It’s certainly not true – the people of the past loved color as much as we do today, and they had access to it in the form of natural dyes. Let’s take a look how the inhabitants of Espiritu Santo could have obtained color during Spanish Colonial times.
Natural dye sources
People living at the mission would have had good access to dye sources from both the Old and New Worlds. Imported dyestuffs would have been brought to the Mission in trade wagons coming from Mexico, and the mission inhabitants would have been well aware of a variety of dye sources available in the area.
The actual process of dyeing is fairly straight-forward. Dyestuffs are typically simmered in water, to which chemicals (called “mordants”) are added to help dye molecules bond to fiber being dyed. Fiber is introduced to the dyebath and allowed to soak until the desired amount of dye has been taken up. After removal, the fiber is rinsed to remove excess dye.
Dye colors at the Mission
Yellow - The most common natural dye color, and would have been found in plants growing around the mission. The papery skins from onions, and the blossoms and leaves of goldenrod, sunflowers, and other flowers would have been used. Roots from the agarita bush were also available.
Rust – The blossoms, stems, and leaves of coreopsis would have been used to produce a beautiful rust color.
Reds – The most highly prized red dye at the Mission was produced from the cochineal bug. Cochineal live on prickly pear cactus. Native Americans scraped the bugs off the cactus, and then dried and ground the insects into powder. Cochineal dye became so popular in Europe, it was the second most valuable product (behind gold) exported to the Old World by Spanish colonists.
Blues – Indigo is more complicated to use than other dyes, but the mission inhabitants were certainly aware of it. Water does not work in the extraction the dye chemical. Instead, stale urine must be used. Plant material is immersed in a urine vat, and bacteria reduces the level of oxygen present. The resulting ammonia converts indigotin from the insoluble “blue” form into a “white” soluble form that bonds with fiber. The blue color develops only after the immersed fibers are exposed to air. Oxidation converts the white soluble form of indigo that has bonded with the fiber back into the insoluble “blue” form, turning the fiber blue.
Browns - Various types of nut husks are used to obtain brown dye. Pecan husks are the most easily obtainable source for this area. The husks (not hulls) are soaked in water for several days to extract the dye. After that, the husks are discarded and the remaining water is used as a dyebath.
These are just a tiny few of the many dye sources that were available to the people of Mission Espiritu Santo. While the Franciscan friars and the Indians in their charge lived lives that were often hard, they were able to take advantage of nature’s bounty to surround themselves in colorful beauty every day of their lives.