Why natural dyes matter

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The man preserving endangered colours

(Image credit: Michael Slominski/Alamy)

Teotitlán del Valle is home to generations of indigenous Zapotec weavers

For Zapotec artist and weaver Porfirio Gutiérrez, colour is a way to connect with his ancestors’ way of life, which has sustained civilisations by living in symbiosis with nature.


Back home in the village of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, Porfirio Gutiérrez is referred to by his indigenous community as “El Maestro”. In Ventura, California, where he lives now, and to the contemporary art world that he is courting, he is an artist with a cultural practice. But for Gutiérrez, the job is the same: to conserve, preserve and innovate, when necessary, a millennia’s worth of wisdom and culture associated with the making of one thing that keeps everything interesting – colour.

50 Reasons to Love the World – 2021

Why do you love the world?

“Because I am indigenous from Oaxaca and I am blessed to be living here now, in the Chumash land, where I continue to follow my journey, led by the plants and where they grow.” – Porfirio Gutiérrez, artist and weaver

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But not just any colour. These colours are derived from nature, meaning that Gutiérrez’s charge is to discover new and old ways of plucking plants and insects straight out of the natural world and transform them into the pigments that give forth the glorious, rich, fullness of natural dyes. 

When compared with the synthetic dye that is used today in essentially all our clothes and textiles, nature’s version is almost always inexplicably better. It’s the visual equivalent of a peach ripened by the tree, or a tomato baked in sunshine. Some lost part of you recognises that this is how it’s supposed to be. Natural dyes are no different.

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Across time and cultures, we’ve been carpeting cave floors and dipping our jeans in dye, not because they won’t otherwise function but because colour makes life’s banal objects durable and our memories last longer. And if you are as blessed with knowledge as Gutiérrez is, then that colour also grounds you spiritually and connects you to your ancestors’ way of life – a way of life that sustained civilisations by living in symbiosis with nature. A way of life that 500 years of colonisation has systematically erased.

The man preserving endangered colours

Gutiérrez doesn’t want natural dye to regain its prominence in mainstream culture because that could lead to terrorising nature for the ingredients. He wants us to see that it’s possible to make a living and make good on the quid pro quo deal with nature: that she provides for us, and in return that we take only what we need from her. He wants us to see into his colours. He wants us to see that each textile he produces, whether it’s informed by ancient symbolism or California modernism, carries forward ancient knowledge and sacred wisdom.

Porfirio Gutiérrez makes textiles with handmade dyes derived from nature (Credit: Kate Kunath)

Porfirio Gutiérrez makes textiles with handmade dyes derived from nature (Credit: Kate Kunath)

The land grazed by the sheep whose wool becomes his yarn, the plants that grow wild in nature – they all play a part in Gutiérrez’s colours. Perhaps, we would all benefit from what they have to offer, and perhaps he is right in looking to the art world to show us.

Gutiérrez’s work is currently showing at The Ojai Institute in Ojai, California, until 1 October, 2021, and at Arizona State University through July 2022.

BBC Travel celebrates 50 Reasons to Love the World in 2021, through the inspiration of well-known voices as well as unsung heroes in local communities around the globe.

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