Oaxaca Tales: Jacobo Mendoza, Natural Dyeing on Wool

Various ingredients used for natural dyeing, including dye plants (Black Zapote, center; marigold, left), mordanting agents (sea salt, baking powder, powdering lime, lemon, pomegranate) and fixing/soaping agents (Amote root at bottom)

One of the highlights of the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, Mexico, was Traditions from Teotitlan: Optimizing Natural Dyes on Wool, a short, intense presentation by the Jacobo Mendoza family, who have been weaving rugs for generations. The Symposium program describes the presentation in this way: ” Jacobo Mendoza is a longtime dyer and weaver who runs his own weaving studio in the famed Teotitlan del Valle, known for its natural dyes and intricate wool tapestries. Jacob has previously studied under Michel Garcia and has applied a scientific approach to his inherited knowledge of dyeing. Combined with his comprehensive understanding of local natural dyestuffs, Jacob’s weavings exemplify how natural dye on wool can achieve great color fastness and a wide ranged of colors within his own unique bright palette.”  A disclaimer here: any technical information included in this post is based on my notes about the presentation, through translation. Please use it to do your own further investigations rather than as a completely accurate source all on its own.

To start the presentation, Jacobo gave a short traditional greeting in Zapotec, then explained that his family continues to further the skills that “our ancestors gave us.” A skilled presenter, Jacobo engineered a one and one half hour presentation which included spinning wool and using four different natural dyes with overdye variations. Mendoza is an award-winning weaver. He concluded his presentation by showing us a rug for which he recently received the top award among 900 entries.

All are dyes that have traditionally been used in Mexico before aniline dyes were introduced. Most of the many Oaxacan weavers use aniline dyes. A number of families have researched and reinstated natural dyes in their practices, and some never abandoned them. This makes their work particularly valuable and noteworthy.

The presentation started with Jacobo’s wife carding wool, obtained locally from sheep, llama and some silk, depending on use. This roll of carded wool was then spun using a large spinning wheel, resulting in skeins of natural colored wool.

Maria Luisa Mendoza carding, then spinning the wool.
Maria Luisa Mendoza spinning wool after carding.
Preparing the dye baths.Dyes used were cochineal (red), indigo (blue), Mexican marigolds (with a more local version in the Pericon family that yields an even more intense color) and the fruit of the Black Zapote (brown). All wools but the ones destined for the indigo bath were first steeped in a mordant solution, usually included various combinations of alum, lemon juice, sea salt and ground lime. The percentage of mordant used is the key to the color combination. In addition, a local root from the Amote plant is used as a natural soap, to clean, fix and preserve the dye color. (Amote is also used for human hair washing and other uses.)


Mendoza showing us the Cochineal insects attached to cactus. Each white mound is one insect. We learn later at the Cochineal farm, how incredibly many insects are required to create a kilo of cochineal for sale, and that one obstacle is ease of harvesting due to cactus thorns. But it is being “farmed.”
Maria Luisa Mendoza grinding cochineal into powder usable for dyeing.
Different mordants create different variations in cochineal depending on basic or acid makeup. From top to bottom: lemon juice for more orange color; ordinary color; baking soda (burgundy) and ground lime (violet).

Cochineal is a small insect that attaches itself to a particular kind of cactus. In the days before aniline dyes, it was a big part of the reason for the importance of Mexico to Europe, as its intense, permanent red was the stuff of royalty and aristocracy. Mendoza purchases cochineal in its dried form; it is then ground into a powder and used for dyeing.

Jacobo Mendoza doing a second dyeing in cochineal, possibly over marigold dyed yellow.
Chunks of locally grown indigo.

Mendoza says that indigo is too expensive and labor intensive to grow and process themselves. A ton of indigo plants yield about 15 kilos of indigo chunks for dyeing. Their indigo comes from a village near the southern coast, where it is grown and harvested in August/September. After harvesting, the indigo is processed in concrete pools over a number of days. On Day 1, Indigo is cut and bundled. On Day 2, these bundles are placed in concrete pools, to which water is added. Weight is added to settle the indigo to the bottom and start the process of fermentation. On the next day, the plants are withdrawn; the “oil” remains. Then, finally, the liquid is beaten for two days until the froth comes to the top. It is left to rest for two days until the froth settles to the bottom as sediment. The substance is strained in muslin cloth. The sediment that stays in the cloth is dough-like and is put out to dry for 15-20 days.

The Mendozas buy the chunks of indigo. In a method that is not traditional, but faster, they dissolve the indigo in water with chunks of mango peelings or pineapple, cooked for two hours.

Maria Luisa Mendoza, also from a family of weavers, grinding locally grown indigo. Chunks shown as well.
Jacobo Mendoza overdyeing cochineal with indigo

The Black Zapote is widely used as an edible fruit, with a black flesh when ripe. For dyeing, it is used in a more immature form. There are many variations of the Zapote plant. Black Zapote is the one that works. No mordant is needed. If the wool is mordanted, the color will be different and less intense.

For its weavings, Mendoza  usually creates wool colors in 14 variations of each of the four basic dyes. The weavings below show the incredible range of color Mendoza and his family are able to achieve with their work.

Award-winning rug by Jacobo Mendez, using only natural dyes


Woven by Maria Luisa, Mendoza’s wife, also from a family of Zapotec weavers
Rugs woven by the Mendoza children, Jacobito and Sylvia
Another rug by Jacobo Mendoza, showing the range of color possible with natural dyes.