and purple.  

Cochineal comes from an insect which lives on cactus plants and is native to South America and Mexico. Carminic acid, the insect’s own protection from predators, can be extracted from its body and eggs to provide carmine red. Different hues (from orange through red to purple) are obtained by varying the mordent.  Purpura is obtained from the ink of small sea molluscs of the murex family, which live on the rocky coastline of the Pacific Ocean, near Oaxaca. The dye is collected by hand in October of each year, obtained by squeezing the foot of the mollusc to extract the dye. 


Cultural symbolism

There are many meanings attached to colours obtained from dyes.  Purpura, for example, is traditional for weddings, conveying ideas of status and fertility.