Tag Archives: wool

Visiting the Oaxaca Wool Mill: Lanera de Ocotlan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Then, Graham died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009, and there was a question about who would keep the business going.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Where to Find It: Lanera de Ocotlan, 119 Benito Juarez, Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, Tel:  951-294-7062. Email: Rebecca Johnson at  becky_madonna@hotmail.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.

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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.

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Nuno Felt Fashion Workshop 2015: Clothing Design with Pre-Hispanic Flair

Escape winter, roll up your sleeves, and make a nuno felted wool garment you will be proud to wear. For seven nights and eight days, from January 17 – 24, 2015, you will experience the textile culture of Oaxaca, make wearable fiber art from felt fabric, learn about natural dyes and the process to make them, and explore the textile workshops of local artisans.  In January 2014, we welcomed Californians, Canadians, and Brazilians! What they made is featured here.

Beginners and experienced felters are welcome.


We use comfortable, unstructured, easy to wear, easy-to-construct , yet elegant indigenous Mexican patterns to show off your design creativity.  If you aren’t confident, don’t worry! The place itself is an inspiration.

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Maddalena Forcella is our expert instructor for 2015.  She is a fiber artist-clothing designer born in Italy where fashion is part of one’s DNA. Maddalena came to Mexico over 20 years ago to study textile design and never left. She is joined by Eric Chavez Santiago from Oaxaca, who will demonstrate the natural dye process using locally sourced plants and cochineal. 

About Your Instructors 

Maddalena Forcella is an internationally renown fiber textile artist whose work has been exhibited in Rome, Los Angeles, Antigua, Guatemala, Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Her clothing is sensual and substantial. She studied at the National Museum of Modern Art in Rome, Italy, and the University of Iberoamericana in Mexico City.  For many years, Maddalena has been working with indigenous women in Oaxaca and Chiapas states to preserve natural dye traditions, leading women’s textile projects with the support of private funds. She is committed to indigenous culture and sustainable development.

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Eric Chavez Santiago is a one of Mexico’s most knowledgeable authorities on natural dye sources, chemistry, and production.  He has taught natural dyeing techniques in Oaxaca and at U.S. universities and museums since 2006.  He is a graduate of Anahuac University and is director of education for one of Mexico’s leading arts and cultural organizations.


I attended the workshop in 2013. Wow! The village of Teotitlan is an experience in itself and will immerse you in a totally different and vibrant world. The B&B and especially the meals were awesome and conversation around the table with other workshop participants was totally fun and absorbing — a bunch of creative, independent and feisty women! And, you can’t lose — even I made several shawls I’m very proud to wear. Highly recommended! –Leslie Larson 

Our Itinerary

Working with Maddalena daily from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in our outdoor studio, we will create lengths of felted nuno fabric enough to make a garment design of your choice.  You might decide to felt on silk or cheesecloth to make a lighter weight and beautifully draping fabric. After your fabric is dry, you will have the option to cut and sew it into one of several indigenous Oaxaca styles: the huipil (tunic), the blusa (blouse), rebozo (shawl), boufanda (scarf) or quechequemitl (cape), or modify the basic pattern into a design of your own.  We give you patterns to adapt to your own body.

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This workshop is for all levels of experience!  You do not have to be an artist or experienced felt-maker to attend.  We welcome beginners who have never worked in wet felting and more advanced fiber artists. This is a perfect residency for university students, teachers and artists who may want to explore a different medium, too.

We are based in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle where for generations families have created wool textiles.  During our time together, we will go on local field trips to gain design inspiration, and meet and talk with weavers who work with natural dyes.  Some weave wool fabric for wearable art as well as sturdier floor and wall tapestries.  We will see examples of the types of garments that can be created from the felted fabric we make.

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Supplies to bring (preliminary list).  After you register we will send you a list of supply sources where you can buy the workshop materials to bring:

  • Cotton cheesecloth, preferably pre-colored, 5 to 6 yards or more
  • Silk chiffon, your favorite colors, at least 5 to 6 yards
  • 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of merino wool, preferably naturally dyed, in your favorite colors
  • Raw silk and/or wool fleece locks for texture and interest
  • Sewing kit: sharp scissors, needles, threads, tailor chalk 
  • Optional embellishments: beads, sequins, buttons, ribbons, embroidery thread, yarn, etc.

Note: We will provide the bubble wrap, soap, sponges, buckets, work tables, and other necessities for the process.

What is included in your registration fee:

  • all instruction
  • 7 nights lodging
  • 7 breakfasts
  • 6 dinners
  • pattern booklet and natural dye recipes
  • sewing machine to share with needles, thread
  • selected embellishments, yarns, threads
  • guided visit to Oaxaca textile museum and galleries 

Workshop is limited to 8 participants.

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Daily Workshop Schedule:  Arrive Sunday, January 18 and leave Sunday, January 24.   7 nights and 8 days with options to extend your visit. 

Day 1, Saturday, January 17 – Arrive and settle in to your bed and breakfast posada in Teotitlan del Valle (we send directions)

Day 2, Sunday, January 18 – Welcome, introductions, Tlacolula Market Visit for inspiration and to source local embellishments, afternoon natural dye demonstration with Eric Chavez Santiago.  (B, L, D)

Day 3, Monday, January 19 – Jump right in to make samples with silk and cheesecloth to understand the process. We will make an actual mini- scarf during this session, as well as fabric samples. (B, D)

Day 3, Tuesday, January 20 – Take a morning field trip to the village market and church for pattern inspiration from the local environment. Visit a local weaver.  After lunch we will work on designs using inspiration from the morning studies. (B, D)

Day 4, Wednesday, January 21 – After a visit to a local weaver,  you will  start on making larger pieces of felt for your final project/garment. (B, D)

Day 5, Thursday, January 22 – Finish completing your felted fabric. In the afternoon we will demo the art of making felt flowers. (B, D)

Day 6, Friday, January 23 —  Cut, sew and embellish your project. We will have a Show and Tell with Fashion Photo Shoot before our final celebration dinner. (B, D)

Day 7, Saturday, January 24 – Departure (B)

(This is a preliminary daily schedule and subject to modification.)

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Note: Vest design shown is by Jessica de Haas, FunkShui Studio, 2014 Felt Fashion Workshop instructor.

Workshop Fee:

Option 1:   $1,295 double occupancy basic cost per person includes shared room and bath, double occupancy.

Option 2:  Single occupancy with private bath, $1,595

Extension Options: 

Add-On 1:  Arrive Friday, January 16 and take a Zapotec cooking class on Saturday, January 17.  Includes one night lodging, breakfast, lunch, cooking class and recipes.  $115 USD each.

Add-On 2:  Extend your trip one day and depart Sunday, January 25.  Enjoy Saturday in Oaxaca City with Norma to explore the best textile shops and visit the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. Includes transportation to Oaxaca, overnight on January 24 in Oaxaca City. $195 per person double occupancy, $275 per person single occupancy. Dinner on your own.

Add-on 3:  Stay extra days before or after the workshop.  Add on nights in Teotitlan del Valle at $55 per night,or in Oaxaca City at $125 per night.  Let us know your preference and we make all the arrangements for you.


Cecelia, Margaret, Sandra, Kirsten, Lynne, Margaret show their work from the 2014 Felt Fashion Workshop.Vest design by Jessica de Haas, FunkShui Studio.

About Our Workshops, Retreats and Programs.  We offer educational programs that are hands-on, fun, culturally sensitive, and offer you an immersion experience.   Our workshop leaders are experts in their field, knowledgeable, have teaching experience and guide you in the learning process.  Our goal is to enhance your knowledge while giving you time to explore and discover. 

About Lodging and Accommodations. To keep this trip affordable and accessible, we stay in a local posada/guest house in Teotitlan del Valle. The food is all house made (including the tortillas), safe to eat and delicious. Vegetarian options are available. 

Insurance Required:  Proof of international travel insurance that covers accidents, medical coverage and emergency evacuation to the U.S.A. or your home country is required by all participants.  If you do not want this, you must send us a notarized waiver of responsibility, holding Norma Hawthorne and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC harmless.  Thank you for your understanding.

Your registration fee does NOT include airfare, taxes, admissions to museums and archeological sites, tips, liquor/alcoholic beverages, some meals, some transportation, and insurance. 

Deposits, Reservations and Cancellations.  A 50% deposit is required to guarantee your spot.  The last payment for the balance due (including any supplemental costs) shall be paid by December 1, 2014.  We only accept Payment with PayPal.  We will be happy to send you an invoice.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After December 1, 2014, no refunds are possible; however, we will make every possible effort to fill your reserved space.  Your registration is transferable to a substitute.  If you cancel before December 1, we will refund 50% of your deposit.

To register or for questions, contact: normahawthorne@mac.com

Natural Dye Workshop Yields Glorious, Colorfast Textiles

Working with natural dyes like cochineal that yield red, indigo blue, wild marigold (pericone) and fustic to give us yellow, is like being a pastry chef and following a recipe.  It helps to know a little chemistry or have a willingness to learn.


Indigo dye bath percolating

Eric Chavez Santiago and Elsa Sanchez Diaz, Mexico’s most knowledgeable natural dye experts and our workshop leaders, take us through the steps to use a non-toxic process to mordant wool that we will  use to dye cochineal, fustic and wild marigold.  Wool that we dye with indigo requires no mordant but another set of intricate steps that will guarantee a result of intense blue and its variations. See the green bloom in the photo above. The chemistry here is to allow no oxygen to enter the dye bath. Stirring is a no-no.

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The intense colors we get depend on a number of factors, including the original color of the natural wool, the amount of dye for the recipe, the length of time in the dye bath, the number of dips, how little dye is left in the dye bath, and whether we use an acid (lime juice, for example) or a base (baking soda, alum or ashes).  Eric and Elsa have developed an extraction technique for the cochineal that yields the most intense, concentrated color.  The extract can be saved and refrigerated for later use and then refreshed.

  • 1-Day Workshop: $125 USD
  • 2-Day Workshop: $235 USD
  • 3-Day Workshop: $355 USD

Workshops include all instruction, formulas and dye sampler. The 3-Day Workshop includes making a shibori scarf dyed with indigo.

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In the three-day Oaxaca Natural Dye Secrets workshop, we go through the basics and then tackle more advanced dyeing techniques using acids, bases, and over-dyeing.  Over-dyeing is when you first dye your fiber with the base color such as red (cochineal) or yellow (fustic or wild marigold).  The red is then dipped in the indigo dye bath to yield various shades of purple depending on the shade of red.

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This is not a complex process, but requires attention and following the recipes.  By the end of the workshop, participants have color samples with specific formulas/recipes for all the shades from yellow to green to pink to red to orange to purple to blue.

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During the workshop, we also experiment with shibori dye techniques using indigo with 100% cotton fabric.  The resulting pattern depends on how we fold, wrap, package, or tie the fabric.  Some use rubber bands, string, marbles, sticks, and other materials to manipulate the design.

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Everything depends on whether the material is a protein (animal) or cellulose (plant) fiber.  Cochineal only works best with protein fibers that are mordanted in advance.  Indigo is not really a dye but a stain and only coats the surface of the fiber (which you can see through a microscope).  Indigo works well with protein AND cellulose fibers.  And, wow, does it attach to everything it touches!

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Our participants come from throughout the world.  They include novices and experienced fiber artists/dyers.  Several had never been to Oaxaca before.  They have included an English professor,  a faculty member in architecture and interior design, mixed media artists, and two professional weavers.  Everyone comes away with a great experience and more information than they ever dreamed possible.

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We can schedule a workshop to suit your travel schedule. Contact us. 

Felted Fabric Fashion Oaxaca Style

Making felt is one of the oldest forms of fabric known to humankind–a process more than 6,000 years old.   Felt happens when sheep wool is moistened, heated and agitated.  

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For our Felted Fashion Workshop with Jessica de Haas in Oaxaca this week, we used merino wool dyed with natural plant materials — pericone and indigo, and the cochineal insect.   At the end of the week, we had collectively created shawls, scarves, rebozos, wall hangings, pillow covers and enough ideas to feed our creative energy for some time to come. 

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We gathered in the pomegranate tree-shaded courtyard, first to see examples of great garments, including published examples of Jessica’s.  Then, we jumped into two days of preparing sample fabric swatches to experiment with the colors and materials we brought.  Jessica warned us: always make samples first to see how the fabric will look before you make a larger piece.

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On day three, we jumped into tuk-tuks to have lunch at Tierra Antigua Restaurant.  (Can you see five of us packed into that little electric go-cart?)

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Afterward, I commandeered a pick-up truck to take us up the hill to see examples of indigenous clothing made by Arte y Seda.  We were ready to delve into the process of making felted yardage that could become a garment.

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Here in Teotitlan del Valle, people weave with wool every day, but using roving (wool that is not spun) for making felt is not familiar.  Zapotec  women who came into our workspace during the week were fascinated with the process.  I am hoping to give a demonstration of the process to local women later this spring.

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Some who participated were accomplished artists, like Linda Jacque, who paints guitars for famous rock musicians.  Her colorful vision was immediately evident in the pieces she created.

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Most of us were novices or beginners to the felt making process, so the experience was both instructive and fun.

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Working with bubble wrap, soap, water, plastic baggies, and lots of elbow (and sometimes foot) grease, we rolled, pressed, and agitated the wool until it began to felt.  The fibers of the wool move together and interlock.  Our instructor, felt fashion designer Jessica  checked, demonstrated, and encouraged us every step of the way.

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By the end of each day we were ready for a TMM.  Some of us chose to keep going even after dark.

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The local color inspired us!  Oaxaca’s great food gave us sustenance. The camaraderie kept us motivated.  We learned from and supported each other.  It was a fantastic experience.

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We hope you will join us next time!

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Workshop To Dye For: Cochineal, Indigo, Wild Marigold

It is a 10-hour day working together to dye the merino wool roving we are using for our Felted Fashion Workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Long, but satisfying.   Our textile dye master is Eric Chavez Santiago who is also the education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.   The colors we get are magnificent.


We gather first to talk about the history of cochineal and indigo, where it is grown now, how it is prepared for dyeing, and the chemistry of natural dye mixing.  Eric uses a mordant on the wool first before dyeing with  cochineal and wild marigold, called pericone here, to fix the color.  The pericone is gathered from the countryside.  Indigo, which comes from the coast of Oaxaca, needs no mordanting.

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First, we remove the merino wool roving from the mordant bath, squeeze it, and make 2 lb. bundles.  All hands together!  A great team building experience for our first day together, one of the participants says later. The dye formula is calculated based upon the weight of the fiber.

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After calculating the weight of fiber, Eric measures the cochineal, dilutes it and adds it to the warm water, which must be held at a specific temperature.  Bella brought a digital thermometer from the U.S.A. that goes between centigrade and fahrenheit to translate the heat for us.

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We carefully immerse the wool into the dye bath to insure an evenly saturated color.

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We are in the home of the Chavez Santiago Family Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle.  They only work with natural dyes, an important ingredient for sustainability that achieves glorious color.  Eric’s mother, Dolores Santiago Arrellanas, gives us a hand to check the color of the wool.  And we stir, and stir some more.

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Next, we move on to preparing indigo.  It’s a family affair, and Eric’s dad Federico Chavez Sosa, also checks out the dye baths, while youngest brother Omar helps move the giant dye pots, which must be either enamel coated or stainless steel.

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Eric adds the powdered indigo to a glass jar filled with marbles.  He shakes the jar to disburse the dye particles and oxygenate it.  He then pours this carefully into the dye pot and stirs from the center.

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Your fingers can’t do anything else but turn blue.  Eric says that indigo is not really a dye, but rather is a stain that coats the surface of the fiber rather than saturating it.

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We use the indigo to over dye some of the cochineal and pericone to get various shades of red, coral, pink, and green.  And we leave some of the pericone and cochineal in its original color.

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After removing the dyed roving from the pots, we rinse and then begin separating the fibers to fluff them.  This makes it easier to pull apart later to start the felting process.

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Lunch is delivered by La Tierra Antigua Restaurant — host Carina Santiago makes delicious tacos dorados with guacamole and fresh fruit. We are finished by 7 p.m. after starting at 9:30 a.m. and walk back to our bed and breakfast completely satisfied with the day.