The still preserved Mixtec dyeing art with snails

By Dania Vargas Austryjak

More than a job, it’s tradition

The Pinotepa de Don Luis, a municipality in Oaxaca is the only place left in the world where just a few men still carry the centuries-old tradition of dyeing cotton threads with the milk of sea snails, known as Plicopurpura pansa, a work that doesn’t pay off, but it’s in their hands to continue with this ancient tradition.

Different ancient cultures have used natural dyes from mollusks for years, and in Mexico in the states of Oaxaca, Michoacán, Colima and Jalisco this activity was done by different ethnic groups such as Mixtecs, Nahuas, Chontales y Huaves, unfortunately, due to many circumstances the snails have become scarce and now only the Mixtecs in the coast of Oaxaca are still continuing with this tradition.

Caracol Púrpura PansaStill taken from: “Caracol Púrpura” by Javier Pérez

Improper exploitation of the sea snail by a foreign company, made the population of Plicopurpura pansa to decrease enormously in the 80’s, this act was reported by the Mixtecs and authorities released an agreement in 1988 which stated that it is forbidden to kill the snail to extract the dye, transfer it outside of its home, and commercialize any part of the snail that is not the dye itself. Most importantly, the agreement stated that only members from the native community are permitted to do the dye milking.

Although this action prevented unexperienced hands to handle the snails, the population is still threatened and trained and authorized dyer are able to extract just a little dye every 28 days or lunar cycle, this is done to let the snails recover from the milking and help out to their preservation.

Dyeing Púrpura PansaStill taken from: “Los Tintoreros mixtecos, Habacuc Avendaño y el Caracol Púrpura” by Eugenio Villanueva Franck

The dyeing process with Plicopurpura pansa is such a task that could be seen as an art, the dyers travel to the bay of Huatulco where the sea snails are found on rocky formations by the beach shore. They take a cotton hank, and a wooden stick; they locate the snail and gently pull it off the rock and rub and lightly squeeze it to get the dye out, this substance is actually a defense mechanism of the animal.

The liquid is white-ish and as soon as it’s milked, it is rubbed on the cotton threads; at first the dye colors the cotton in a green-blue tone; when there’s nothing more to milk, they return the snail to a humid and shaded spot on the rock. This process is done approximately 1000 times to color a four-ounce cotton hank, and then the dyers return back to land and let the cotton dry with the sun, this action will oxidize the dye and give it characteristic purple tone. A bright saturated and beautiful purple!

Thread Plicopurpura PansaStill taken from: “Los Tintoreros mixtecos, Habacuc Avendaño y el Caracol Púrpura” by Eugenio Villanueva Franck

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