The woman behind the colors

GutierrezWorkshopTeotitlan010 The Gutierrez family workshop in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca is one of many which weave wool rugs and other textiles in the town… about 75% are involved in this cottage industry in some way. However, the Gutierrezes have stood out for both Porfirio’s sense of design and sister Juana’s ability with natural dyes.

Porfirio has received much attention for his work, in no small part due to his efforts and determination in promoting his family’s work, taking advantage of his excellent English and U.S. contacts. He has spoken about Teotitlan weaving in the US, has a small studio in Ventura, CA and has appeared in numerous publications in Mexisco and the States. In 2016, he was invited to the Smithsonian to collaborate with them.

One thing that is seriously lacking in coverage of the family has been the efforts and talents of Juana Gutierrez. This is not Porfirio’s fault by any stretch.

I had the pleasure and honor to spend about four hours at the family home/workshop on Simon Bolivar Street. I would say at least half of that, and by far most of the demonstration was related to Juana’s work.

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Part of the dyeing area with plants used, including nopal cactus with cochineal insects growing on them
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Wool yarn in a simmering pot with dye

More space in the family compound is dedicated to dyeing (and demonstration of dyeing) than even to looms, as Juana provides dyed wool for several family members who work in their own homes. One of the main distinctions of Gutierrez rugs is that all are made with 100% wool yarn that has been colored with natural dyes made from plants and insects sourced in the state of Oaxaca. For the family it is important for environmental and cultural heritage reasons.

Just about all of Teotitlan’s weavers will tell tourists that their rugs are made with natural dyes, but the reality is that only about 12 families still use them… and for important ingredients such as indigo and cochineal, the Gutierrez family is by far the largest consumer. The use of chemical dyes has become an environmental problem as the residue gets into wastewater. It is a cultural issue because ancient knowledge of plants and techniques are being lost.

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Juana Gutierrez is an artisan with dyes in the most classic sense. She stated that she did not like school very much, and preferred to work with her parents, from whom she learned the basics of the various plants and the cochineal insect used for traditional dyes starting as a child. However, she has far surpassed her mother’s abilities and even those of her ancesters… simply through years of trial-and-error.

Still using the same basic ingredients (tree moss, Mexican tarragon, zapote and pomegranite fruit, etc., along with indigo and cochineal) she is able to create about 40 colors with almost infinite variations.

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As most of the family’s business is now to foreign markets, education about the rugs… how they are made an the significance of the designs. Most of the demonstrations in Teotitlan revolve around dyeing, selecting the ingredients, grinding, adding them to nearly boiling water (often for hours) to make the dye itself. To color the wool, it is dipped in this water-based dye for minutes to up to an hour, depending on how dark the color needs to be.

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Certain colors and color variants are made through dyeing more than once – yellow and blue for green, red and blue for purple, as well as the many tones. Juana has developed a set of standardized colors for her family’s work and makes batches of dyed wool based on the design needs of Porfirio and the other weavers.

While most media and foreign tourists have interest in Porfirio, which he has rightfully earned, but he will also be the first to tell you that Juana’s work is even more important than his, having a rare talent and technical expertise.

 

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One thought on “The woman behind the colors

  1. Leigh, thanks for this feature about Porfirio and his sister Juana Gutierrez. I have written and photographed Juana extensively on my blog, http://oaxacaculture.com
    and include a visit to this studio as part of my Oaxaca Natural Dye Textile Tour and the map I publish. Juana is a great dye master and this studio is very atmospheric.

    Even for someone like me, who lives here in Teotitlan del Valle, it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly how many weaving households work with natural dyes, perhaps about 10%. Most of the workshops are not well publicized and it is difficult to know who to go to for a highest quality textile.

    I have written about the Teotitlan del Valle textiles made with natural dyes for an upcoming guidebook, “Textile Fiestas of Mexico”, by Sheri Brautigam, including photographs, one of Juana. It lists other great weavers/dyers like Federico Chavez Sosa and his wife Dolores Santiago Arrellanas and The Bii Dauu Cooperative, in addition to the Gutierrez family. Thank you for your great work to bring the natural dye textile tradition and the work of women in the process to your readership.

    Best, Norma

    Like

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