Monthly Archives: March 2008

Category Poem: Teotitlan del Valle

Delight of winter warmth,

carved stones from an ancient culture

supporting the Dominican Catholic church,

rusty red coiled bedspring fence,

hot pink bougainvilleas framing arched entries,

braying donkeys — a wake-up call, cobblestones under foot,

the sentinel mount Picacho, looms, dye pots,

cauldrons of fresh hot chocolate, pollo con mole,

Samburguesa’s tacos, Anita’s nieves,

daily market hubbub, abuelas adorned in aprons

and braids, guacalotes gurgling and clucking,

a basketball court at the end of Avenida Juarez ,

hanks of freshly dyed yarn

drying on a wood fence, children in uniform

off to school, coffee at the Sacred Bean, a farmer

leading his bull to pasture, bedspring fence,

faded black mourning ribbon above the doorway,

green quinciniera bouquet, health message graffiti,

un poquito mezcal in teeny green cups, urns of

lilies on the home altar, maize growing in the church

courtyard, aged fife player leading the

marching band, whirling July dancers with feathered

plumes, beeswax candles made by hand,

cat curled in the window box, gnarled hands forming

tamales, songs at Sunday mass, grecas carved

in 2,000 year old stone, hard work, family

celebrations, vintage bus to Benito Juarez painted verdant

mountain adornment, waiting for tourists, life goes on.

Sewing Lesson: Making a Huipil From Indigenous Cloth

I’m in love with the book, Taller Flora by Carla Fernandez. In it she describes the various ways of putting webs (geometric shapes of cloth–squares, rectangles, triangles) together to create dresses, pants, skirts, blouses, shirts, sashes and jackets. Fernandez describes indigenous pre-Hispanic techniques for constructing garments, and compares this with western techniques. Westerners cut cloth to fit the body. Indigenous weavers feature the textile and, make few, if any, cuts into the cloth. huipil-mixtec-coast.jpgTheir clothing is loose fitting, comfortable, and easily adaptable to another future use. The weaving takes center stage.

Last summer, I eyed a piece of hand woven cloth tucked away on the bottom shelf case of the B&B where we were staying. It’s gloriously rich color spoke to me, and I bought it. It’s been stashed away and yesterday I decided to take it in hand and create a huipil.jalieza-backstrap-loom.jpg Imagine three long, rectangular pieces hand woven on a back-strap loom, each panel (web) 14-1/2” wide x 80” long and hand-stitched together, featuring intricate patterns of stars, birds, fish, crabs, lobster, bugs, deer, and rabbits. It is a brocaded piece from the coastal Mixtec village of Huazotitlan, Oaxaca. I don’t know for certain, but am assuming, that it is dyed with cochineal (red), indigo (blue) and caracol (purple) based on the price I paid for the cloth ($180 USD) — and that was not yet made up into anything!

Above: Example of weaving on a backstrap loom.

Lovingly, I opened the seams and took apart the hand stitching, thinking about the women who created this fabric. How many women’s hands were there? Were they mother and daughter? Dear friends or sisters?


The 4-ply cotton seam threads went on for a while, were knotted off, the trailing thread tucked neatly into the next set of stitches that continued but were different. I could tell they were made by another pair of hands by the way they entered the cloth. This was every bit as sturdy as any machine-made seam. I was deconstructing the panels because two panels would be sufficient to cover my body. I was able to create a huipil without making a single cut in the cloth. Here’s how I did it:

First using small basting stitches, I sewed two panels together at the center seam, being sure to match the direction of the pattern in the weave. I ended the seam at the opening of the neck hole, measuring how big I wanted this to be so the garment would go over my head. I made the total size of the opening 16″, and marked the cloth equally front to back with a straight pin (and tailor’s chalk) so I would know where to stop sewing. I continued to baste from the hem toward the neck on the other side closing the seam the same amount of inches front to back. Then, I held the side seams together to see how much of an armhole I wanted. I decided on a 12” opening for the armhole. So I measured 12” from the shoulder fold down the side-seam, marked it with a straight pin, and began to baste from the hem going up toward the straight pin.

Not being an accomplished Mixtec seamstress, I took the fabric to the sewing machine and used a basting stitch (#4 stitch length on my machine) to sew all the seams together. I decided not to make the machine stitches smaller (#3) because I didn’t want to pull the the brocade fabric together too tightly and I wanted the flexibility to take the garment apart later in case I wanted to do something else with the material. Then, I steamed out all the seams with my iron (gently) so they laid flat. I finished the huipil by folding the bottom over into a ½” hem and sewing the hem by hand using blind stitches. The entire project took me about 3 hours. I didn’t need to finish off the neckline or armholes because the selvages are perfectly beautiful.

I’m really pleased with how this turned out. A huipil of this quality would cost $500+ in any shop in the Santo Domingo – Alcala de Macedeonia neighborhood!

Norma Hawthorne is a North Carolina fiber and jewelry artist, and university administrator, who writes about Oaxaca and living in Teotitlan del Valle on her website She is currently organizing weaving and natural dyeing workshops with Federico Chavez Sosa and Eric Chavez Santiago in Teotitlan del Valle.

ADDENDUM: June 5, 2008. I’ve had lots of requests since writing this post for where to purchase the Taller Flora by Carla Fernandez book.  I cannot find a U.S. source and intend to try to track down this down on my upcoming trip to Oaxaca.  Meanwhile, if you go to the website: you can download the book from a PDF file.

Cochineal: A Very Short Story of “RED”

Wars have been waged, tributes paid, and civilizations overturned because of cochineal. Cochineal is one of the most valuable commodities on earth. Some say, it is more costly per ounce than gold. For the uninitiated, cochineal is used to dye fiber RED (and purple, pink, orange, and all shades in-between). Remember the Red Coats of the British Army — their coats were dyed with cochineal. Yes, cochineal is a “parasite,” I reply in response to a question recently asked. Aztecs had exacted fealty payments in cochineal from Zapotec and Mixtec subjects long before Cortes conquered southern Mexico. However, not soon after, the Spanish created a controlled world monopoly on the commerce of cochineal. The holds of galleons were filled with tons of dried powder to export to Europe, as a royal and middle class sought to bedeck themselves in red — symbol of power and prestige.


Where does cochineal come from?

A beetle grows and develops on the fleshy leaf of the prickly pear cactus. It becomes imbedded, morphs from male to female, lays its eggs, multiplies, and after about three months of development is ready to be harvested. In Teotitlan people call this beetle a bug. The bug is picked off by hand, dried, and then crushed. It is about the size of an ant. If you pick a live bug off the cactus, put it in the palm of your hand and crush it, it cactus-bugs-2.jpgoozes a deep, rich red, like the color of blood. Add lime juice or ash and watch a color transformation. It takes a g-zillion little dried bugs to make an ounce of powder. In the Chavez home, they crush the bugs by hand with a mortar and pestle.

Oaxacan rugs and textiles dyed with cochineal are much more expensive because of the cost of the dye. One can pay up to 50 percent more for a piece that is all naturally dyed with cochineal. Because of the costs, cultivation and preparation time, most weavers in response to market demands for cheaper goods, have put aside the traditional methods of dyeing with cochineal and are using aniline (commercial synthetic) dyes instead.

Oaxaca, once the center for cochineal cultivation, has been surplanted by Peru which produces the largest quantity of cochineal in the world. With renewed interest in cochineal by weavers, the cochineal farm just outside of Oaxaca city is cultivating and selling the little bugs. You can even find souvenir packets of them in gift shops on Alcala Macedonia.

1491: The Origin of Food — A Mesoamerica Excerpt

I’m nearly through Charles Mann’s “1491” — an extraordinary, powerful testimony to the survival and skill of native American people who, archeologists have posited, have lived in the Americas for at least 32,000 years. When most of Europe was covered in ice and uninhabitable, North and South America were populous and thriving. I’m discovering so much that I did not know because it was never taught in school: the diseases of influenza and small pox were responsible for wiping out 90% of the Indian population making it easy for the European conquerors to overcome any resistance; waves of migration from Asia probably occurred through Beringa (a swath of land from Alberta, Canada, fanning down into Washington State) and along the coastal areas of the Americas. Sea-going, hide covered canoes could have traveled from North America to the farthest tip of South America in a 10-15 year span. Indians were the world’s first mathematicians, architects, astronomers, and cultivators, and it is useful for us to reflect on the enormous impact this has had on the world as we examine the superiority myths that our western culture and history perpetuate.
Here is an excerpt from the book that I want to share with you:

“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed 3/5 of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.”

Perhaps we would treat the Mexican farm or construction worker with greater respect if there was a greater knowledge and appreciation for the cultural history of her or his native Mexico. Perhaps there would be less fervor to build a fence and strengthen the border if we acknowledged the cultural assets of immigrants. Perhaps we could build a bridge rather than a barrier that would create collaborations and exchange.

Oaxaca Fiesta in North Carolina–April 2

When: Wednesday, April 2, 2008, 6-9 p.m.

Where: Made By Hand Norma Hawthorne Gallery & Studio, 110 Blue Heron Farm Road, Pittsboro, NC 27312 (near Chapel Hill and Raleigh)

What: Exhibition & Sale of Chavez Family Tapetes (Rugs)

And: Discussion about Zapotec weaving and natural dyeing techniques, culture and traditions, travel in Oaxaca and points of interest; exhibition and sale of alebrijes, jewelry, handwoven clothing and textiles. Join us for a Oaxaquena Fiesta with traditional refrescos y antojitos.  Meet Eric Chavez Santiago and Elsa Sanchez Diaz.
Who Should Attend: collectors, artists, university students, teachers, designers, anyone interested in Oaxaca, multicultural exchange, weaving and natural dyeing techniques

RSVP to Attend and for Directions: or (919) 274-6194