Natural Dyeing of Alpaca Wool: The Powerful Colours of Nature

In every aspect of life we love colours! They make the city just a little more beautiful, candy just a little tastier, your house just a little more homey and your outfit just a little more striking. In terms of textiles and materials there are various ways to make them stick out from white and black, including natural dyeing processes and synthetic dyeing processes. One of the materials that is particularly interesting to look at in these lousy late winter months is alpaca wool, a high-quality material from South America that keeps you warm and cozy from top to toe.

Knitting women in Ecuador working with alpaca wool

Natural Colours of Alpaca

Alpaca wool is particularly soft and durable and even warmer than sheep’s wool. While most alpacas are white, the natural colour of the wool and the yarn can show anything from black to different shades of brown, greys and even silver and rose. All in all the animals come in 22 natural colours with more than 300 shades. In order to change these colours various dyeing processes are common. While dyeing has traditionally been practiced using natural dyes, synthetic dyes have been increasingly used since the mid 19th century due to benefits such as the wide range of colour choices and the lasting colour pay-off.

different coloured alpaca in the Andes

Advantages of Natural Dyeing

Even though synthetic dyes have the advantage of having precise and lasting colour results, their chemical compounds have harmful effects on our health, especially for those that work in their production, and on the environment. In many factories around the world that manufacture synthetic dyes untreated dye effluent is released into rivers or lakes, which can result in severe water pollution. Chemical components may include mercury, lead, chromium, copper, sodium chloride, toluene, and benzene.

Natural dyeing on the other hand means that compounds are derived from natural resources, such as plants, flowers, fruits, animals, insects or minerals. Consequently, these types of dyes are usually perceived as safe for the environment and harmless to the human health. As with everything there are minor exceptions. One example is logwood, a flowering tree growing in Northern Central America and commonly used as a source of black dye. Although it is commonly used in natural dyeing processes, this natural ingredient is said to have possible harmful effects.

The Colours Hidden in the Andes

It is incredible how colourful our planet is. In almost every corner there are natural resources that can spread around their intense yellows, their reds, their greens and their blues. In Ecuador, which is one of the major origins of Alpaca wool, the highlands of the Andes are bursting with colours – even if not visible at first sight.

alpacas next to the road in Ecuador surrounded by clouds
Yellow

Yellow is one of the easiest colours to use for natural dyeing as there are endless plants and flowers yielding this colour. One example are Q’olle flowers, which have small yellow blossoms and grow in the Andes region. Depending on the amount of time the alpaca yarn is boiled with the flowers it can pick up different shades of yellow or orange.

yellow plant in South America
yellow alpaca wool dyed naturally
Red, Pink and Purple

Naturally dyed colours such as red, pink or purple most commonly come from Cochineal, a pigment produced by a small scale insect. It is home in tropical and subtropical South America and mostly found on the prickly pear cactus in the Sacred Valley in Peru. Here it produces the Cochineal to protect itself from other insects and keep them away from its territory.

To extract the dye, the insects are treated in different ways with different results. They are either immersed in hot water, dried in the sun or an oven, or steamed. Depending on the method and the quantity used, cochineal can be used to dye many shades ranging from bright red to pink, purple, and more.

Pear cactus and dried Cochineal beetles

red ABURY alpaca wool scarf dyed in natural dyeing process
Green

Making alpaca wool green starts with a plant. The most common one used here is Chil’ca, a weedy bush that seems to grow everywhere in Peru and Ecuador. Together with a mineral compound called Collpa, which can be found in the jungle, the leaves are boiled, before the yarn or wool can absorb the colour.

herbs and plants used for natural dyeing
green ABURY alpaca wool scarf dyed in natural dyeing process
Blue

Depending on what is available to the weavers, two methods are common in the Andes region to dye alpaca blue. One of them works with Tara, a local bean, while the other works with Indigo, a plant that grows in the lower altitudes. In the dyeing process both are boiled in water with the alpaca wool. Interestingly enough, Indigo is often mixed with either Fructose from over ripe or rotting fruit such as apples or pears, or with a chemical called Urea, which is found in Urine.

indigo plants and indigo powder used for natural dyeing

blue ABURY alpaca wool headband dyed in natural dyeing process

This is just a small peak into what can be done in terms of natural dyeing. There is a lot more to explore in the flora and fauna of the Andes that can yield incredible colours. In fact, while some of our alpaca wool items at ABURY are dyed using natural compounds, some others remained untreated as the wide range of colours in the alpaca world is magnificent. Take a closer look at our sand coloured headband, for example…

Lara Petersen

Lara Petersen

After her studies abroad and exploring the world for many years, Lara returned to Berlin in 2015 and ever since combines her passions cultures, communication and writing by working as part of the ABURY family. Lara is the editor-in-chief and admin of the One of a Mind blogzine by ABURY.

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