Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dying With The Purpura Pansa-A True Lost Art

Purple-stained fingers and nails are signs of a Purpura hunter and dyer

On the Oaxaca coast of Mexico, a small band of sixteen men carry on an ancient tradition.  They coax a thimbleful of ink (really a narcotic to paralyze prey) from the mollusk Purpura Pansa.  For centuries, this beautiful purple yarn has been woven into posahuancos, a traditional sarong like skirt.
The red line marks the traditional habitat of the Purpura Pansa. The red star is the approximate location of Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxca, home of the dye hunters. Note that the men live far inland and must make a five hour journey to the coast.

The dye season lasts October through March. Only large mollusks are milked. After milking, the shell is returned to a protected crevice unharmed so the mollusk will regenerate its ink.

A photo of the little guy, mollusk Purpura Pansa.

It takes about 300-400 Purpuras to dye one 12 oz. skein of yarn and the dyers can only work for about three hours a day.  The white ink is dabbed onto a skein of cotton thread that the dyers carry wrapped around their forearms.  Purpura then becomes a yellow green, but with oxygen, it turns purple.  Fixatives are not needed. A true Purpura yarn will carry a briny-ocean smell, a way of checking the yarn's authenticity.

With only sixteen men gathering a dwindling mollusk population, this is an art truly endangered of being lost.

Fives hours from home, a dyer on the hunt.
There is a lovely website devoted to this tradition, which you might find interesting here.

I first learned about this tradition from the Spring 2012 emag “Colorways”, which can be downloaded (for a reasonable fee) for PC, MAC, or IPad.
Traditional cloth woven with the Purpura Pansa dyed cotton. The skirts have bands of purpura, indigo and red (dyed with cochineal) on hand-spun silk. These lengths are woven on back-strap looms. 


  1. oh I love the color purple in the first picture...that is a lot of mollusk for a small amount of yarn! Very pretty though.

  2. A garment made out of it are so expensive now, that only the wealthiest women can afford one