Category Archives: Oaxaca rug weaving and natural dyes

No Plan to Live in Mexico: How I Got Here

The best plan might be NOT to have a plan.

I spent my working life doing goals and objectives, setting annual plans and then evaluating whether I met those targets. They became part of my annual performance review. Yet, the serendipity of how my personal life progressed was never a conscious decision. Sometimes I felt bad about that. I should have had more direction.

But I couldn’t have planned it better. How I came to live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, was pure accident.

Many I meet ask, How did you get here? Here’s a condensed answer.

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built on top of Zapotec Temple, archeological ruins

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built atop Zapotec temple ruins

My friend, Annie Burns, moved to Teotitlan from Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the early 2000’s.  She would return to visit with wonderful textiles to show and sell. At the time, there were probably three or four gueros living here. She kept inviting me to visit. Finally, I did, in 2005 with the wasband.

Teotitecas, parade of the canastas

Teotitecas, Parade of the Canastas each year in July

Annie introduced us to Josefina Ruiz Vazquez and her mother-in-law Magdalena. They had both lost husbands to illness that same year, son and father. Josefina and Magda are great cooks. Josefina, mother of three youngsters, was left with no means of support. Annie thought, maybe they could start a B&B. We were the first experiment in hospitality for gringos.

That’s how Las Granadas B& B in Teotitlan del Valle got started. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Another friend, Roberta Christie, stepped in to make a huge difference by creating the infrastructure to make it happen. But I digress.

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Years ago in San Francisco, I was a beginning weaver and experimented in natural dyes. My love of textiles informed my adulthood and as I traveled, I collected. During that first visit to Teotitlan del Valle, I thought I had landed in heaven. Teotitlan was filled with talented weavers and stunning textiles.

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

I was on a quest to find a family that worked only in natural dyes. I did research in advance and knew that while it was not widespread, there were a few working with plant dyes and cochineal. I set out to find them. It wasn’t easy. And, of course, I loved all those bright aniline dye colors, too.

Yet, it was a time when we were talking more about sustainability and consuming what was healthy, organic. Making a commitment to buying an organic textile was important to me and I didn’t want to compromise.

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

For the first few days in Teotitlan del Valle, I walked around meeting and talking with weavers in their workshops to learn more. There were many beautiful textiles and I was smitten. But I restrained myself from buying.

Everyone could give me a natural dye demonstration, crushing the cochineal bug in my palm, squeezing lime juice, adding baking soda. I watched the color change from orange to red to pink to purple, depending on proportions and chemistry. I wasn’t certain who was actually using the process to dye the wool.

Eric Chavez Santiago giving dyeing wool with wild marigold

Eric Chavez Santiago dyeing wool with wild marigold

Then, the only Internet connection in town was at the pharmacy across from the church. One day, as we left, we decided to make a right turn instead of our usual left to wander through the rug market.

I hear a voice say in perfect English, “Do you want to see my rugs?” Looking down to manage my steps on the cobblestones, I waved my hand and shook my head, no. The English was too perfect. Too slick, I thought. Then I looked up, saw these magnificent rugs and stepped into the space.

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

That’s when I met Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister, Janet. Both were university students, selling rugs in the market during Christmas vacation. Janet was huddled in the corner with a book on her lap, studying. I went to their family home and studio to see the complete collection, meet dad Federico Chavez Sosa and mom, Dolores Santiago Arrellenas.

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

I saw the actual wool dyeing and weaving process. Eric explained how difficult the economy was. The market demand had softened since the 90’s when Santa Fe Style sent thousands of Zapotec rugs out of Oaxaca to the American southwest.

Of course, I bought rugs. Eric later told me, many came to visit them, said they would help and were never heard from.

Caracol rug design, communication symbol

Caracol rug design, communication symbol by color master Federico

Then, I went home to North Carolina, gave thought to how I might help this family. I wrote an arts education grant with the Carrboro Arts Center to the NC Arts Council. We got funding to bring Eric and Federico to North Carolina for workshops, expoventas (show and sale) and give a master class at NC State University College of Textiles. I helped get 10 year visas with assist from Congressman David Price‘s staff.

It was never the plan to live here. The idea was to visit once a year … maybe. Living in Oaxaca City was not considered. I fell in love with Teotitlan del Valle, her people and textiles.

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The next year, Federico and Dolores invited us to build a casita on their land. It was a surprise and a gift. Because no foreigners (even people born in other pueblos) can own property in Teotitlan del Valle, we knew that this would be a vacation home that would always be owned by the family. This relationship is based on trust, respect and good will.

Because of this unique arrangement, this is not for everyone. Many immigrants who live in Teotitlan and other usos y costumbres pueblos rent.

But plans have a way of changing and nothing is for certain. The wasband and I had our differences. Our divorce was final in 2014. For now, this is where I live and this is how I got here. I never planned it this way.

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Eric, who thought he might work in a bank after graduation, went on to become the founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, with our coaching help and his innate intelligence. This year, Eric is starting a new entrepreneurial venture at the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation. Janet is a linguist educator at the Biblioteca Juan de Cordova. Youngest brother, Omar, will finish university in December and wants to take the family business to the next level. Federico and Dolores run Galeria Fe y Lola in Oaxaca City and continue to weave.

Goals? I have no idea what’s next.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

Natural dyes have strong color, as strong as synthetic dyes

With a great dye master, natural dyes have strong color, as strong as commercial dyes

Will you share your story? If you live in Mexico, how did you get here?

 

 

 

Women Weavers’ Cooperative Vida Nueva, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Part Two

This post continues the narrative about women weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. See Part One for my introduction.

Honoring Mother’s Day: For all women who gave and received life!

***

Vida Nueva (“New Life”) Cooperative at the International Folk Art Market

Twenty years ago, Vida Nueva cooperative was founded by six single women from the same extended family group, three of whom where sisters. Some of the women had husbands who never returned to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, after migrating out for work. Some had not married. Some were widows. They needed to support their families and weaving had the biggest potential economic reward for their labor.

But, weaving was not women’s work.

Pomegranate dyed wool

Pomegranate dyed wool

The traditional role for women was (and still is, for the most part) to stay at home, keep house, tend the children, cook and raise small animals like chicken, sheep, pigs and goats.

Twenty years ago, weaving and then selling/marketing the product was not a usual role for women, plus it was unheard of to go to the city to develop customers. Most women of the time went barefoot, wore indigenous dress and did not go beyond the family compound expect to daily market. Entering the city was foreign, uncomfortable, intimidating.

Cleaning the finished rug

Cleaning the finished rug

Since the height of the Bracero program, when men migrated to the U.S. as temporary farm workers, and women learned to weave out of economic necessity, the number of women who now weave is substantial.  Today, most women work alongside husband, father or brother, to weave in a family centric enterprise. A few also participate in selling and receive recognition for their contributions.

It took a while for Vida Nueva to get started, but they had the help of a non-governmental agency, Grupo del Apoyo a la Educacion de la Mejor (now defunct). Through donations and business development guidance, Vida Nueva began producing rugs for sale in 2001. Their first clients, arranged by the NGO, were adult Spanish language students who were visiting Oaxaca from the United States.

Take a One-Day Natural Dye Weaving & Textile Study Tour

The cooperative meets regularly, makes decisions together, created a mission statement, a vision, goals and objectives for the organization that includes a marketing plan, and have built distribution markets over time. They also put money aside each year to invest in an annual community project that can benefit everyone in Teotitlan del Valle.

Using the stone metate to crush indigo to powder for dye

Using the stone metate to crush indigo to powder for dye

Not all the rugs woven by Vida Nueva are made with natural dyes. Most are woven with synthetic colors because most buyers don’t want to pay the price for a naturally dyed rug and prefer bright, electric colors. But, the cooperative will do custom orders for naturally dyed rugs and from time-to-time, may have some on-hand.

Today there are 12 cooperative members, two of whom are married. Their clientele has developed by word of mouth over the years, and they also have been invited to participate in shows/sales in the U.S.A. including the International Folk Art Market and the Feria at Lake Chapala, Mexico Arts Show. 

Vida Nueva Women’s Cooperative Contact Information

Pastora Gutierrez
Centenario 1
Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca
estrelladelvalle@hotmail.com

Telephone: 951 524-4250

Some Useful Resources

 

Natural Dyes and Indigo Blue Easter Eggs

I’ve never seen dyed Easter eggs here in Oaxaca, but perhaps someone could correct me if I just haven’t noticed them. Yet, here we are in the world of natural dyes. My personal favorite is indigo blue. So, when this post from Improvised Life came to my inbox this morning, I felt compelled to share it.

Naturally Dyed Easter Eggs Made Simple

This segues into the world of natural dyes here in Oaxaca, where a kilogram of indigo from the coast costs over $100 USD. In the spirit of indigo blue, I’d like to share these photos with you of indigo blue dyed textiles taken during recent Natural Dye Textiles and Weaving Study Tour programs.

 

Thanks to Juana Gutierrez, Galeria Fe y Lola, Alfredo Hernandez Orozco, Bii Dauu Cooperative, Elsa Sanchez Diaz, Arturo Hernandez and Porfirio Gutierrez for their talent to keep the world of natural dyes alive here.

Oaxaca, Mexico: Source for Natural Dye Textiles

It’s an ongoing discovery. Finding the weavers who work with natural dyes. They live and work in humble homes or grander casas, on back alleys, dirt streets, cobbled avenues, main highways, hillsides and flat-lands. Their studios are filled with the aroma and sights of natural materials — stinky indigo dye vats, wood burning fires, prickly pear nopal cactus studded with insects that yield intense red.

All photos © Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC

JuanaGutierrez TreeMoss

In this photo, above left, dyer/weaver Juana prepares ground cochineal on the traditional metate, grinding the dried insect by hand until it is a fine powder, ready to make a dye bath for wool that will be used for rugs. Above right, tree moss waits for the dye pot.

That’s why I’ve organized one-day natural dye textile study tours to explore this artisanal process.

ArturoRebozo2 CochinealIndigoYarn

Above left, ikat rebozo with natural dyes of wild marigold, cochineal and indigo from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Right, wool on the loom.

Cleaning a rug woven with naturally dyed wool

Cleaning a rug woven with naturally dyed wool

You know how committed I am to the artisans who work with natural dyes. It is a laborious and vertical process — winding the yarn, preparing the dye baths, dyeing the yarn, then weaving it. To create textiles using natural dyes takes time and is a many-step process. I believe the people who work this way deserve special attention and support.

Nopal Cactus and Indigo, copyright 2016 Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC

Nopal Cactus and Indigo, copyright 2016 Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator

They start with the natural wool that comes from the mountains surrounding the Oaxaca valley. The best wool is hand-spun for strength and has no additives, like nylon or polyester, to lower cost.

IMG_6963 IndigoDyePot

Then, indigo and cochineal is bought from local Oaxaca sources. Both are expensive, now about 1,800 MXN pesos per kilo. Synthetic dyes are a fraction of this cost and only requires one-step to produce colored yarn.

DryPomegranates FedericoNuez

Other dye sources are wild marigold, pecan leaves and shells, pomegranate fruit, tree moss, eucalyptus bark, black zapote fruit and much more.  The wool needs to be washed of lanolin and mordanted to absorb and fix the natural dye so it will not fade. To get a full range of color, local weavers and dyers use over dyes, too.

IndigoPericoneOverdye Yellow2Green

When the yarns are colored they are then ready to weave. Depending on size and material density, a piece can take from one week to several months.

CochinealHands2 ArturoRebozo1

It takes a special person who understands quality of materials and finished product to work this way. The process is organic, sustainable and environmentally sound.

CochinealHand SteamyDyePot

Travel Oaxaca’s Natural Dye Textiles + Weaving Trail: One-Day Study Tour

We introduce you to weavers of wool, cotton and silk who work with organic natural dyes. This one-day educational study tour gives you in-depth knowledge about the artisanal process for making hand-woven cloth using sustainable technologies. We visit home studios and workshops to meet some of Oaxaca’s outstanding weavers in this curated day trip. See the real indigo, cochineal and wild marigold dye process. Meet artisans who create beautiful rugs and clothing.

Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer.

You reserve for the dates you prefer. This  is designed as a private program. You are welcome to organize your own small group.  We will do our best to match your travel schedule with our availability.

Pricing is for a full day, starting at 9 a.m. Customized programs on request.  The rate is based on the time we pick you up and return you to your Oaxaca hotel. Please provide us with hotel/lodging address and phone number.

  • 1 or 2 people, $265 USD flat rate total, includes lunch, transport
  • 3 or more people, $125 USD per person, includes lunch, transport
  • For larger groups, please contact us for special pricing

Dyeing_Australian_Chicas_Eric-94

Oaxaca has many talented weavers working on different types of looms: the two-harness pedal loom, the flying shuttle loom and the back-strap loom. They create many different types of cloth from wool, cotton and silk – to use, wear and walk on.

Wool Coch Red Bobbins62K

The yarns or threads can be hand-woven and made into tapestry carpets or wall hangings. They might become lighter weight garments such as shawls, ponchos and scarves or fashion accessories and home goods like handbags, travel bags, blankets, throws and pillow covers.

Natural grey wool and dried cochineal bugs

Natural grey wool and dried cochineal bugs

Most weavers dye their material using pre-mixed commercial dyes. Some buy their yarns pre-dyed. This streamlines and simplifies the production process, making the finished piece less costly. Often, there are wide quality differences.

DyeWkshp_1-24

A growing number of weavers are going back to their indigenous roots and working in natural dyes. They use a time-consuming process to gather the dye materials, prepare them with tested recipes, dye the yarns and then weave them into cloth. These colors are vibrant and long-lasting. There is a premium for this type of hand work.

Dyeing and then weaving can take weeks and months, depending upon the finished size of the textile and type of weaving process used.

Preparing indigo for the dye pot -- first crush it to powder

Preparing indigo for the dye pot — first crush it to powder

For each visit, we will select artisans who live and work in small villages scattered in the countryside around Oaxaca where families have co-created together for generations to prepare the yarn and weave it.

indigo-dye-pot

Natural dyes we will investigate include plant materials like nuts, wild marigold, fruit (pomegranate, persimmon, zapote negro), wood bark and indigo.

Shades of cochineal -- a full range of color

Shades of cochineal — a full range of color

Another important dye source is cochineal, which is the parasite that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. The Spanish kept the cochineal secret well hidden for over 400 years, calling it grana cochineal or grain, so that English and Italian competitors could not detect its source.

Cochineal dye bath -- the most vibrant red of the natural world

Cochineal dye bath — the most vibrant red of the natural world

During this one-day outing, we will visit four weavers, see complete natural demonstrations of yarns and threads, learn about over-dyeing to get a full rainbow of colors, and savor the beautiful results that master weavers create.

We may not always visit the same weavers on each tour, based on their availability. At each home studio you will see some of the steps that go into the completed process. By the end of the day, you will have gained a fuller understanding of the difference between natural and commercial dyed cloth as well as the various weaving techniques. This will help you become a more educated collector, able to discern nuances in fiber and dye quality.

Ikat wool rebozo colored with pomegranate and cochineal

Ikat wool rebozo colored with zapote negro (black persimmon) and cochineal

More than this, you will learn about the local culture, the family enterprise of weaving, how weavers source their materials, the dedication to keeping this ancient practice alive. You will see how using natural dyes is a small-batch, organic and environmentally sustainable process. And, you will try your hand in the dye pot and at the loom, too, if you like.

Squeezing fresh lime juice for the acid dye bath -- turns cochineal bright orange

Squeezing fresh lime juice for the acid dye bath — turns cochineal bright orange

During this complete one-day study tour you will:

  • Meet master weavers and their families in their home workshop/studio
  • See the raw materials used for coloring wool, cotton and silk
  • Watch the weaving process and try your hand (and feet) at the fixed frame 2-harness pedal loom and flying shuttle loom — if you wish
  • Discuss the origin of cochineal, its impact on world trade and its many uses today
  • Learn how to tell the difference between dyed fibers – are they natural or chemical?
  • Observe processes for dyeing with indigo, cochineal, wild marigold and other organic materials
  • Understand quality differences and what makes a superior product
  • Discover the meaning of the various designs, some taken from ancient codices
  • Have an opportunity to shop, if you choose, at the source
  • Order a customized size, if you prefer

You are under no obligation to buy.

Zapote negro fruit in a dye bath waiting for wool

Zapote negro fruit in a dye bath waiting for wool

This is an educational study tour to give you more in-depth knowledge about the weaving and natural dye process. We offer a stipend to the weavers who take part to compensate them for their knowledge, time and materials. This is included in your tour fee.

Weavers do not pay commissions on any purchases made and 100% of any sales go directly to them.

Also consider these educational options:

About Norma Schafer, your study tour leader

Norma Schafer has organized educational programs and workshops in Oaxaca since 2006 through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. She is an educator, not a tour guide, and is recognized for her knowledge about textiles and natural dyes.

Nina wears a quechquemitl woven with cochineal dyed cotton

Nina wears a quechquemitl woven with cochineal dyed cotton

Norma is living in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, since she retired from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011. Before that, she made frequent visits each year beginning in 2005. Norma has access to off-the-tourist-path small production family workshops where the “manufacturing” process is vertical and hand-made.

  • Earned the B.A. in history from California State University at Northridge
  • Holds the M.S. in business administration from the University of Notre Dame
  • 30-year career in higher education administration and program development
  • Created/produced international award-winning programs at Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Recognized by the International University Continuing Education Association for outstanding educational program development
  • Founder/creator of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC arts workshops/study tours in 2006
  • Contributor to Textile Fiestas of Mexico, with chapters about Teotitlan del Valle and Tenancingo de Degollado
  • Founder/author of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator blog in 2007
  • Learned to weave and use natural dyes as a graduate student in San Francisco too many years ago to count!
  • Has an extensive personal collection naturally dyed textiles
  • Consultant to textile designers, wholesalers and retailers who want to include sustainable, organic textiles in their body of work and inventory
  • International textile conference advisor to Weaving a Real Peace (WARP) organization
  • Consultant on tourism/economic development, State of Guanajuato, Mexico Office of Tourism
  • Embedded in the cultural and social history of Oaxaca’s Zapotec village life

IMG_4423 Dolores with Shadows

Note: From time-to-time, we will invite other distinguished and knowledgeable natural dye experts to join us or to substitute for Norma to lead the study tour, based upon schedules and availability. If Norma is not available on the date(s) you request, we will give you the option to take the study tour with another qualified leader.

Pricing is for a 7-8 hour day. Customized programs on request.  The rate is based on the time we pick you up and return you to your Oaxaca hotel.

  • 1 or 2 people, $265 USD flat rate total, includes lunch, transport
  • 3 or more people, $125 USD per person, includes lunch, transport
  • For larger groups, please contact us for special pricing

Includes transportation from/to Oaxaca city to our meeting place in Teotitlan del Valle, lunch and honoraria to artisans. Please let us know if you need vegetarian options. We will pre-order a tasting menu that includes a fresh fruit drink (agua fresca). Alcoholic beverages are at your own expense.

Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer. We will do our best to accommodate your requests.

Silk worms dining on mulberry leaves, Oaxaca, Mexico Wool dyed w moss

Reservations and Cancellations

We require a non-refundable 50% deposit with PayPal (we will send an invoice) to reserve. The balance is due on the day of the tour in USD or MXN pesos (at the current conversion rate). The PayPal amount billed will be based on the number of people you reserve for.

After 30 days before your scheduled study tour, your deposit is not refundable. We will have made transportation arrangements and secured the dates/times with the weavers, plus paid them a stipend in advance for participating. We have learned, living in Mexico, that it is essential to keep commitments to sustain relationships. Thank you for understanding.

Folded pedal looms waiting for the next project

Folded pedal looms waiting for the next project