The traditional way of naturally dyeing textiles with plants and vegetables has almost been abandoned in Guatemala, since the introduction of synthetic dyes. It is far from common practise, but the artisans of San Juan are working to keep this ancestral Mayan culture and tradition alive.
Synthetic dyes were discovered in the mid-19th century, but before that, all ancient civilisations used natural dyes and each had their different ways and techniques for dyeing fibres.
The artisans natural dye recipes and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation. It is not common to use natural dyes in Guatemala, as it is more expensive and it requires a lot of effort, work and patience.
The natural dyeing process starts by arranging the warped thread, which is stretched out between two poles and divided into specific-sized groups. With a certain design in mind, the artisan will tie knots with additional thread to create different designs. Once they have completed all the tying, the natural dyeing process can start.
First the artisans will boil banana tree bark for around two-three hours and then soak the threads in the liquid, as it works as a natural mordant, helping the dye to set. Depending on which colour is needed, plants, vegetable or insects are cut into small pieces and boiled for 30 minutes. Dried plants will result in stronger colours, whereas using freshly picked plants will result in a more subtle colour. To get a wider range of colours, the artisans will mix different plants.
Once the dye has come to the desired colour, the artisans will strain the liquid and the dye is ready to be used. The prepared threads are then added to the dye and are left to soak until the desired colour has been reached. This can take anywhere between half and hour to four hours.
Afterwards, the threads will need to dry. Once dry the threads can be placed on the backstrap loom to create beautiful and unique designed textiles.