Relationships are like dyeing with plants: they take time.

By Carlos Barrera Reyes

To dye cotton and wool with the bark of pernambuco (palo brasil),the first step is to make skeins of 25 to 50 grams maximum, to prevent them from getting tangled, with a link at both ends with the technique of the eight. Then they are soaked in very hot water for half an hour, so that they release all the fat from the sheep and the tincture penetrates well when applied. The skeins are then washed with neutral soap twice and rinsed until there is no trace left, always trying to use the same water temperature, to prevent the material from shrinking.


In a pewter or clay container (recommended so that the colors stand out bright and not dark), the alum powder and tartar cream are dissolved with very hot water, taking care to do it well, because otherwise the wool may stain. When the water reaches the boiling point, the skeins are introduced, taking care not to boil or burn the wool.
It is necessary to move continuously so that the tincture is uniform. After an hour, the material is removed and rinsed three times with clear water; it is important not to forget about this stage, otherwise excess alum and cream of tartar can cause a very clear tincture. Again, it is important to maintain the same water temperature at all times.

For cotton, the corresponding bonds are made in the skeins and put in very hot water, so that the starch comes off; then, as with wool, they are washed with soap and rinsed. In a tin or clay container, alum is dissolved in hot water and the fiber is put in it for an hour to boil. Then it is taken out of the pot and rinsed three times with clear water. We tjing the water from the pot and putting clean, warm water. Tannic acid is added and dissolved to integrate well into the fiber for another hour when boiling. The cotton is pulled out and rinsed three times. The pot is again filled with clean, warm water, in which alum is dissolved, and then the fiber is integrated for another hour when it boils.

During these three steps, it is important to move the material. When it is perfectly rinsed, otherwise the same thing will happen as with wool. Cotton and wool are allowed to rest in the water all night. The second stage is tincture, for which splinters of tree bark are used. I bring them from Paraíso de Grijalva, in the municipality of Carranza, Chiapas, because that’s where I can get them freshly cut and since they are fresh, compared to those sold in the markets, they have a more intense color. They are cut into small pieces and soaked for a month. Since the bark is very hard, the work is long and laborious. The chips are put in a tin or clay pot, enough water is added and boiled for an hour. They are allowed to cool and then sieved. More water is then added to the chips and boiled for another hour. They are then allowed to cool and filtered. The filtered dye of the two boiled dyes is then put together and heated until it boils, then the wool and cotton skeins are put, well pressed, while maintaining a continuous movement for an hour. This, taking care not to boil or burn the fibers. Once the hour has passed, the pot is turned off and left to rest until the next day.


If we want to change the colors, once the hour is spent in the dye, we remove the fibers and add lemon to obtain orange, ferrous sulfate for purple or bicarbonate for bougainvillea (very similar to the color of mealybug). Each element must be very well dissolved before introducing the fibers, otherwise they will be stained; then, it is brought to a boil for about thirty minutes. It is important that the water is kept at this temperature for half an hour, otherwise the chemical reaction will not take place and the color change will not occur. Once the time has passed, it is turned off and left to rest until the next day. The fibers are removed and put in the shade for 24 hours, because if the sun hits them directly, they can stain. The next day, once they are dry, they are rinsed with neutral soap if necessary, until the color stops coming out and they are put back to dry in the shade. The liquid from the remaining tincture can be used for lower shades; the procedure is the same.


For palo brasil, the dye can be used up to four times. If one wants a completely different palette, the tincture is left in the pot for a month so that it rots, and then it is used again following the previous procedures.
I wanted to use the dye with palo brasil as an analogy of time, since the same thing happened with the strengthening of relationships in communities: a long and thorough process. And what kind of relationships are we talking about? All, human relationships, communication relationships, friendship relationships, learning relationships, solidarity relationships, trust relationships and even power relationships.


According to Pablo Helguera, in his book “Education for Socially Engaged Art” (2011), the most successful projects in the field of socially engaged art are those in which artists have worked in a particular community for a long time, and have a deep understanding of the participants, with the main strategy of gaining the trust of the community.

Photograph: Dyeing with pernambuco, Textile Workshop, Faculty of Arts and Design, UNAM. Carlos Barrera Reyes

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: