General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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How did they make colourful costumes?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Jesse: How did the aztecs color their colorful atuendos [costumes]? (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A page from a sixteenth century manuscript showing the harvest of Cochineal
Pic 1: A page from a sixteenth century manuscript showing the harvest of Cochineal (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs had some incredible ways of creating the vibrant colours they used to dye their clothes. They also used pigments for paintings, murals, and to cover sculptures. Here’s a small list of some of the materials and processes they used:-

• Colour: RED
Material: nocheztli (Cochineal) (pic 1)
Process: Cochineal are small red insects that feed on the juice of tender prickly pear cactus leaves. The Aztecs scraped them off the leaf, dried and crushed them. Adding water to cochineal powder resulted in a bright red liquid. Cochineal is still used nowadays!

Pic 2: Zacatlaxcalli, Florentine Codex Book XI with (inset) the zacatlaxcalli plant hanging from the Pirú tree
Pic 2: Zacatlaxcalli, Florentine Codex Book XI with (inset) the zacatlaxcalli plant hanging from the Pirú tree (Click on image to enlarge)

• Colour: YELLOW
Material: xochipalli
Process: This is described as a yellow flower that grows in hot climates. It was probably dried and crushed to produce dye.

• Colour: YELLOW WITH A REDDISH HUE
Material: zacatlaxcalli (cuscuta tinctoria or torta herbácea) (pic 2)
Process: A type of creeper that hangs from trees, especially the Pirú. Also probably crushed.

Pic 3: Natural dye production in Aztec times - detail from a mural by Diego Rivera
Pic 3: Natural dye production in Aztec times - detail from a mural by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)

• Colour: BLACK
Material: uitzcuáhuitl
Process: This is a tree bark that was soaked repeatedly to produce a brackish black colour. This colour is not deep and was not considered to be very fine.

• Colour: BLUE
Material: matlalli (‘blue’)
Process: Matlalli was made from crushed blue flowers.

• Colour: LIGHT BLUE
Material: texotli
Process: A flower which was crushed to produce dye for huipiles (blouses).

Pic 4: Nacazcólotl, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 4: Nacazcólotl, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

• Colour: VERMILLION
Material: chíotl
Process: This is a flower that, when ground and mixed with axin (the yellow ointment produced from a tree insect of the same name), produced a strong vermillion dye.

• Ink
Material: nacazcólotl (pic 4)
Process: An inedible fruit that produced good ink for writing.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: image from the Cochineal Treatise ©Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 2 (main) & pic 4: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 2 (inset): © R. Pontón
• Pic 3: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

‘Red - the colour of cactus blood!’

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