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Traditions in Mexico – Indigenous Weaving Still a Lasting Tradition

by Erin May

Spiny Dye Murex Shells

Did you know that some of the most beautiful indigenous weaving is found along the coastline of Oaxaca, Mexico?

A group of 25 Mixtec dyers, the last one earth continue to dye purple with Murex shell fish as part of an old custom.  This dye, called Tyrian purple comes from marine snails that live in the water in rock crevices along the Oaxacan coastline.

Each October, shell dyers from Pinotepa head to the coast to locate the dye producing mollusks that live among the crevices.  The Mixtecs call this mollusk, Tucohoyi Tixinda; however, Western scientists have named it Purpura pansa.  It takes about 400 mollusks to dye one 12 oz. skein of cotton. Because these snails live low in the crevices, the dyers can only work about three hours a day during low tide, to reach them.

The Purpura pansa does not need to be killed to extract the dye.  Gently applied pressure to the foot of the mollusk releases a milky white liquid that is dabbed onto a skein of cotton thread that the dyer carries wrapped around his forearm. The dyer then replaces the shell back in a protected crevice in the water, where it will reattach and regenerate within one moon cycle.  Because the mollusks mate in the summer, dyeing only occurs from October to March.  This ensures that the mollusks have time to mature, grow, and continue to thrive so the dyeing tradition can be carried on.

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