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Cherry red, carrot orange, grass green: we use objects from nature to describe these vibrant shades, but I often forget the vast palette that exists in the natural world.

It’s nice to be reminded of the range of shades the eye can see, and even more exciting to see these colours come to life. On Sunday, Sarah and I attended a dye workshop hosted by a master dyer in the town of Calca. Martin has a wealth of knowledge about plants and natural dyes. What’s more, he has spent the last few years developing natural dyes in powder form. We went to his house to see how he combines these powders to produce dazzling jewel tones and soft, delicate hues.

All the communities Q’ente works with dye their wool using plants and other ingredients found in nature, such as salt and oxides. Martin’s powder dyes are unique because he has perfected the ratio of these ingredients to make convenient, portable dyes. Just add boiling water and watch the colours take shape! What’s more, these powder dyes use less water and fuel than the traditional plant variety. We dyed twelve colours in two pots of water. We didn’t have to change the water each time, just added a bit occasionally. Martin estimates he used 10kg of firewood, instead of the 40kg he’d need to dye the same number of colours using raw materials. This is because the powder method saves him from having to change the water each time and heat it up from room temperature.

Martin’s powders combine ground plants, oxides and cochineal. Cochineal is a key ingredient for many natural dyes. It is an insect that lives on the cactus known as “tuna” in Peru, which we call prickly pear at home. Cochineal is native to Central and South America, and is a very valuable insect indeed. When squished, these little bugs secrete a bright red liquid that has been used in dyes for centuries.

In fact, the carmine or carminic acid derived from cochineal is today used to colour foods and cosmetics all over the world. You’ve probably eaten cochineal, or spread some cochineal-derived carmine on your lips, without even knowing it.

For dyeing purposes, cochineal is harvested from the cactus and dried. It is then ground up and combined with other ingredients to produce an array of colours. Cochineal dyes not only reds, oranges, pinks and purples, but can even be combined with other natural materials to produce brilliant shades of blue. At the moment, cochineal is going for S/.100.00 per kilo in Cusco (about $40.00 CDN), but can easily soar above S/.300 per kilo in the rainy season when it is scarce. Most of Martin’s powders have a cochineal base, and he even threw in scoops of the pure stuff to produce certain colours. It’s amazing to think that a little bug living on a cactus holds the secrets to a whole rainbow of colours.

Another ingredient that may surprise you is….fermented urine! And we’re not talking about the animal variety either. Urine is collected and allowed to ferment for two to three weeks in a bucket. Once ready, the urine is a wonderful natural fixative. It sets the dyes and prevents the colour from fading with time. What’s even cooler is the fact that it can actually change the colour of the dye, and it does so instantly! We watched in awe as Martin dipped some freshly-dyed orange yarn into the bucket, and it transformed in seconds to a lovely purple! The wonders of chemistry… You can see this amazing transformation in the attached picture. We also learned that urine fixes blue dye, changing the original turquoise shade to a beautiful royal blue. Without the urine, the turquoise would fade in the sun or wash out in the rain. We loved the final blue, but were also quite fond of the pre-urine turquoise. Does Martin know how to make that shade as a permanent dye too? Of course he does.

All in all it was a fascinating day, and great fun to see which colour he would pull out of the steaming vats next. To Martin’s amusement, we oohed and aahed over each new shade. Perhaps it’s another day’s work for him, but for us it was like magic! The day spent with Martin got me even more excited about our upcoming dye workshops in each community. Next month we’ll be repeating the same process with each weaving association to get an idea of their respective colour palettes. I’m sure I’ll know a lot more about dye plants by the end of it, and have a few more stories about fermented pee and squished bugs too…. And I’ll enjoy every minute of it!

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