The gatherer’s urge runs rampant during the rainy season in the Andean highlands. Clusters of the tiny misiq’o flowers wave in the breeze and each is capable of adding its tint of sunrise orange to the dye pot. Chilka bushes line the roads; their leaves washed clean by the daily rains and when mordanted with millu produce a forest green. The suyku stalks crowd together offering the dyer an easy harvest and multiple dye options by use of the leaves and flowers separately or together.
Doña Maxima and the members of the Club de Artesanas (CdA) prepared for a 3 day dyeing extravaganza last April during Dorinda’s short visit. The Huancarani weavers left 77 skeins with the Club along with requests for the color each skein should be dyed. The majority wanted cochineal reds and oranges with a few requests for the light green produced from suyku leaves when mixed with just salt and vinegar and the darker moss green when a touch of millu and sulfate of copper is added to the dye pot.
The dye days were scheduled so that the dye plants could be collected a day prior on the way home from the meeting with the weavers in Huancarani. As the road began it’s descent from the highest point, Doña Maxima, Vilma, and Dorinda alighted from the van with empty mesh bags and headed down the road picking the bright yellow blooms of misiq’o. The profusion of plants petered out within a narrow range of elevation. Continuing down the mountain the suyku plant began to appear, it to has a narrow altitude range where it proliferates. The tall stalks were in full flower; those buzzing with bees were left alone. The back of the van was packed within 15 minutes.
Doña Maxima and the Club members had been tasked with finding a place to hold the dyeing extravaganza. Vilma, Doña Maxima´s eldest and a long time Club member, offered her home. The tin roof over the outdoor wood burning oven offered the needed shelter from rain and sun. It took all 6 Club members working on and off most of the first day of dyeing to strip the suyku stalks to continually replenish the dye bath of leaves. The flowers were soaked overnight for the second day of dyeing. A sturdy 2 burner gas range heated the heavy dye pots.
The delicate masiq´o flowers provided just enough dye for the Club members to each dye a small skein. The Huancarani weavers know that masiq´o is a dye plant that each must collect on their own or with a few friends for small batch dyeing. PAZA purchases alum in Cochabamba, and it is available for sale at cost to the weavers. It is always used with masiq´o flowers to brighten and fix the dye. The Club weavers saved the dye bath to mix with cochineal.
On the first day a cochineal dye bath was mordanted with alum to produce a range from dark red to pink. On the second day of dyeing the cochineal dye bath went from red into orange tones with the help of citric acid and cream of tartar. A dye bath of powered mixed with dried chunks of turmeric produced a bold orange. The turmeric was purchased in the health supplement aisle of Cochabamba´s huge vendor stall market. A year ago, fresh roots along with fresh ginger were sold by mobile vendors from crates on cargo dollies. No fresh roots this year. On the 3rd day the various dye baths were mixed.
Vilma’s house did not boast an outdoor sink so the skeins were laid on plastic sheeting in a drainage ditch and washed with a hose. On the 3rd and only sunny day of dyeing Vilma, mother of 4, lugged out a huge hamper of family laundry. She filled a washtub with soapy water and patiently scrubbed each item inside and out with a brush, using a board to support the item.
The 2 lessons learned this year were that turmeric is sensitive to the sun and cochineal needs to be properly stored. The glorious sun had finally broken through the rain clouds, and the skeins hung like jewels across the clotheslines. The sun caused streaking in the turmeric dyed skeins, and the Club discussed ways to level the color on a future dye day. The cochineal had been poorly stored in their abandoned club house in Huancarani. It was the last of 2 kilos purchased for the weavers in 2012. When it was ground in the cereal grinder the resulting powder was gray instead of the usual deep red. All the recipes needed additional cochineal. We were later told by another weaving group that it should have been soaked. We used to soak the cochineal prior to a dye day, but began skipping the step when we didn´t notice a difference whether it was soaked or not. The older poorly stored cochineal definitely should have been soaked.
It made sense for the Club to have a communal meal the first 2 days. On the first day the Club members provided rice, potatoes, and eggs and shared the prep work. On the second day, PAZA provided beef and chicken that were cooked in Vilma´s large outdoor gas oven. The potatoes were so perfectly roasted that the skins had blistered resulting in a crunchy exterior and a creamy tender interior. PAZA also provided morning snacks of bread and avocado to go with herbal tea. Independencia avocados are famous for their creamy buttery richness. Due to their size, they must be shared.
Many of the Huancarani weavers returned the Sunday after the dyeing to pick up their skeins. All were happy with the results. Well, except for Doña Felicidad who decided on the spot that she preferred Doña Alicia’s suyku dyed green skeins to the cochineal reds that she’d requested.
The next blog posting is going to have background information that you are all familiar with having followed this blog for some time. It is to be a fundraising posting for PAZA activities especially Spinning Week which is scheduled for November 4/10. Thankfully, Liz Gipson, who was a founder of Spinzilla and instrumental in the Bolivian team participating in Spinzilla for 4 years will be lending a hand with the fundraising for, “La Semana de las Phuskadoras”.
Thank you to those who have contributed to PAZA this month, although the blog postings have appeared erratically, the expenses to support the Club de Artesanas and Huancarani weavers continue to be steady. Dorinda Dutcher, June 27, 2019