Monthly Archives: July 2008

Blue-Indigo-Anil: Natural Dyes of Oaxaca

These traditional Zapotec Mexican rug designs capture the beauty of the landscape, replicate the stone carvings on the archeological ruins of the Oaxaca Valley, and convey the artistry of the culture.  The first rug on the left, Zapotec Eye of God, uses the natural dyes of indigo blue, the cochineal bug, and pomegranates.  All the rugs shown here are of the highest quality pure 100% churro sheep wool grown in the Mixtec highlands of Oaxaca.  The next rug (left to right) is called Thunders and Diamonds.  This is a very traditional design in the village of Teotitlan del Valle.  This rug is naturally dyed, too, with lichens, cochineal, indigo and pecans.  The next rug is the Square Snail, that uses all indigo in various shades.  The snail (caracol) here incorporates the greca or fret motif, a symbol that represents the stages of life:  birth, growth, death, and rebirth.  The next rug to the right of the Square Snail is called Contemporary, designed by Federico Chavez Sosa to incorporate the traditional Mitla ruins with a new look.  The last rug is Pina de Maguey.  The pineapple of the maguey cactus grows beneath the earth and is cultivated to produce both mezcal and tequila.  The Oaxaca valley is filled with maguey fields.  This rug, which Federico also designed, combines the traditional Zapotec Diamonds pattern with the interpretation of the maguey (or agave) plant.  is also completely dyed with indigo.  The color variations of indigo, from deep blues and purples to paler shades, results from the amount of indigo used and whether it is mixed with an acid or base.

These rugs are available for sale and can be special ordered in any size, up to 9′ x 12′

See my website and the Rug Gallery for more examples of great Mexican rug patterns.

Oaxaca Weaving Workshop: Day 4

On the last day of the workshop, Karen worked with Federico and Janet to complete her tapestry, a glorious rainbow of red, warm yellow and orange, cream and blue. She cut the piece she will use for a wall hanging off the loom, and learned how to finish off the rug in the traditional Zapotec technique of rolling the warp threads into fringes and then tying them off.

As an instructor with her father, Janet Chavez Santiago had this to add about the four-day experience: It was a great experience for me to do the workshop with Karen. It was very satisfying to see how she learned and how she was able to create a beautiful finished product — her rug! The dyeing day was perfect. Karen said she appreciated the process of our work and how we take the time to dye the wool by hand using natural materials. I was very happy that I could teach her the mordanting process, and dyeing with acid, alkaline and a neutral base. The indigo was a challenge because it is a difficult process, but we did it and without mistakes and she was able to see the different blues and how the color changes when it comes in contact with the air. I am very excited about the next workshop we have scheduled to start on August 11. It’s full with five people and it’s going to be wonderful, too.

We are now accepting reservations for workshops starting November 22 and December 13. See the website or blog post: Oaxaca Weaving Workshop: Dancing on the Loom, for more details.

Graduation Fiesta at the Elementary School

We walked up to the Presa (reservoir) that day, it was a Friday, very early before it got too hot, and on the way back stopped by to say hello to Ester, Russio and their three girls–Jazmin, Ester and Rocio–who live in the house with the golden bull and the cackling guacalotes just in front of our friend Annie on the hillside at the outskirts of town. What was once a donkey path in front of their modest adobe casita has become a graded thoroughfare, enabling small cars and trucks to come into town from the remote mountain villages. The walking is easier now, not as many granite outcroppings to traverse as we pass through cactus meadows with grazing sheep, cattle and horses. Development is extending its reach even in Teotitlan.

Please come to the escuela this afternoon at 3 p.m., Ester and Russio invited us. Today is the elementary school graduation; daughters Ester and Rocio will be participating in the fiesta. Come, they said, even if you’re late. After noodling around the village, stopping for coffee at The Sacred Bean Cafe, and visiting with Josefina and Magda at Las Granadas Bed and Breakfast, I went to the elementary school, drawn by the music coming from the plaza. It was after 4 p.m. and things were just getting going.

This is the second graduation ceremony I attended during this visit. As I watched this group of first through sixth graders at the elementary school, I was struck by how children are taught at an early age to dance, sing, play, laugh, honor their cultural traditions through dance, revere their history, and demonstrate appreciation for the customs that define their identity as Zapotecs and as Mexicans. What I noticed was how the ceremony of something even as simple as an elementary school graduation takes on epic proportions. Here is the village’s very own Guelaguetza. It appeared to me that the entire village turned out in support. People dressed up in their finest frocks and fanciest shoes,

there were reserved seats of honor for parents and close relatives of the graduates. Everyone participated to collectively bless the future of all these young people with their presence, whether they were graduating or not. The village as extended family promoted a feeling of well-being, joy and comfort. The area was bedecked with balloons and flowers. Drinks were handed out gratis to family members of the graduates. Along the periphery and outside the school, vendors sold refrescas (soft drinks), helados and nieves (ice cream and sorbet), and postres y dulces (pastries and sweets). Students giggled, laughed, were nervous about whether they would do well, played tag, hung on their mother’s

skirts, stood soldierly while posing for photos, took their roles seriously, fell down and got up again, shouldered the burden of heavy baskets balanced on small heads, smiled in satisfaction of having done well at the end. All will go on to middle school, some of those will go on to high school, and then very few will continue on to university. Most will become weavers or laborers, others will work in Oaxaca or travel with coyotes to work in the U.S. Celebrations of village life cycle events are a constant, mixed with joy, tragedy and continuity.

Recipe: Agua Fresca de Pepino con Limon — Refreshing Summer Drink

Here’s what you can do with all those cucumbers (pepinos) in your garden! A thirst quenching liquid refreshment sure to delight all is Agua Fresca de Pepino con Limon. We had this last week in Oaxaca (at Los Descansos restaurant in Teotitlan) and it was delicious. Here is the recipe — really easy.

In your blender, add:

1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup hot tap water, blend to dissolve sugar (use sugar to taste)

1 medium English cucumber, washed, ends cut off (do not peel)

juice of 2 large limes or 4 small limes

1 cup water

12-16 ice cubes

Cut cucumber into 2″ cubes and add to blender along with lime juice and water. Blend until smooth. Add ice cubes, as many as needed to make the drink really “chilly.” Blend until drink is consistency of a smoothie.

Pour into a wine glass and serve immediately. Makes 4 6-ounce servings.

If you want to add some pizzaz, add one ounce of clear tequila for a refreshing twist on Margaritaville.

Oaxaca Weaving Workshop: Day 2

The second day of the workshop started at 9 a.m. on Tuesday with Karen and her Chavez Santiago Family hosts and teachers gathered around the worktable in the covered and paved courtyard for an orientation to the natural dyeing process. On hand were baking soda, alum, fresh squeezed lime juice and skeins of undyed wool shorn and spun from Churro sheep. Janet Chavez Santiago explained about and showed the different materials used for the dyeing process: cochineal bugs, indigo, moss, lichens, and pericone. The propane-powered burners were topped with stainless steel and enamel pots filled with water coming to a boil.

Dolores Santiago Arellanas and her 14 year old son, Omar Chavez Santiago were standing by, ready to mix the dyes after selecting the acid (lime juice) or neutral (baking soda) to mix with the dye stuffs to determine the shade and intensity of the color. Federico and Janet guided Karen after they demonstrated how to measure and add the dye liquid to create the dye bath. Wearing a mandil (traditional Zapotec apron) and protective rubber gloves, Karen stirred and poured, while the family and her son, Sebastian, looked on. It was clear that everyone was having a great time. Since it takes an hour of “cooking” the wool in the dye bath to achieve the desired color, Karen went back to her weaving and accomplished quite a bit during the day. She is well on her way to finishing a beautiful wall hanging by the end of the four-day workshop.

Here’s what Karen says about her experience:

“I wanted to be realistic about my expectations, I looked online and thoroughly re-read Norma’s blog. I had my information packet from her and had a basic idea that I would be coming to work with this multi-generational family of weavers. I was impressed by the quality and diversity of the family’s weavings. I had seen the looms before and was familiar with what things looked like. I am really pleased about how patient and agreeable the family is because I don’t have hands-on weaving experience. I appreciated that they offered me the choice of wool from an extensive selection of colors from which to create my piece.

“It was wonderful for me to have this experience at the loom – it was a dream. It really was dancing on the loom. There were certain techniques I couldn’t get right away at the beginning and Federico, Dolores and Janet were patient about repeating the instructions. They wanted me to relax and enjoy what I was doing. They looked at my work and gave me a lot of encouragement. This is a wonderful spontaneous atmosphere in which to learn. It is very exciting to look at and be with the natural colors. I came open-minded and didn’t have too many preconceived notions about what I would do. Federico and Janet talked about weaving with your heart – choosing the colors and their flow in a way that speaks to you — and that was a great approach. At another time, I would like to make more of a design.

“It is also lovely here, beautiful, the food is really gorgeous and delicious. For people who have no experience with Mexico, I believe this would exceed their expectations. It is very clean. Sometimes people might be fearful of coming to a village but once here they would see that it is not that rustic. They are not going to get sick because a lot of care is given to making well-prepared food. Anyone could feel very confident about what they would eat or drink at this house.”

Karen’ son, Sebastian, added his comments:

“I had no idea what would happen, then once I got here, I saw everyone who was here was really nice, and very cool. I like being here with my mom because I got to learn a lot about weaving and dyeing, and watching how the looms work. It was fun taking photos, too. I’d like to be able to do this myself and make something. Omar, who is my age, is really nice and it was a lot of fun to get to meet him. We both rode in the back of the pick-up truck to go get corn grown at Omar’s grandmother’s house for the soup, and we spun the yarn together to make the bobbins that my mom is using for her weaving. My dad, Fernando Olivera, is an artist and he is teaching me how to do woodcuts and etchings. I like everything about Oaxaca – the people, food, culture and art. Everyone here is very friendly. I like it a lot.”

Accepting Registrations Now: Mid-December 2008,

Oaxaca Weaving Workshop: Dancing on the Loom