For three days I am immersed in natural dyes with Elsa Sanchez Diaz who teaches our Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshops through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. We make 32 different colors starting with a base of gray and white natural wool.
Indigo blue shirts are first made with natural manta cotton, then get four dye dips.
The natural plant and vegetable materials we dye with include palo de brazil (Brazilwood), nogal (walnut), cochineal (the red insect found on the prickly pear cactus paddle), caoba (mahogany bark), palo de aguila (alderwood bark), palo de mora (fustic), pericone (wild marigold), granada (pomegranate) and añil (indigo).
Indigo plant from Oaxaca’s coast.
Using a combination of base dyes and over-dyes, we make color variations of red, purple, orange, pink, yellow, green and blue. Based on the wool color and number of dips into the dye bath, the color will be light or intense.
Rhiannon uses the mortar and pestle to grind cochineal to a fine powder. Elsa is happy with her results.
For the complete three-day workshop, the first day is mostly preparation of the materials, starting with making the skeins of yarn. We learn about the history of natural dyes in Mexico, how the pre-Hispanic indigenous people used the dyes, and the symbols of the colors.
(We also offer One and Two-Day Dye Workshops)
Pomegranate seeds and brazilwood for dye baths.
To understand the entire dye process, Elsa says that it is important to begin with all the basic preparation steps. This is a time-consuming process and to be a natural dyer one must have patience. This is something we learn in Mexico daily.
Mahogany gives a peach color that is stunning and grey when over-dyed with iron.
Natural grey wool and dried cochineal bugs.
On the street below the rooftop terrace where we work sheltered from the sun at the outdoor dye studio, I hear the sound of a high-pitched whistle. It’s the knife sharpener, Elsa says. Other street sounds signal the coming of the gas man and tortilla vendor.
Pericone or wild marigold dyed on white and grey churro wool
Elsa says even when she uses the same recipes, the color will vary slightly each time. This is handmade, after all! Color intensity depends on the pH of the water, the dryness, age or freshness of the plants and fruits, and the natural shade of the wool. This is chemistry, for sure.
Straining the cochineal dye concentrate to eliminate bug debris
Plus, when there are natural tannic acids in some materials like mahogany, indigo, fustic and pomegranate, the color is stronger.
Fine powder yields the most intensity. More muscle, please!
Day One is a complete introduction to the two most frequently used dyes, pericone and pomegranate, and getting into the mindset of natural dyes, says our participant Rhiannon, a textile and jewelry designer from Canada. But, you don’t have to be experienced or a professional to learn … and have fun with color.
Breaking the tough Brazilwood. Smallest pieces give strongest color.
This study tour is designed as an intensive personal learning experience. Here in Tenancingo de Degollado and beyond, you will meet artisans in their homes and workshops, understand family traditions and culture, and help honor and preserve craft.
Rebozo seller, Tenancingo Town Market
Tenancingo de Degollado, Estado de Mexico (Edomex), is the source for handwoven ikat rebozos or shawls made on back-strap and flying shuttle looms by master artisans. Some count only 27 remaining reboceros — the men who weave the cloth. Not long ago there were hundreds. We will also meet the puntadoras — the women who hand-knot the intricate fringes. The experience of being there is so inspiring that I want to keep sharing it with you. I invite you to return with me for a memorable, curated Mexican textile and folk art study tour.
Jesus Zarate ikat rebozos are like a Monet painting — innovative, full of movement
February 2-10, 2017. 8 nights, 9 days. $1,995 per person shared room with private bath. Single supplement is $300 more per person. A 50% deposit will reserve your space.
Cost includes luxury van transportation from Mexico City to Tenancingo and back, daily excursions, all hotels, 7 breakfasts, 5 lunches, 5 dinners, private guide services, gratuities for artisans, guides, drivers and service staff. Does not include alcoholic beverages and optional expenses not included in the itinerary.
Group size limited to 10 people.
Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art Evaristo Borboa Casas at his loom
You will arrive and leave from Mexico City.
Meet together in Mexico City on February 2 with an overnight there at a historic center hotel
Travel to and stay in Tenancingo from February 3-9 at a bed and breakfast oasis
Enjoy the company of our bi-lingual guide who migrated from the U.S. to Tenancingo to marry a local thirteen years ago
Meet the master weavers of Tenancingo de Degollado in their home workshops
Learn about ikat warp thread preparation, the complexity of this at-risk textile art and how to differentiate quality
Participate in hands-on natural dye and weaving demonstrations
Understand the intricacy of a fine hand-knottedfringe called punta or rapacejo, and how it adds to the beauty of the lienza (cloth)
Visit three of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos – magic villages where traditional life flourishes
Spend a day in Malinalco, a Pueblo Magico, to discover archeology, ancient frescoes, weaving traditions, natural dyes and more
Travel to Metepec, a Pueblo Magico. Climb the archeological site of Teotenango, meet outstanding ceramic artists who make Tree of Life sculptures and cazuelas cooking vessels
Spend the last night in Mexico City to depart on February 10 for home OR stay on longer to enjoy museums and world-class restaurants
Puntadora Amalia shows how to tie the finest knots
Along the way, you will eat great food, climb ancient pyramids at important though remote archeological sites, visit three Pueblo Magicos – Malinalco, Taxco and Metepec — and immerse yourself in some of Mexico’s outstanding folk art.
Primarily, we are here to learn about the art and craft of making a fine rebozo, meet the men who weave the cloth and the women who tie the elaborate fringe.
Ikat rebozo handwoven on the back strap loom from Rapacejos gallery
Some of the weavers are innovators, like Jesus Zarate, who incorporates intricate floral, bird and animal motifs on the ikat cloth.
Some, like Fito Garcia, use splashes of color that looks like confetti. Camila Ramos ikat designs employ ancient indigenous symbols and figures.
The revered master, 82-year old Evaristo Borboa Casas, is a traditionalist. All have received top honors for their work worldwide.
Each technique requires mathematical and technical precision, extraordinary creativity and months of work to produce one rebozo.
It can take weeks to prepare the ikat warp threads, dye them and dress the loom, with another month or two for the weaving. It can take two or three months to tie a punta, depending on length and elaboration.
After this study trip, I can guarantee that you will better appreciate this textile art form that is at risk of disappearing. Only three or four weavers in Tenancingo continue the back-strap weaving tradition. Sixty years ago there were over 200 weavers working on the back-strap loom.
8 nights lodging
Round trip transportation to/from Mexico City center and Tenancingo
Transportation to all towns, villages and artisans noted in itinerary
Gratuities to artisans for demonstrations
Tips for most services, including hotel rooms, van driver, guides
Day 1, Thursday, February 2: Arrive in Mexico City, overnight. Dinner on your own. We will stay at a historic hotel on or near the Zocalo. As soon as you register, we will tell you where. You might also like to arrive a few days early to explore the city. It’s wonderful!
Study tour group tries gives fringe-making a try in hands-on workshop
Day 2, Friday, February 3: Travel by luxury van to Tenancingo, overnight (B, D) Group dinner.
Day 3, Saturday, February 4: In the morning, meet some of Tenancingo’s best master weavers. We will confirm who later! The group can include Evaristo Borboa Casas, Jesus Zarate, Adolfo “Fito” Garcia Diaz, Fermin Escobar Camacho and Luis Rodriguez Martinez. Take a ride on the flying shuttle peddle loom. (B, L, D)
Day 4, Sunday, February 5: Today we will visit the big, weekly rebozo market where weavers and puntadoras, the women who hand knot the rebozo fringe, sell their wares. Then, we have lunch at a beautiful outdoor family restaurant in the countryside, followed by a demonstration in late afternoon. (B, L, D)
Day 5, Monday, February 6: We leave early to spend a day in Taxco de Alarcon, Pueblo Magico, with the next generation owner of the William Spratling silver jewelry workshop. First, we will have breakfast at the famous Spratling Ranch followed by a tour and silversmith demonstration. We’ll return to town for a late lunch Spratling’s home and first workshop, Las Delicias, now S’Caffecito. Then, you can roam Taxco on your own. We start our 2-hour return to Tenancingo in early evening. (B, L)
Day 6, Tuesday, February 7:Malinalco Pueblo Magico. Climb the ancient archeological site (if you wish), the only one in Mesoamerica carved out of the rock face. Visit the workshop of Camila Ramos Zamora and award-winning son Juan Rodrigo Mancio Ramos. See how they work the back strap loom and make natural dyes. See how to dye and prepare ikat threads. Take time to visit the 16th century Augustinian church with the amazing Paradise Garden Murals. (B, L, D)
Day 7, Wednesday, February 8: After breakfast, we will have a demonstration of another type of weaving, the fiber made from the Joshua Tree leaf called izote. An indigenous family will join us from the countryside to show the process that is made into beautiful, finely crafted bags, some dyed with cochineal. Afternoon on your own to return to your favorite rebocero, do last-minute market shopping and begin packing. (B, D)
Day 8, Thursday, February 9: Travel to Metepec Pueblo Magico. First, we will stop to climb the Mesoamerican Teotenango pyramids (if you wish) or visit the adjacent museum. Then, we will visit the Museo del Barro ceramics museum to see the finest examples of Tree of Life sculptures and highly decorated, sturdy cooking pots called cazuelas. After lunch, we will have time to explore the artisans market before returning to Mexico City. Overnight in Mexico City. (B, L)
Day 9, Friday, February 10: Depart our Mexico City hotel by taxi (at your own expense) to catch your flights home. Or make your own arrangements to stay in Mexico City a little longer and enjoy the Independence Day festivities around town.
The study tour includesround trip transportation between Mexico City and Tenancingo de Degollado, lodging in Mexico City and Tenancingo, meals as noted in the itinerary, travel to all artisans and destinations noted on the itinerary, cultural bi-lingual guide services and most gratutities/tips. Plus you receive a comprehensive packet of information about our location, shopping, restaurants, and itinerary sent by email before the study tour begins.
The study tour does not include airfare, taxi from Mexico City airport to Mexico City hotel, return taxi from Mexico City to the airport, some meals as noted in the itinerary, admission to museums and archeological sites, alcoholic beverages, travel insurance, optional transportation and incidentals.
Reservations and Cancellations: A 50% deposit will reserve your space. The final payment for the balance due shall be made on or before 45 days before the study tour begins. We accept PayPal for payment only. We will send you an invoice for your deposit to reserve when you tell us by email that you are ready to register.
If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email. After the 45-day cut-off date, no refunds are possible. However, we will make every effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute. If you cancel before the 45-day deadline, we will refund 50% of your deposit.
About Travel to Mexico City: The Mexico City Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX) is our gateway city and a Mexico City historic center hotel is our meeting point. You can fly to Mexico City from many United States locations on most major USA airlines. Mexico’s excellent new discount airlines Interjet and Volaris service some U.S. cities, as does Aeromexico.
International Travel Insurance Required.We require that you purchase trip cancellation, baggage loss and at least $50,000 of emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip. We will ask for insurance documentation as well as a witnessed waiver of liability form that holds Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC harmless. We know unforeseen circumstances are possible.
Now I’m back in Oaxaca after a whirlwind nine-day folk art study tour featuring the ikat rebozos of the State of Mexico (Estado de Mexico). Rather than cover a range of territory, I like to stay put and go deep. So, we spent the week meeting the people who weave rebozos and tie the elaborate fringes, learning the differences in design and quality. Plus, a side trip to silver mecca Taxco to visit the Spratling Ranch (more about this in another post).
Camelia Ramos, and poster about her father, Issac Ramos Padillo
This included a day trip to Pueblo Magico Malinalco, a short 30-minute drive over a mountain range from Tenancingo de Degollado along the pilgrimage route to Chalma. We spent a day there, first going to the studio workshop of Camelia Ramos Zamora, following a dirt road that led us to a bougainvillea covered adobe cottage under the shadow of an extinct volcanic outcropping.
Brilliant colors combine to create wearable art in Camelia Ramos studio
Camelia told us the story about her father, Isaac Ramos Padillo. He moved from Tenancingo to Malinalco to marry her mother and worked as a stone mason. When he was age 66, Camelia had the idea to sell rebozos in town. He disclosed he knew how to weave rebozos, something she never knew. So, they started the workshop and now the entire family weaves.
Above left, Camelia’s husband Jose working on the back strap loom. Above right, a pre-Hispanic figure woven into the cloth using the ikat technique, with natural dyes.
Rusty nails become perfect dye bath to create a beautiful mushroom color
They make two levels of fine cloth. The more affordable rebozos are woven on pedal looms using commercially-dyed cotton. The top-of-the-line rebozos are woven on the back strap loom and can be made with natural dyes, which the family makes by hand. They use indigo, cochineal, huizache and even rusty nails!
Came chooses the color palette from cotton yarns made in Puebla
Came, as she is called, explains that cotton is a wearable, comfortable fabric, offering protection from the sun, warmth in the shade. She explained that different colors identified the social class of the women who wore the rebozo in years past. Her father, who died in 2011, created new patterns and said the tradition wouldn’t survive unless there is innovation. He introduced color and creativity in cloth.
Above left, a selection of rebozos in the Malinalco gallery Repacejo, owned by the Ramos family. Right, Came models a traditional bird design rebozo originated by her father, dyed with cochineal and indigo.
Over 4,500 threads make up the warp of this back strap loom
Let me dream, let me create, said Isaac Ramos Padillo. Came, with her husband Jose Mancio and son Hugo Mancio Ramos, and their extended family of nephews, are working to keep the tradition alive. They are the only rebozeros of Malinalco.
Our group photo with Camelia Ramos at her country workshop
I will be organizing this rebozo study tour for either mid-September 2016 to coincide with the Tenancingo rebozo fair or in winter, mid-February 2017. There will be a few modifications in the itinerary we just completed. Please tell me if you are interested and which time of year you prefer. Get on the notification list!
Above, left. Malinalco, the magic town, and on the right, Britt and Susie taking a break off the Zocalo.
Above left, Came’s son Hugo, giving us an indigo dye demonstration, and on the right a nephew preparing the back strap loom for weaving.
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.
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!
In 1996 Englishman Graham Johnson came to Ocotlan de Morelos from Mexico City to open a woolen mill. The mill was designed to streamline the production process for making yarn and weaving cloth from local churro sheep wool* without sacrificing quality.
Graham was a tinkerer. He loved machinery, especially the old carding and spinning machines that were being replaced by computerization. He bought these up, shipped them to Oaxaca from the United States and the United Kingdom, and refurbished them. Often, he would find or make the parts to keep them going. Many were 30 and 40 years old already.
Over time the mill diversified and made luxuriously soft merino bed blankets and throws, fancy yak hair mecate horse reins, cinch chord for saddle belts, colorful wool tassels to decorate saddles, horse blankets and rugs for home decor.
They kept a supply of all types of wool to work with and blend, continuing to experiment to produce soft and durable products. In addition to merino, the mill cleaned and spun cashmere, mohair, Lincoln and other breeds. They still do.
Then, Graham died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009, and there was a question about who would keep the business going.
I remember when I first met Graham on one of my early visits to Oaxaca. It was probably 2005 or 2006. The mill was running at full capacity and you could hear the hum of machinery as you walked down the open corridor separating the rooms where the work was done. It was impressive then what these old machines and talented local employees could do.
Now, when I revisited with my friend Scott Roth, who has been working with weavers, wool, dyes, and the hand-loomed rug weaving process for over 40 years, I could see the changes. Scott brought with him replacement parts for some of the machines. Machines that were working ten years ago now need repair. Old belts, bearings, wires, cogs and wheels break, wear out.
For the past two years, Graham’s 37-year old daughter Rebecca has stepped in and is learning the operation. The mill is 25 years old and Rebecca is determined to keep her father’s dream alive.
At her side are Rosalba (Rosie) Martinez Garcia, who has been there for 18 years and knows just about everything about the mill. Helping are Angel Laer Ambocio Perez (above) and Alejandro Maldonado Santiago. They know a thing or two, too, although their tenure is much shorter.
Rebecca loves textiles. She loves yarn. She wants to supply all types of yarns for knitting and weaving and other fiber arts. There are beautiful rugs and blankets stacked on shelves that were made before her father passed that are for sale.
Spare parts for anything is essential here in Mexico. Equipment can be old. It can still be good, functional, valued. If one has the necessary parts to keep it going. Graham wasn’t the only tinkerer here. People save, cobble together, recycle, repurpose. Things get jimmied together and continue to work. People here learn how to be resourceful with what they have. It’s something I’ve learned being here.
As Scott and Rebecca worked out numbers to complete their transaction, I wandered the mill, remembering Graham. A cat ran across the corridor to hide. A young tree struggled to grow up from the crack in the concrete. A rusted yarn holder cast shadows on the adobe wall. I loved being there, another part of the textile heaven that is Oaxaca.
Where to Find It:Lanera de Ocotlan, 119 Benito Juarez, Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, Tel: 951-294-7062. Email: Rebecca Johnson at email@example.com for an appointment to visit. Directions: Continue straight past the Zocalo and the Mercado Morelos two blocks. The wool mill door will be on your left. It is unmarked.
Footnote: *Local wool is shorn from churro sheep which were brought to Mexico by the Spaniards with the conquest in 1521. The sheep are raised in the high mountains above Ocotlan in San Baltazar Chichicapam. The mountain range separates the Tlacolula and Ocotlan valleys. The altitude there produces a soft, dense fleece. There are still some, like Yolande Perez Vasquez, who use hand carders and the drop spindle to produce the best yarn, but this is a costly, labor-intensive process that yields a premium yarn that is very dye absorbent. Few weavers are able to pay the price.
Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of experience developing and delivering award-winning programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Study tours are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's most stunning artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized, live and work at home where it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited to 12 people for the most personal experience.
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