Cloud Forest Dye Workshop

April 4: At 4:30 am, we gather outside the Awamaki office for the 4+ hour trip to Parobamba, a small community high up in the cloud forest close to the jungle, where we will spend the next four days learning the art of dying yarn using nothing but natural materials. Our hosts and instructors will be the Soncco family, consisting of Daniel, the master dyer, his wife Leonarda, who weaves the stunning textiles sold in our fair-trade store, and two of their four sons, Nilson and Acner. Our route is as follows: take a combi east through the Sacred Valley to Calca, meet up with Daniel, and catch another combi heading north through the mountains to Amparaes, and then through high, rolling hills to the mountainside town of Parobamba, overlooking the Rio Yavero.


Our starting point: the blue square (Ollanta), and ending at Parobamba.

After the early morning four-hour bumpy, drizzly drive past grazing llamas and alpacas (with a combi driver who seemed to have a death wish), we arrive in Parobamba!


Although the weather is clear now, we are in the cloud forest, so as soon as the next cloud rolls in, visibility is reduced to practically zero:


and the entire valley is shrouded in mist.


Daniel and his family welcome us immediately!


First we take a short hike to get a good view of the valley, and Acner guides us through town.


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Acner shows off his hill-sliding abilities…

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And we get a glimpse of the river as more mist rolls in.

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Then we head back to Daniel’s house to start dividing up our yarn and choosing what colors we will want to make.


Here it is: 10 kilos of sheep yarn, plus an additional kilo of soft alpaca yarn per person, leaving us each with a total of 12 quarter-kilo skeins to dye to our hearts’ content.

Daniel shows us the rainbow of possible colors:

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The girls pore over the yarn, deciding which colors they want…


And we start spinning our alpaca yarn into skeins for dying.

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Dying yarn consists of creating a dye bath, where you boil the yarn and your dye together for a certain amount of time, and then (if needed) add a mordent, which will change the pH of the dye bath so that the dye can properly soak into the yarn. Different mordents will create different pH levels, and can also change the final color of the dyed yarn. We’ll divide up our dying time into color groups, depending on which dye materials and mordents we’re going to use. The first set we will do is shades of reds, pinks, purples and oranges, all using as a dye cochinilla beetle shells. The cochinilla beetles live on the prickly pear cactus, and they are collected, dried, and their shells are ground up to a fine powder:


the whole dried cochinilla shells

Daniel grinds them to a fine red powder…

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Then Rosie takes a turn…


And we add the powder to two large dye pots.

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Two things will determine the final color of the yarn: how long the ground-up cochinilla boils in the pot, and the mordent used. These first two pots will boil for different lengths of time and use different mordents, ultimately creating a purple and a red-orange color.

We add yarn to the first pot and stir to distribute the dye evenly.

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The yarn quickly turns a wine-red color, the same color as the ground-up cochinilla, but then Daniel adds the mordent, and the yarn turns a bright purple:

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Then we add yarn to the second pot, add a different mordent, and create a brilliant red-orange:

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Then we add fresh yarn to the used water from the first dye bath (purple) and let it soak, and create a soft lavender:


After we take the yarn out of the dye baths, we bring it to the stream to wash out the excess dye.

Daniel creates a small pool for us to wash the yarn:


And shows us how to rinse out each skein…


While he takes a break to coddle his puppy Susi.


Then Leondarda hangs up our yarn to dry.


And I catch of glimpse of Leonarda’s latest weaving…

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Which I fall in love with and purchase immediately.

Then Nilson shows us his latest weaving…

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Which Kelsey falls in love with and purchases immediately.

Our next dye bath uses the bark of the yanali tree, which will create a goldenrod yellow:



Then we start on our next set of colors: turquoise and celeste. For these, we use kinsa q’uchu, (which roughly translates to “three corners”), a plant along with a fungus that grows on its branches which creates the proper color and pH needed for dying.

Kinsa q’uchu growing on the hillside:


Dried kinsa q’uchu, which also must be ground to a fine powder:



Then we add it to the dye pots:

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To create a beautiful turquoise!

Then we take a little break to watch Leonarda and Nilson start a new weaving:

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By throwing the balls of yarn back and forth in order to wrap them around the two sticks.

Then I discover a whole room full of just potatoes!


The next morning, we take a walk to Daniel’s chakra to see some of our dye plants growing in the wild, and also see his many beehives.

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Down the hillside we go….

Daniel shows us some wild kinsa q’uchu.


Kelsey finds a baby carrot!


Daniel shows us the yanali bark, which is surprisingly orange when fresh:


And his beehives, or colmenas, where he harvests delicious honey and bee pollen.

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We each eat a handful of the fresh pollen!

And then we spy a baby horsie….


By the time we get back, Nilson has started on his next weaving…


And Susi has fallen asleep on the pile of display yarn.


Then we head out to collect fresh chillka, the leaves of an Andean tree which we will use to create various shades of green, and start a new dye pot using different leaves, to create a brilliant neon yellow.


And Joey models one of Daniel’s beautiful ponchos.


On our final morning, Daniel takes us for a hike up into the hills to see some pre-Incan tombs:


And to our great surprise, actually climbs into one of them!


And pulls out skulls!


As he explains the ancient burial customs of pre-Incan cultures.


At the end of our four days, we have dyed 16 kilos of yarn 14 different colors and consumed an inordinate amount of honey and pollen. We pack up our yarn and say goodbye to the wonderful Soncco family…




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And now we begin the nerve-wracking, painstaking process of winding each of our tangled 12 skeins of yarn into balls for knitting… who wants to help??

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