I’m smitten with this story about women who weave and use natural dyes under the shadow of Orizaba in the state of Veracruz, just over the border from northern Oaxaca state. It is a testimony to ancient wisdom, the grandmothers, folklore, cultural preservation and the strength of women to remember and to make and to teach it to the next generation. It is a tribute to everyone in Mexico who works hard and under extreme circumstances, to create the wonderful textiles that we love.
This is a long video, almost 30 minutes. I encourage you to watch it. Then make a gift to ensure support the immigrants who are mistreated in the USA, by choosing one or several of these organizations.
If you have a favorite Not-for-Profit USA 501 C 3 that helps Mexican immigrants in the USA or helps textile weavers in Mexico, please feel free to share a link in the comments, with a reason why you support them. Thank you!
And, please remember, when you make a purchase of a textile that is made by hand, you are helping to support individuals, families, villages, communities and cultures to do more than survive, to thrive and continue their traditions.
Felices Fiestas con abrazos fuertes from Oaxaca, Mexico.
I thought it was important for the North Carolina State University Study Abroad students to spend an overnight in an indigenous Zapotec village while they were here in Oaxaca. So, I recommended to Professor Ricardo Hernandez that we include a stay in Teotitlan del Valle as as part of our itinerary.
The students were here in Oaxaca — the valley and the coast — to study sustainability. Through the experience they learned that the definition is wide-ranging and far-reaching. It has to do with the land and her people, traditions and beliefs, values and practices. It is economic and social and political. It is still small scale agriculture here where farmers use age-old practices rather than technology.
It is instructive to study cultures where people have been successful for generations by transmitting knowledge as a way of life.
Afterall, this is the region where corn (maize) was hybridized over 8,000 years ago up the road at Yagul. We talked about Monsanto and GMO, how to overcome hunger and develop crops abundant enough to feed people without sacrificing nutrition. We compared the industrialized agriculture of the USA and the disappearance of family farms, and noticed how things work — and don’t — in Mexico.
I arranged for them to sleep at two local bed and breakfast inns — Casa Elena and Las Granadas B&B — operated by three generations of women. They ate home-cooked and delicious meals prepared from locally sourced, organic meat and vegetables.
Teotitlan del Valle is one of the few villages that still operates a daily market. It is a sight to behold entrepreneurial farmers and vendors who sell native corn, squash, beans, squash blossoms, poultry and meat, and more, plus all the household necessities for a home to operate here.
After the market, we toured the church and noted the carved stones inlaid into its walls. When the Spanish arrived, they razed the Zapotec temple and used the stones to build the church walls. The stucco has been peeled away to reveal this part of the village history. We walked around the back side of the church to see the recently restored archeological site that was the temple foundation.
This is a rug weaving village. There are now about 10,000 people who live here and more than 2,000 looms. Only about a dozen families use natural dyes to color the wool they use. We visited one of them — the home workshop of Galeria Fe y Lola –to see the process and learn about this part of the culture.
It was wonderful to be in the village market and explore it on our own.
Meeting 26-year old Omar Chavez Santiago from Galeria Fe y Lola was a testimony to artisan life and pride of workmanship — he is dedicated to continuing his culture. This is refreshing to see.
The church offered me a glimpse into the blend of Zapotec and Catholic traditions.
There is a reverence for community here that we don’t see at home.
Families are close-knit, welcoming to outsiders.
Everyone was consistently kind.
It was important to see the different ways people earn an income: baking bread, sewing, selling food, services and repair work, doctors and teachers, musicians and weavers — it looks like a self-sustaining community.
Walking the back streets of the town gave me a perspective for how people live in rural Mexico.
At Gracias a Dios mezcal palenque in Santiago Matatlan at the far end of the Tlacolula Valley, Emmy Hernandez, the daughter of mezcalero Oscar Hernandez, showed us the artesanal process of making this distilled beverage. Agave is an important native plant and agricultural product in the region. It contributes to Oaxaca’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination. This is also a family business and Emmy is the next generation to sustain it.
How many different types of agaves are there? They say over 200 types of agaves exist and 30 are suitable for making mezcal. Espadin is cultivated and easily to reproduce, and therefore, the most sustainable. The wild, or silvestre agaves, have a long growth cycle and are rare. I love cuishe (also spelled cuixe) and tepextate and tobala. For everyone harvested, some growers like Gracias a Dios are planting three to replace them. The wild ones are earthy and take on the flavors of the soil they grow in.
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My quest for Japanese indigo fabrics and clothing took us to remote villages and high-end designer boutiques. I searched old kimono stacked in department store corners and flea market stalls. In the old Geisha district of Gion, two vintage textile shops offer 100+ year-old pieces in varying condition. I traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto to the remote thatched roof village of Miyama with blue on my mind. We lingered at the Amuse Museum exhibition of boro cloth in awe of indigo-dyed hemp and cotton patchwork born of poverty.
Indigo is my passion. It’s why I wanted to go to Japan. Oh, and the food. Oh, yes, and the cherry blossoms. Temples. Zen. Gardens. Oh, my.
My sister was more interested in Kabuki and Noh theatre, so we negotiated time dedicated to our interests. We attended performances of both and met with a foremost expert on Noh, a US ex-pat living and teaching in Japan for 40 years. We managed to walk blocks that became miles, traveled by bus, train and taxi, all in search of blue, art and food.
Finding indigo in Japan is not easy. Sometimes we couldn’t locate the address. Sometimes we got lost despite Google maps. Sometimes I would stand on a street corner and call out, Does anyone speak English? to help us get our bearings. (Always, a kind, helpful person came to our aid, even guiding us to where we needed to go!) Sometimes the source was in such a remote area that we couldn’t get there. Tokyo is a vast megalopolis, on a scale beyond my ken. Kyoto, described as smaller, hardly pales in comparison.
The art of dyeing with indigo today is uncommon, as it is in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is necessary to travel twelve hours from Oaxaca City to meet the maker. In Japan, one must also ferret out the dye masters and makers who turn indigo-dyed cloth into clothing. The practice is almost extinct, just like Mexico. And, as with all things made-by-hand, quality comes with a price, when you can find it.
I also noticed construction similarities between traditional Oaxaca huipiles and Japanese kimonos. Both are simple assemblages of cloth squares and rectangles, with hand-stitchedSi seam sewing and no tailoring (ie. no darts). The long, drooping kimono sleeves are merely rectangles attached to the main robe. Hand-stitching for seams and embellishment a standard practice.
Few pieces, I discovered, are hand-loomed now. Indigo-dyed ready-to-wear can be designed in Japan and made in India to keep prices in check. I found one amazing Meiji period kimono in perfect condition. Price tag, $1,800 USD. Pass. I’m looking for wearable art and not creating a museum-level collection.
What I also discovered is that a focused quest for indigo takes time. Even more than a three-week introductory visit such as the one I just completed. Perhaps another trip is needed to go deeper and wider. Perhaps.
I also want to thank Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel and Tours, Japan Travel Expert, who generously shared her list of Kyoto textile shopping resources with me. I hunted down those most relevant to my interests.
My friend Madelyn wrote, I hope you found yourself a wonderful indigo garment or textile. Plural, I replied. I filled a duffle bag with blue. Ancient blue. New blue. Traditional blue. Deep, dark, almost black, blue. Kimono with wide, boxy sleeves. Cozy, contemporary long-sleeved jacket with roll-up cuffs. Vintage farmer’s coat with sashiko stitching. All perfect with blue jeans or black skirt. I have satisfied my lust for blue.
Sidebar: Barbara and I were flaneuring down the main street of Tokyo’s Aoyama district (which easily overshadows Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive) after visiting the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I noticed a pop-up shop and stepped in to find Yu Design Office featuring hand-crafted indigo clothing.
Yu Design Office was founded by artisan Hiromi Yamada and her architect son Yuji Yamada. They use natural indigo dye from Hanyu City, Saitama, employing a traditional kimono-making technique called itajime from Mizuho City, Tokyo, and fine cloth from Hachioji, Tokyo. Combining indigo, persimmon juice and pitch black, the wool-silk scarf they make takes on a deep greenish blue hue. The cloth is folded and stacked and pressed between wooden boards to give it texture.
Aizenkobo, indigo workshop and gallery, Kyoto. Third generation workshop, producing traditional garments, scarves, yardage. People love it. I was underwhelmed.
Little Indigo Museum, Miyama, Kyoto Prefecture, is operated by Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo. In picturesque town of thatched-roof houses, this is a full-day trip. Small souvenir indigo samples and scarves are for sale. firstname.lastname@example.org
Gallery Kei features vintage textiles and is operated by Kei Kawasaki on the famous Teramachi Street (671-1 Kuoinmae-cho Teramachi Ebisugawa-agaru), just south of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. At our visit, she had vintage boro from Northern Japan, garments and cloth fragments of hand-woven natural materials (hemp, linen, cotton, silk) and dyes. Write to confirm they are open. email@example.com
Gran-Pie, also on Teramachi Street between Ebisugawa-dori and Nijo-dori, is a contemporary clothing store with garments designed in Japan, dyed and made in India.
I can’t publish this post without mentioning NUNOworks Fabrics in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. On our last afternoon in Japan, I went bonkers over the bolts of fabrics, and sewn-on-the-premises clothing. Delicious scarves. Beautiful garments. Outstanding design. Reasonable (by Japan standards) prices. Though few pieces are naturally dyed.
Department stores like Isetan (Kyoto Station), Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Matsuya Ginza feature contemporary Japanese designer boutiques, including Issey Miyake, Comme de Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and others. Some use indigo and other natural dyes, and are priced in the stratosphere.
Where to Stay in Tokyo: the b roppongi hotel. Loved our stay here. Convenient to metro, restaurants, fair price, excellent service.
Where to Stay in Kyoto: we loved the YADO Hotel in Arashiyama. Book room #308. Recommend also staying in Gion area for more central experience.
Acid base using fresh lime juice turns the dye bath orange
Most people don’t know that cochineal is the natural dye that colors lipstick, Campari, yogurt, and wine. Anything labeled carminic acid comes from cochineal. When you manipulate the pH, you can change the dye color.
Cochineal dyed silk
When you over-dye with blue, the cloth becomes purple. When you start with wild marigold and over-dye with cochineal, the cloth becomes peach color. The color of the sheep wool will also determine the shades of red.
Cochineal dyed wool
The wool must be washed/cleaned or mordanted first before it is dyed. This takes out the lanolin and makes the wool more receptive to accepting the color. The cochineal mordant bath is clear water with alum, heated to dissolve the natural rock. Wool dyed with cochineal needs mordanting. Wool dyed with indigo does not.
Taking the wool out of the bath that mordants the wool
Once the wool is cleaned, we prepare the cochineal dye bath dissolving the powdered bugs into hot water and stirring.
A red pullover scarf called a quechquemitl coming out of the dye bath
For a deeper color red, the wool must stay in the dye pot for at least an hour. At home in Teotitlan del Valle, Omar and his family will keep the yard they weave rugs with in the dye bath overnight to get the most intense color.
Another view of a dyed wool scarf coming out of the dye bath
Eight women gathered around Wendy’s kitchen to prepare the mordant and dye pots after Omar gave an introduction and orientation to the cochineal and its color properties.
Cooking it up in Wendy’s kitchen
He brought hand-woven wool scarves with him from Oaxaca that each participant could work with.
Omar coaching participants as they get ready to immerse their scarves
Fresh lime juice is essential because the acid is the necessary ingredient to alter the color of the dye bath. This is exactly how the family does it at home in Oaxaca — an entirely hand-made process.
Everyone squeezed limes by hand!
You can come to Oaxaca for a natural dye workshop or a tapestry weaving workshop. Contact Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We can fit your schedule.
It was a perfect NC day — our outdoor dye kitchen
Wool wet and waiting for the dye pot
When you bring the cloth out of the pot you want to make sure not to waste the cochineal. It cost over $100 USD per kilo, so you squeeze the liquid out over the dye pot to reuse it.
Squeezing the excess liquid
A study in color variation depending on wool type and dye bath
Hot purple and juicy lime, a great color contrast of wool in bowl
Omar Chavez Santiago, a young talented weaver from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, and Galeria Fe y Lola, will be in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina for a set of talks, cochineal dye demonstrations and textile sales from October 17 to October 21, 2018. Events are open to the public.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
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We send printable map via email PDF usually within 48-hours after order received. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map
Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle