Monthly Archives: April 2012

Indigo Dye Workshop: It’s Called Shibori, Not Tie Dye

Actually, using resist dye technique using indigo to create patterns and designs on cotton is called shibori, tritik, amarra or plangi(depending upon country of origin).  It’s not the hippie dippie 60’s tie dye that’s been reincarnated on beach blanket bingo T-shirts.  It’s high fashion wearable art.  Not long ago, I saw an Eileen Fisher designer label Made in Japan shibori design on a finely woven cotton scarf dyed with indigo at a Nordstrom selling for over $100USD.  The technique is universal.

Norma's Indigo Dyed Shibori Napkins -- A Gift for Jacob and Michelle

As frequently as once per month, Eric Chavez Santiago teaches a hands-on indigo dye workshop for people of all ages at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.  At a recent workshop, a mother, father and baby sister accompanied a six-year-old who made a fish design on a white cotton T-shirt.  Dad was right by his side and the learning was a fun family adventure.  Other participants included local artists, university design program students, and visiting tourists.


Indigo can be used to dye cotton, wool, alpaca, silk, linen and the fiber of the agave plant.  Some women in Oaxaca villages even use indigo to dye their hair.  Dyeing with indigo is all about chemistry.  Cellulose fibers such linen, cotton and agave absorb less indigo to get an intense color than do protein fibers of silk and wool.  Said another way, it takes less indigo to dye cotton than wool.  That’s why, we are using 100% cotton for the workshop.  Polyester blends just won’t work because indigo saturates only the surface of the fiber, not it’s core.

Look for Felted Fashion Oaxaca Style, coming in February 2013.                                                                                It includes dyeing wool roving, silk, and cotton with natural materials and  making your fabric into luxurious scarves, blouses, wraps.   Contact me to get on the mailing list for complete course description.  Instructors are clothing designer Jessica de Haas, Vancouver, B.C., and Eric Chavez Santiago, Oaxaca, Mexico.  Limited to 8 participants.


The process is fairly simple.  First, we rinse the white fabric (I dyed white, handwoven cotton napkins from the Amuzgo tribe) in clear water to soften it.  Then, we squeeze out all the moisture and make our design.

1. To make the shibori design, you can make accordian folds and then tie this together with rubber bands or with string.   You can drape cloth over marbles or beans, securing them with string or a rubber band.  You can whirl the fabric and then tie it with string or rubber bands.


2. To make the tritik design, you use a needle and thread to create a very specific pattern, folding the cloth and then sewing through it.


3. It probably takes about an hour to make the design.  Tie a lead string onto your fabric so you can easily fish it out of the water.

4.  Dip the folded and/or sewn fabric into the dye pot for 20 minutes.  Be careful to immerse it gently into the solution.  Do not stir or disturb in any way.  Pull the piece out of the dye pot with the lead string.

5.  Hang on a line from the string until the fabric changes from green-yellow to blue, for 15-20 minutes.


6.  Repeat two more times.

7.  Remove the rubber bands or thread.

8.  Rinse well in water.  Then, dip in vinegar water for 5 minutes to set the dye, soften the fabric and remove any of the alkaline residual and garlicky odor

9.  Let hang to dry.


Making Indigo Dye in Santiago Niltepec, Oaxaca

The market for organic indigo dye is making a come-back in Oaxaca as more textile artists and weavers are choosing to work with the natural plant material.  Today, the state of Oaxaca produces about 100 kilograms of añil or indigo each year.  Up until about three years ago, the indigo dye making process had almost died out in Oaxaca.


To stimulate the economic development of indigo as a crop, the state government has made investments to help the producers develop new markets.  The Museo Textil de Oaxaca gift shop sells small bags of indigo along with “how to” DVD’s and recipes. I learned this and a lot more during the indigo dye workshop I participated in at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, where about 15 people gathered to learn shibori and tritik dye techniques using indigo.







The people in Santiago Niltepec, on the coast of Oaxaca near Juchitan on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, pick the wild plant, chop it — stems and leaves — and put it in a fermentation bath for at least twelve hours (sometimes as much as thirty-six hours) to prepare the dye.  Each family has its own recipe for making the indigo paste.  Most use rocks to keep the plants submerged below the water to make sure that they oxidize completely and yield the deepest color.

The process is ancient, thousands of years old.  The plant material decomposes and collects at the bottom of the large vats as a thick paste.  It’s then strained to separate any sediment.  The result is a highly saturated, concentrated product.  It takes about 200 kg of plants to produce 1 kg of indigo dye.  It is then dried and becomes rock-hard.  To then use it, it must be pulverized into a fine powder.  Traditionalists in Oaxaca use a metate or mortar and pestle.  Others take the faster route by using an electric coffee grinder.

Indigo can’t be dissolved in pure water.  It has to be dissolved in a highly alkaline solution with a 10-11 pH, and free of oxygen.  Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, told us that there are several ways to manipulate the chemistry by using either sodium hydrosulfide (highly caustic) or the more organic fructose crystalline.  French botanist and dyer Michel Garcia is now experimenting with using mango skins and fructose successfully.

Eric says it is important to be patient when dyeing with indigo.  You can use the dye within thirty minutes after preparing it, but it often takes three or four days of fermentation to get the deepest shades of blue.

During the workshop, we dipped our white cotton material at least twice for 20 minutes each time, to intensify the color.  Some people even dye their hair with indigo!

Tapestry Weaving and Natural Dye Workshop this summer 2012!  Don’t miss it.

Oaxaca Celebrates Her 480th Birthday Today. Feliz Cumpleaños.

First named Antequera, Oaxaca was settled by the Spanish in 1532 and became the headquarters for Hernan Cortes.  Today’s big birthday bash and the weeklong celebrations mark this “birthday” event from the time of the conquest.  Oaxaca has been in existence for much, much longer than 480 years — a testimony to her Zapotec and Mixtec history, plus that of 14 other indigenous groups that have called Oaxaca home for much longer than five centuries.  The sense of place and history is astounding.


Left, photo of Santo Domingo Cultural Center (former convent); right, church at Mitla built atop Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site.


Left, Macedonia Alcala andador with view of Santo Domingo steeples; right, interior 16th century frescoes.

Over 6,000 years (some say as much as 8,000 years) ago, maize was first cultivated by native peoples in the Oaxaca valley from the plant teosinte.  The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, points to Monte Alban as one of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica — at its height long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.


Left, Magdalena with corn husks getting ready to prepare tamales; right, scene at Monte Alban.

Yes, we love Oaxaca’s colonial charm.  We love her colonial arches, gilded churches, cobbled streets, wide plazas, outdoor cafes, colorful facades and curling wrought iron.  We also love her pre-Hispanic roots.  We love her indigenous textiles and pottery and mezcal and corn.  We celebrate all of her — not just from the time the Spanish came to conquer and mark time from 1532 forward.


Left, the white flowering tree from which the Spaniards named Monte Alban; right, the guaje seed pod, whose nahautl name the Spanish couldn’t pronounce, so they said Oaxaca.  It’s how the city got her name.


Left, drop spindle (Malacate) used for spinning wool; right, potter working with clay, an ancient pre-Hispanic tradition.


The ancient Zapotecs have a saying that they adopted from the Mayans:  Whoever controls time controls the world.  So, when we celebrate Oaxaca’s 480th birthday today, let’s put that into perspective about how long Oaxaca has really endured and celebrate her entire history.



Commonwealth Club of California to Host Chavez Santiago Family Weavers on May 10

San Francisco and Bay Area textile and fiber artists, hand-weavers and spinners are invited to attend a presentation at the Commonwealth Club of California at 12:00 noon on May 10.

The Future of Tradition: Weavers of Oaxaca, Mexico Connect Their Future with Their Past.

Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and Janet Chavez Santiago, education coordinator at the San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center of Oaxaca, will talk about their family’s weaving and textile traditions, indigenous life, and the professional goals they have set for themselves and their institutions.  Jean Pierre Larochette, a Berkeley, Calif. weaver and leader of the American Tapestry Alliance, will introduce them.

Chavez Santiago Family Portrait by Richard Carter c.2012

Their father, Federico Chavez Sosa, is a master weaver whose work is recognized for blending traditional Zapotec design with innovative color combinations and pattern adaptations.  Both Janet (top, second from left) and Eric (top right) are fourth generation tapestry weavers, along with their brother Omar (top left).  Eric’s novia Elsa Sanchez Diaz is to Eric’s left.

The family is committed to using only 100% natural dyes in their work.  They have been featured in the NY Times article 36 Hours: Oaxaca, Mexico by travel writer Freda Moon.

Eric and Janet are in the Bay Area at the invitation of the American Tapestry Alliance.

This summer! Weaving and Natural Dye Workshop with Federico Chavez Sosa and the Chavez Santiago Family Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, produced by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.

Chavez Family Weavers, a Portrait by Norma Hawthorne c.2012

In addition, Federico accepts commissions for custom work and when you are in Oaxaca, please visit them at Galeria Fe y Lola, Av. 5 de Mayo #408, Centro Historico.

Questions?  Contact Norma Hawthorne, executive director, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.

Photography Instructors Featured in Focus Magazine: 2 Spots Left in Summer Workshop

One reason why Sam and Tom Robbins are extraordinary teachers is their modesty.  They are definitely focused out!

Sam just told me today that she and her husband Tom were featured in the December 2011 Issue 22 of Focus Magazine.  Click on the link and then scroll down the PDF to page 76 to view their lush, magical, black and white images (that they develop themselves in their studio darkroom) and read about what motivates them.  They are also superb digital photographers who know how to manipulate the camera settings to make the best shots.

As accomplished photographers AND experienced instructors, they not only practice and impart their art, they are recognized for it.  Their creative approach to the subject and technical expertise combine to make stunning photographs.

Sam and Tom Robbins lead Oaxaca Photography Workshop: Market Towns and Artisan Villages this summer starting on June 29.  We have TWO SPACES LEFT.  See their website: