I am writing this entry from Teotitlan del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve been here since July 4th, exploring the culture and landscape of this beautiful place. Surrounding mountains hug this little village like silent guardians, spirit-lifting backdrops to cobblestone roads and adobe brick walls. The rhythm is slower here, more thoughtful. Teotitlan is a village of master weavers. Wool tapestries hang outside homes, calling cards for the family business. I came here to learn about natural dyes from Eric Chavez, who I met at NC State when he came with his father to give a dye workshop and presentation about his work and his village. In the rug room of their beautiful open-air home hang faded photo portraits of grandparents and great-grandparents at their looms, a history of Zapotec weavers going back four generations. Eric and his father Frederico are still using natural dyes when many have moved to the faster and cheaper but highly toxic synthetics. Though I came with the specific intention of learning the natural processes for indigo and cochineal, I see that there are many more possibilities for natural dye. There are pomegranates, onion, flowers, moss, nuts; so many options for future experiments! Eric and I have been very busy. First he took me to the cochineal farm at Tlapanochestli, where I saw the growth and harvesting process of the delicate little bugs. They grow on cactus spears naturally, but must be tended to very carefully if they are to complete their life cycle. Outside in the sun they might live for a few days, but for the farmers to get a pigment they must live a complete three months. We also began a natural indigo bath at the beginning of this week. The bath consists of indigo and organic matter: banana and mango skins, flower petals, honey and a touch of alcohol. It is currently fermenting in the sun on Eric’s roof, and we expect that it will be ready for dyeing in about another week. A few days ago I helped Eric’s family harvest dye materials from the woods near Benito Juarez, a neighboring village hidden far up one of the mountains. They had run out of moss the night before, so Eric’s mother and father loaded up the back of the pickup truck with baskets, tools, and me, Eric, and his sister, and up the mountain we went. What a view I had from the back of that pickup truck! I am almost through my first big lesson- dyeing wool with cochineal. We’ve mordanted and dyed five 450g skeins of yarn so far, with one left to go: two neutrals, two acids, and one base to date. I’ve learned the very important mordant process and how to get different shades by manipulating the pH of the dye bath. There are five incredibly vibrant natural shades of red, pink, purple, and orange currently drying at Eric’s house, and next week we are going to warp a loom (one of the seven currently put together in his house) for me to weave on with my beautiful fiber. I’m going to practice a traditional Zapotec pattern. Tomorrow will be more cochineal dyeing, and then we are on to indigo with wool. Eric and his entire family have really taken me in. I’m having a wonderful time and learning more than I could have ever imagined.
Click on the blogroll link to see photos and more journal entries from Andrea’s 3-month artist’s residency in Teotitlan studying with Eric Chavez. Andrea graduated from NC State University College of Art and Design, where Eric and Federico Chavez gave a master class to textile students.