I arrived promptly at 9:00 am to find Emerita and Apolonia busy starting the fire and heating water over a traditional Andean stove. (I want one of those little stoves in my yard!) Emerita put me to work stripping the leaves from a chilca plant which would yield a green color. The other workshop participant, Yiqian, an artist from China, began crushing dried cochineal, an insect parasite of nopal-type cacti which yields bright red. The other dye we would be using was quiswar flowers for gold or yellow.
A very interesting article on the history of cochineal can be
found here. Because it is so difficult to cultivate and
harvest the insects, the dye is very expensive.
After we finished stripping the chilca leaves, Apolonia filled one of the pots so full with them that I wondered if there would be room for the yarn.
She had already prepared several hanks of her handspun wool from sheep that are raised at Apulaya.
The Quechua women spin “singles” (unplyed yarn) and then, holding two singles together without plying them, they create a hank by running the two yarns in figure-eights. I learned later that this keeps the yarn from tangling so bad when it is stirred around in the dye bath. And because the yarn is not plied, the dye can penetrate more evenly through the fiber.
Only after the yarn is dyed and dried, do they ply the two singles together. And despite how tangled the hank looks, believe it or not, it is very easy to pull the yarn apart to begin the plying process, particularly because the two single strands were hanked together.
The chilca requires a mordant to help set the dye and to make different shades of green. Colpa, a local mineral, was the mordant we used. Later, eucalyptus and molle leaves were added to the dye bath to see if we would get a different color of green. Eucalyptus is not a native Andean plant, but has been imported for lumber and firewood and grows everywhere here in the Sacred Valley.
We used lemon salt as a mordant for the cochineal. If you use an acid mordant, the color is brighter; if you use an alkali mordant, the color is darker. Our lemon salt mordant resulted in a nice purple. The quiswar did not require a mordant, and the bath can be used several times—each successive hank is lighter in color.
Along with my three little test hanks, I brought home one of Apolonia’s hanks from the quiswhar pot which turned out to be a beautiful gold. I almost could not wait until it was dry to ply the singles together. I am working it into a chullo (ear-flap hat) that I am making using Andean symbols and knitting techniques that I have learned here,