Category Archives: Photography

Photo Story: Confiscated From Immigrants at the U.S. Border

Feature Shoot highlights the things that the U.S. Border and Customs Patrol confiscates from immigrants crossing over between Mexico and the United States. Photographer Thomas Kiefer and former janitor collected soap, t-shirts, rosaries, and more and then captured them. The mundane tells a story.  Thanks to my friend Janet Fish for sharing. This had a powerful impact for me and I want to share it with you. We can’t figure out the purpose in confiscating bars of soap and t-shirts.

SanJuanMarket-3

I’m in Mexico City on a hump day before I take a group of 10 wonderful women on a textile study tour to Tenancingo de Degollado to explore the Mexican jaspe or ikat rebozo. We are also going on to Taxco to visit the Spratling ranch and then to Metepec to meet master clay artisans. Stay tuned!

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

Handmade Basket Fair, San Juan Guelavia, January 31-February 7, 2016

Each year, the traditional Zapotec village of San Juan Guelavia showcases its handmade baskets made from strips of river reed, called carrizo in Spanish. (Thanks, Christopher Hodge for this tidbit of clarification. Carrizo is not bamboo!) This is another artisanal weaving tradition in the Tlacolula valley. If you are on your way to the Tlacolula market this Sunday, making a stop off the Pan-American Highway-MEX 190 is well-worth your time to explore the 5th Annual Basket Fair or Feria del Carrizo. 

BasketFair

You might even want to stay awhile. The food is delicious. This is homemade, home-cooked food done with local flair. Barbecue, quesadillas, roasted chicken, tortillas made on the comal griddle, atole and mezcal tasting makes this a very special event.  There are even mezcal bottles (empty) covered in basketry.

And, you’ll drive along a beautiful curving road lined with maturing agave fields to get there.

The handmade baskets take center stage. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are plain, coarse and used as storage containers. Others are finely woven and decorated with mini-baskets, which the local Zapotec ladies love for gathering fresh food at the daily markets. Last year there were bamboo fish traps, lamp bases, bird cages, floor mats, and also very pretty flowers made from corn husks. I love these baskets to use around the house for storage and to give as house gifts filled with fresh fruit. The handles are wrapped in palm leaves.

This basket making from San Juan Guelavia is a long-standing tradition. Help preserve it. The way of the world is giving over to plastic and we have a chance to make a difference and buy directly from the makers — usually the generation of grandfathers and grandmothers who are trying to keep the tradition alive.

But to do that, we know that there has to be customers!

San Juan Guelavia is just before you get to Teotitlan del Valle on the right (west) side of the Carretera Nacional as you are heading toward Tlacolula from Oaxaca city. Enjoy. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

Agave Beverage of Choice? Aguamiel, Pulque and Mezcal

Here we are in Oaxaca, Mexico, center of the universe for the cultivation, production, distilling and bottling of agave nectar we call mezcal.  Mezcal is hot. A hot commodity, that is.

I stand corrected! Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent. Thanks to reader Andrew for bringing this to my attention. I’ve changed the post title.

A local friend told me his uncle sold his espadin agave field for 40,000 pesos when it reached maturity after seven years. It takes a long time to make $2,200 USD equivalent here, even at today’s exchange rate. But, that’s a lot of lana (money) and a farmer is happy to hold this crop for a while. The price of agave piña has risen exponentially, 15 times greater than it was seven years ago, according to Alvin Starkman, operator of Mezcal Educational Excursions.

For the last week, I’ve been drinking a cup of aguamiel in the morning. Zapotecs in the know say that aguamiel has curative, medicinal powers and aids in daily digestion. I’m a believer.

 

Aguamiel is the sap that comes from the heart of the agave when you cut the top off.  Honey water. That’s what they call it, and it tastes like it. After one day unrefrigerated, it begins to ferment and after a few days will become pulque. An acquired taste. After four days of fermentation, you are drinking pure bubbling alcohol that goes from clear to cloudy. Some flavor it with fruit or oatmeal to sweeten the taste.

Last week, I tasted tepache in the Tlacolula market. (Find the stand next to the row of ice cream vendors on the rug sellers street.) This is pulque with fermented fresh pineapple. A half a cup before lunch and I needed the arm of a friend to steady me. But, it sure was tasty. In the U.S. with the absence of pulque, some tepache recipes call for beer and pineapple!

 

Which brings me to mezcal, the epitome of distilled beverage in these parts.

 

I am not even close to being knowledgeable, but I now have about 14 bottles of locally produced mezcal in my collection. I added the last six — plastic bottles, mostly with the Coke label, filled at the source — during a day-long mezcal education tour with Alvin Starkman. (Plenty of tasting, too.) Nine family members and friends joined me. Those who flew away, left with officially bottled and sealed beverages, thanks to Alvin.

It takes an education and time to understand mezcal and one-day is just the beginning. So is a collection of 14 bottles. Hardly enough to matter to the serious collector.

On the trip with Alvin, I learned that I like tepeztate and clay distilled espadin. Clay gives the mezcal the flavor of loam and fire. I used to really like añejo and reposado, and these are very smooth. Now, however, what tickles my nose and throat are the nuances of the herbs and earthiness of the wild agaves.

 

Stick your nose in the glass. Inhale. Get that full smokey aroma from the roasted-over-wood agave heart (called piña or pineapple) into your lungs. Then sip. Just a little bit. Second sip, take a little more. You’ll see that what might have felt harsh to your throat at first is now subtle and delightful.

 

Each type of cactus will make a different type of mezcal. Maybe it’s an espadin distilled with a turkey breast (pechuga de pavo) hanging over the copper pot. Now, there’s a flavor worth trying. Is it fermented in oak, pine, a bull skin, plastic or stainless steel, and for how long? This impacts the flavor. Is it made from a tobala, Karwinskii or madrecuixe agave. Are fruits or poleo (wild mint) added for flavor? And what about that worm?

 

And what about the microclimates and soil types? Yes, the same agave will produce a different taste with a variation in soil temperature, altitude, and whether the field is shared with weeds or with squash and beans, and when it was last plowed.

 

Whether you live here or are visiting, mezcal is worth knowing about. It is an ancient artisanal craft on par with rug weaving, natural dyeing, clay making and more recently wood carving. Getting out to the palenques on country back roads is a unique experience.

 

Meeting the men and women who grow the agave and distill it is even more amazing. Many live very simple, humble lives and their production is small. They may not be certified but what they make can be every bit as delicious.

 

When you go to the source, you are able to buy, too, at a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle in the city. But, it’s not really about price, it’s about the adventure!

Mezcal Factoids, thanks to Alvin Starkman:

  • No 2 batches of mezcal is the same
  • Mezcal improves with age
  • 95% of tequila is made from blue agave in Jalisco, Mexico
  • In the State of Oaxaca there are about 8 species of agave used to make mezcal
  • Each of these species has as many as 20 sub-species resulting in many flavor profiles from just the varietal of the plant
  • On the other hand, while tequila has different flavors resulting from different influences, only blue agave can be used to achieve them
  • While most tequila is made with 100% agave, it can be made with as little as 51% agave bsed sugars. Read the label carefully, especially the more popular commercial brands made in the most industrialized way.

 

  • True artesanal mezcal uses natural yeast in the environment
  • Gusano worm in a bottle of mezcal changes the flavor of the spirit significantly, while some stil use it as a marketing tool
  • Most artisanal agave grows without irrigation
  • The most accepted theory is that the Moors brought the distillation process to Spain, and the Spanish brought it to the New World where they found agave

 

A Few Mezcal Resources:

  • Mezcal Educational Tours
  • La Mezcaleria — a new favorite, where to taste/buy aguamiel, pulque and artisanal mezcal — on the Macedonio Alcala walking street in the first block beyond Santo Domingo Church on the right
  • Las Mezcalistas — Susan Coss and Max Garrone, consultants and aficionados, talk about all things mezcal on their blog

 

 

Note: Most of these photos were taken on the trip with Alvin Starkman. Others were shot during an independent adventure I took with my son, sister and brother-in-law to San Juan del Rio the week before.

 

Travel Oaxaca’s Cochineal Trail–Natural Dye Textiles One-Day Study Tours

In this new program, we take you along Oaxaca’s Cochineal Trail to introduce you to weavers 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.

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.

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.

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.

Master weaver from Teotitlan del Valle makes perfect curves with natural dyes

Master weaver from Teotitlan del Valle makes perfect curves with natural dyes

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

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 on prickly pear cactus paddle Striking design in cochineal, indigo, pericone, and natural wool

During this one-day outing, we will visit four or five 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.

DyeWkshp_1-15

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.

DyeWkshp_1-14

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
  • 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
  • Receive a Resource Guide and Glossary to take with you
  • 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.

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.

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
  • 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 a personal collection of more than 100 textiles made with natural dyes
  • Consultant to textile designers, wholesalers and retailers who want to include sustainable, organic textiles in their body of work and inventory
  • 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 for a 7-8 hour day. Customized programs on request.  The rate constititutes the time you arrive to and depart from Teotitlan del Valle.

  • 1 or 2 people, $200 USD flat rate total, includes lunch
  • 3 to 4 people, $90 USD per person total, includes lunch
  • 5 to 8 people, $70 USD per person total, includes lunch
  • For larger groups, please contact us for special pricing

Includes transportation from/to Oaxaca city to our meeting place in Teotitlan del Valle, and lunch. 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 50% deposit with PayPal (we will send an invoice) to reserve with the balance 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.

If you decide to cancel up to 30 days before the study tour, we will refund 50% of your deposit. If you reduce the number of people in your party with 30 days notice, we will pro-rate the deposit and offer a 50% refund for the number of cancelations.

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