Colors of the Andes: Dyeing Wool the Peruvian Way

While some ingredients for natural dyes may seem strange, their colors saturate Andean textiles and have a long history among Peruvian artisans.

Peru is a country full of vibrant colors that reflect the unique culture, creativity and energy of its people. In the Andes Mountains, the people bring the colors of their country and culture to life through handmade textiles and the natural dyes that are used to color wool and alpaca fiber. The dyes and processes of coloring these materials are based on Andean recipes and instructions that have been passed down from generation to generation.

In order to achieve the stunning natural colors that you see in Andean textiles, the Andean people apply their great knowledge of the different plants that can be used for dyes. The spun yarn is then boiled with the coloring agent and other fixatives, such as mineral salts that help the material to hold the color or intensify the saturation. The following are some of the natural ingredients that are used for dyeing wool in the Andes.

Red

The most common element used for the production of red dye in the Andes is cochineal – a scale insect that is related to the aphid and is commonly found in the Sacred Valley. The insect must first be dried then ground into a powder using a mortar and pestle. Depending on the fixatives that are used during the dyeing process, cochineal can be used to produce a wide range of shades, including bright red, pink and purple.
Colors of the Andes: Dyeing Wool the Peruvian Way

Orange

Weavers can evoke the color orange by adding citric acid to cochineal-dyed yarn. However, there are other ways to create the same effect. The bark of yanali – a slow-growing tree found in high altitudes – is commonly collected and chopped into small pieces to be boiled with the yarn. Yanali doesn’t create a true orange, but rather a mustard yellow or yellowish-orange color.

Green

There are many different plants and minerals that can be used to produce the color green; however ch’illca is the most common. Ch’illca is a leafy green plant that has white flowers. To make green dye, large bunches of fresh leaves should be added to the dye pot and mixed with collpa, a mineral from the jungle. Together, these two elements should be boiled for an hour before adding the yarn.

Blue

To achieve the color blue, weavers in the Andes use tara, a bean-like pod. Tara is boiled with the yarn and collpa is added as a fixative to help the color cling to the fibers. The shade that is produced can vary from blue to grey depending on how much material is being dyed and how long it is boiled.

Yellow

To make yellow, there are a number of plants and flowers that can be used, though q’olle flowers are the most common. The flowers are harvested from a small tree that grows in the Andes and are boiled with the yarn. The length of time that the yarn is boiled and remains in the dye solution will determine the shade of yellow that is achieved.
Colors of the Andes: Dyeing Wool the Peruvian Way

Neutral Colors and Black

Sheep and Andean camelids, such as alpacas, yield a wide variety of neutral wool that can be used for textiles. Those colors include white, grey, tan, black, brown and beige of all different tones. Oftentimes undyed yard is already the most perfect natural color and does not need to be treated with dyes, though there are some coloring agents that can turn white yarn different shades of brown or black. However, most often natural colored yarn is made from undyed fiber. All that is needed to yield a clean color is the use of the jabonera plant as a natural detergent to remove any dirt or impurities.

After dyeing, the yarns are rinsed until they stop bleeding color and then they are hung to dry before they can be used to make beautiful weavings. These days, because of the popularity and convenience of synthetic dyes, it is not as common to find naturally dyed products in the market places and touristic shops in Peru. Thankfully the recent demand for natural, handmade products is helping to preserve the traditional dyeing and weaving processes of the indigenous communities of the Andes.

We know that the culture and long traditions of Peru are what make this country so great. For that reason, we will always encourage our guests to purchase items that celebrate the culture and traditional values of the people of Peru. While typically more expensive, we know that the handmade and naturally dyed fabrics of Peru make for the most wonderful and authentic souvenirs and directly support local craftsmen. While you are traveling in this country, we’d be happy to recommend some of our favorite shops for purchasing high-quality Peruvian textiles!

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