The majors, if not the only two iconic dyes of the Classic Navajo weaving period are indigo and cochineal. A mystic blue and a vibrant red.
Definitively an absolute part of the great weaving tradition, they are an odd couple with different histories but similar glory and fame.
The word indigo comes from the Greek, “indikon” and latin, “indicum” which means, “from India” because until Europeans came to America, India was the sole known source of indigo. Oddly enough the word, “aniline” also comes from indigo by way of the Spanish word, “anil”.
Indigo does not really exist by itself, it is the result of chemical reactions. When a green plant containing a colorless compound comes in contact with water it produces a murky yellow substance that will turn blue in contact to oxygen!
The manufacture of indigo dye is time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. The plant indigofera contains a very small percentage of the dye so a lot of plants are necessary. After harvest the plants are soaked in water tanks where through hydrolysis indican is transformed into indoxyl. The indoxyl rich water is then drained into a new tank where contact with oxygen will oxydize indoxyl into indigo that will settle down, be drained, pressed, dried and cut into lumps for shipping and sale. Navajo weavers simply acquired the lumps or powder through trade or gifts and all they needed to do was to dissolve the dye into an alkaline solution, most often urine, that can be used and reused over and over again for many months. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo does not require heat, an attractive quality in a desert region poor in natural fuel. Another quality is that indigo molecules are deposited on the fibers rather than reacting with them, eliminating the need of a mordant, lessening cost and labor.
By contrast cochineal dye is easier to manufacture, simply harvest the bug, kill it, dry it, crush it and voila! But then the dyeing process is a lot more involved. First the dye must be dissolved in soft, pure water to avoid contamination of the dye, then the solution must be boiled before introducing the fibers to it. The yarns themselves must be treated before hand with a mordant for the dye to react with the fibers. Different mordant are used for different tones of reds: alum for crimson, tin for scarlet, chrome and iron for purple and copper for claret.
This complex and expensive process is certainly one of the reasons why cochineal is not known to have been used as a dye in the Southwest. It came by a roundabout way with the famed bayeta.
Unlike indigo that is found in tropical regions all around the world, cochineal is a native of solely the American continent. The female insect, Dactylopius coccus attaches herself to the leaves of the prickly pear cactus, nopal, to feed. This insect produces carminic acid to deter predators, which gives the red color to the powder resulting from the crushed dry insects bodies and it takes some 155,000 of them to produce 1 kg of dye.
Peru seems to be the original birthplace of cochineal dating back over 1,500 years ago. The earliest cochineal dyed yarn was dated to around 500 AD in Nasca, Peru.
Around 1,200 years ago cochineal was introduced to Mexico, certainly through trade and it quickly became a major crop. The Toltecs extensively cultivated and exploited cochineal and Oaxaca became its center of production. To the Aztecs Empire cochineal was also a valuable commodity, levied as an annual tribute on dependent states. That tribute was under the form of bags of dried cochineal or cochineal dyed cloth.
After the defeat of the Aztecs, Spaniards kept the annual tribute for the benefit of the Spanish crown and introduce this new red dye to the European market where red was an important status symbol. Cochineal produced a deeper and longer lasting red that what was available there and rapidly became highly valued. It was the second most valuable export during the Spanish colonial time.
The whole journey of cochineal is fascinating: it is produced in Mexico, exported to Spain, sold to England, where textiles dyed with it are sold back to Spain, shipped back to Mexico and finally traded to Pueblo and Navajo weavers in the American Southwest who unraveled the red cloth to incorporate the yarns to their beautiful blankets!
Classic Navajo weavers mostly used only these two colors, blue and red, combined with the natural wool, black, white and grey and created the most artistic and stunning weavings.
“Blue on Blue” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico
“Blanket Weaving in the Southwest” Joe Ben Wheat
“A Red Like No Other” Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM