Mexican Malú Colorín on the art of dyeing for a living with a film-making husband in Blessington

Reporter David Medcalf spent an afternoon with Malú Colorín in Blessington, talking about her upbringing in Mexico, her time taking photos on a cruise ship, meeting her County Wicklow husband and the art of making dyes from walnuts and marigolds

Malú Colorín at work in Blessington, Co Wicklow. Photo: Barry Hamilton

Malú Colorín hand dyes clothing usind everything from walnuts to marigolds. Photo: Barry Hamilton

Malú Colorín in Blessington, Co Wicklow, with some of her hand dyeing work on display. Photo: Barry Hamilton

thumbnail: Malú Colorín at work in Blessington, Co Wicklow. Photo: Barry Hamilton
thumbnail: Malú Colorín hand dyes clothing usind everything from walnuts to marigolds. Photo: Barry Hamilton
thumbnail: Malú Colorín in Blessington, Co Wicklow, with some of her hand dyeing work on display. Photo: Barry Hamilton
David MedcalfWicklow People

She brings a hint of Mexican sunshine to breezy Blessington on a summer’s afternoon, greeting your reporter with a cheerful ‘Ola!’. But that is as much Spanish as he is required to comprehend during the interview, as Malú Colorín has perfect English.

This is not the result of her time in Ireland, though two years’ resident in County Wicklow have lent some local colour to her accent. She reveals that schooling in the city of Monterrey was influenced by proximity to the Texas border, so that much of her education was conducted through the tongue of the neighbours to the north. Classes in subjects such as history and science were delivered through the medium of English. So now she finds herself well suited to setting up her own business in Ireland without struggling to grasp what people are saying.

Malú is establishing herself in a most unusual profession, having acquired the skills of a dyer. Her mission is to persuade the world that clothes which are not mass-produced and not coloured with chemicals are the way to dress the world. It is a challenge which reaches beyond fashion to ponder the ethics of world trade in the garments that we wear.

She was born in Mexico City 32 years ago, daughter of well-to-do parents who moved when she was a child to Monterrey. It is a place very different from where she now finds herself, more brown than green, and dominated by the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range. The wealth of the city, which now boasts a population of more than five million residents, was founded on industry, producing glass and steel.

“It is a very hot place,” she reports. “Last year temperatures went up to 45 degrees.’ Though the sea is far away, breezes blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico bring in humidity to make the heat stifling. The blistering summers she contrasts with chilly winters, which feature occasional light falls of snow.

Monterrey is a lively spot, teeming with entrepreneurs, including her father who had a rail engineering business. Her mother studied to be a teacher, but then stayed at home to look after family and developed skills as a quilter.

As a schoolgirl, Malú loved art so much that it became part of her identity. She was actually born Malú Ramirez Cruz, but she swapped the surname for Colorín, literally a more colourful handle. Her chosen subject when she attended the university in her hometown was in graphic design.

The course provided her with a profession giving her a valuable source of income as a freelance designer. But she confesses that, though she loves the artistic side of graphics, she did not relish working with clients who seemed too often intent on trimming her artistic wings.

She first came to Ireland back in 2013, when her parents had organised an exhibition and sale of Mexican quilts in Galway. Her first reaction to the country was very positive as the family took the opportunity to tour around the West.

However, her initial experience of Europe dated back to her university days and involved England rather than Ireland. She was selected to take part in a student exchange programme which brought her to Leeds. She loved Yorkshire and it was there that she met the love of her life – Ben Ingoldsby from Baltyboys, Blessington.

“It was pretty much love at first sight,” she says of romance with her husband to be. He was studying cinematography while she concentrated on her graphic art, along with the partying so central to college life. Malu persuaded her tutors that she should extend her time in Leeds to undertake a special project entitled ‘Anywhere in Leeds’.

She enjoyed the city and the project – described as an interactive map and website – allowed her explore it in minute detail. The six months spent at it also cemented the relationship with her Wicklow man. With his degree studies complete, Ben accompanied her back to Mexico where they spent several years. While he put his cinematographer’s skills to good use making short films and documentaries, her career path was less clear cut.

“I knew that I wanted to be in the arts,” she muses – but ‘the arts’ covers a multitude and she was slow to find her niche. A stint as assistant director of an art gallery looked well on the CV. Then there was the six months aboard the good ship ‘Princess’ serving as official photographer for the cruisegoers.

The ship split its time between Alaska and the Caribbean, with great demand among the passengers for her photos: “It was great fun, but I don’t know that I could have stood it for years.” Malú reverted to full-time commercial graphic design but also lobbed in a crazy stint selling tequila to tourists in the surfer’s paradise of Sayulita.

From 2015, she was a married lady, with a husband who wanted to spend time in his home country. So, they were in Ireland for Christmas in 2018 and it was then that she discovered dyeing, chancing on a book called ‘The Slow Stitch’. The author was mainly concerned with needlework but made passing reference to how she experimented with colouring textiles.

“She mentioned dye recipes which sparked my imagination – after all Colorín, colourful, is what I go by.” From the start of her infatuation with dyes, she was determined to keep to natural ingredients, steering clear of the chemicals. Plants, insects and minerals give her a sufficient palette of colour.

She quickly grasped the basics – brewing up dyes with whatever plant material is to hand. She messed about with foodstuffs that stain – turmeric (yellow), black beans (bue/purple) and red cabbage. But staining is not quite the same as dyeing.

She needed to learn how to achieve more permanent results. So she attended a workshop in the southern Mexico town of Oaxaca, famed for its traditional woollen rugs. There she was introduced to tricks of the trade using marigold flowers and indigo and walnut husks.

And it was revealed to her how a cactus beetle can turn red, not only food but also clothing. The beetle is cochineal, used in Latin America for centuries, and more recently known as the food colouring E120. After the workshop, she continued to consult whatever experts she could find and what began as a hobby gradually became a more serious commitment.

She tries to explain the appeal: “It felt like doing something from scratch. There’s a magical element, a degree of experimental that I enjoy.” She pauses. “And it can be playful.”

In 2020, just as the Covid pandemic began to take hold, she decided that the hobby must be turned into an actual job. She and Ben came to live in Baltyboys in March of that fateful year and at least the restrictions required to deal with the virus created plenty of time for exploring and perfecting her craft.

“Lockdown was great for learning and I turned the back field into a garden where I grow marigolds and Japanese indigo.” She speaks with enthusiasm of collecting alder cones while out walking with huskie dog Lobo to make a gold dye.

Walnuts, oak galls, lake mud, she scavenges all manner of ingredients to cover a rainbow from yellow and green to black. She speaks knowledgeably of the properties of ferrous sulphate, citric acid and crème of tartare.

The initial research into all this alchemy took over the kitchen of the Ingoldsby family home near Blessington. More recently she has acquired use of a studio in Crumlin, as there were no vacancies nearer to home in Russborough House. There, the former commercial artist plots the future development of her own brand, a line of clothing called Talu. The word is a play on the Irish for land and the idea is that, where possible, she will use cloth from Ireland.

There is talk of tracking down yarn from sheep in Donegal, while dealing with merchants who stock Ulster linen. In the meantime, she presides over an online dyeing class which spreads the word to enthusiasts as far away as Kenya and the United States.

Malú would love to see more people take a deeper interest in where their clothes come from. Reliance on cheap imports made at the expense of exploited workers in the likes of Bangladesh is no way to dress ourselves, she suggests. No doubt such ideas will be mentioned during an appearance at a workshop in Ennistymon, West Clare on July 16/17.

“I love Ireland – except for the weather,” she comments. “I appreciate being able to see the change of seasons. I look out the window and see green. I have always lived in cities, so it is nice to be out in the countryside.”

It seems she is here to stay.