We introduce you to weavers of wool, cotton and silk who work with organic natural dyes. This one-day educational study tour gives you in-depth knowledge about the artisanal process for making hand-woven cloth using sustainable technologies. We visit home studios and workshops to meet some of Oaxaca’s outstanding weavers in this curated day trip. See the real indigo, cochineal and wild marigold dye process. Meet artisans who create beautiful rugs and clothing.
Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer.
Full day rate of $325 USD is for one or two people. $165 per person for each additional person.
You reserve for the dates you prefer. You are welcome to organize your own small group. We match your travel schedule with our availability.
Pricing is for a full day, starting at 9 a.m. and ending around 6 p.m. Customized programs on request. The rate is based on the time we pick you up and return you to your Oaxaca hotel. Please provide us with hotel/lodging address and phone number.
Oaxaca has many talented weavers working on different types of looms: the two-harness pedal loom, the flying shuttle loom and the back-strap loom. They create many different types of cloth from wool, cotton and silk – to use, wear and walk on.
The yarns or threads can be hand-woven and made into tapestry carpets or wall hangings. They might become lighter weight garments such as shawls, ponchos and scarves or fashion accessories and home goods like handbags, travel bags, blankets, throws and pillow covers.
Most weavers dye their material using pre-mixed commercial dyes. Some buy their yarns pre-dyed. This streamlines and simplifies the production process, making the finished piece less costly. Often, there are wide quality differences.
A growing number of weavers are going back to their indigenous roots and working in natural dyes. They use a time-consuming process to gather the dye materials, prepare them with tested recipes, dye the yarns and then weave them into cloth. These colors are vibrant and long-lasting. There is a premium for this type of hand work.
Dyeing and then weaving can take weeks and months, depending upon the finished size of the textile and type of weaving process used.
For each visit, we will select artisans who live and work in small villages scattered in the countryside around Oaxaca where families have co-created together for generations to prepare the yarn and weave it.
Natural dyes we will investigate include plant materials like nuts, wild marigold, fruit (pomegranate, persimmon, zapote negro), wood bark and indigo.
Another important dye source is cochineal, which is the parasite that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. The Spanish kept the cochineal secret well hidden for over 400 years, calling it grana cochineal or grain, so that English and Italian competitors could not detect its source.
During this one-day outing, we will visit four weavers, see complete natural demonstrations of yarns and threads, learn about over-dyeing to get a full rainbow of colors, and savor the beautiful results that master weavers create.
We may not always visit the same weavers on each tour, based on their availability. At each home studio you will see some of the steps that go into the completed process. By the end of the day, you will have gained a fuller understanding of the difference between natural and commercial dyed cloth as well as the various weaving techniques. This will help you become a more educated collector, able to discern nuances in fiber and dye quality.
More than this, you will learn about the local culture, the family enterprise of weaving, how weavers source their materials, the dedication to keeping this ancient practice alive. You will see how using natural dyes is a small-batch, organic and environmentally sustainable process. And, you will try your hand in the dye pot and at the loom, too, if you like.
- 9 a.m. — We pick you up in the historic center of Oaxaca city
- 9:30 a.m. — We meet a flying shuttle loom weaver who designs home goods and clothing, using naturally dyed cloth
- 11:30 a.m. — We meet two weaving families who work exclusively with natural dyes to make rugs and tapestry wall hangings
- We enjoy lunch around 2 p.m. at a local comedor that uses all native and natural ingredients
- 4:00 p.m. — We visit the home studio of a women’s cooperative that makes leather trimmed handbags woven with naturally dyed wool
- You return to Oaxaca city by 6:00 p.m.
All times are approximate. We reserve the right to alter the schedule based on artisan availability. Please bring water and a snack.
During this complete one-day study tour you will:
- Meet master weavers and their families in their home workshop/studio
- See the raw materials used for coloring wool, cotton and silk
- Watch the weaving process and try your hand (and feet) at the fixed frame 2-harness pedal loom and flying shuttle loom — if you wish
- Discuss the origin of cochineal, its impact on world trade and its many uses today
- Learn how to tell the difference between dyed fibers – are they natural or chemical?
- Observe processes for dyeing with indigo, cochineal, wild marigold and other organic materials
- Understand quality differences and what makes a superior product
- Discover the meaning of the various designs, some taken from ancient codices
- Have an opportunity to shop, if you choose, at the source
- Order a customized size, if you prefer
You are under no obligation to buy.
This is an educational study tour to give you more in-depth knowledge about the weaving and natural dye process. We offer a stipend to the weavers who take part to compensate them for their knowledge, time and materials. This is included in your tour fee.
Weavers do not pay commissions on any purchases made and 100% of any sales go directly to them.
Also consider these educational options:
About Norma Schafer, your study tour leader
Norma Schafer has organized educational programs and workshops in Oaxaca since 2006 through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. She is an educator, not a tour guide, and is recognized for her knowledge about textiles and natural dyes.
Norma is living in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, since she retired from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011. Before that, she made frequent visits each year beginning in 2005. Norma has access to off-the-tourist-path small production family workshops where the “manufacturing” process is vertical and hand-made.
- Earned the B.A. in history from California State University at Northridge
- Holds the M.S. in business administration from the University of Notre Dame
- 30-year career in higher education administration and program development
- Created/produced international award-winning programs at Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Recognized by the International University Continuing Education Association for outstanding educational program development
- Founder/creator of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC arts workshops/study tours in 2006
- Contributor to Textile Fiestas of Mexico, with chapters about Teotitlan del Valle and Tenancingo de Degollado
- Founder/author of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator blog in 2007
- Learned to weave and use natural dyes as a graduate student in San Francisco too many years ago to count!
- Has an extensive personal collection naturally dyed textiles
- Consultant to textile designers, wholesalers and retailers who want to include sustainable, organic textiles in their body of work and inventory
- International textile conference advisor to Weaving a Real Peace (WARP) organization
- Consultant on tourism/economic development, State of Guanajuato, Mexico Office of Tourism
- Embedded in the cultural and social history of Oaxaca’s Zapotec village life
Includes transportation from/to Oaxaca city to our meeting place in the Tlacolula Valley, all transport to villages and honoraria to artisans. You cover the cost of beverages lunch for those in your party and for your tour leader. Please let us know if you need vegetarian options. We may pre-order a tasting menu that includes a fresh fruit drink (agua fresca) based on group
Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer. We will do our best to accommodate your requests.
Reservations and Cancellations
We require a non-refundable 50% deposit with PayPal (we will send an invoice) to reserve. The PayPal amount billed will be based on the number of people you reserve for. The 50% balance is due on the day of the tour in cash, either USD or MXN pesos (at the current exchange rate).
We will have made transportation arrangements and secured the dates/times with the weavers, plus paid them a stipend in advance for participating. We have learned, living in Mexico, that it is essential to keep commitments to sustain relationships. Thank you for understanding.
Agave Beverage of Choice? Aguamiel, Pulque and Mezcal
Here we are in Oaxaca, Mexico, center of the universe for the cultivation, production, distilling and bottling of agave nectar we call mezcal. Mezcal is hot. A hot commodity, that is.
I stand corrected! Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent. Thanks to reader Andrew for bringing this to my attention. I’ve changed the post title.
A local friend told me his uncle sold his espadin agave field for 40,000 pesos when it reached maturity after seven years. It takes a long time to make $2,200 USD equivalent here, even at today’s exchange rate. But, that’s a lot of lana (money) and a farmer is happy to hold this crop for a while. The price of agave piña has risen exponentially, 15 times greater than it was seven years ago, according to Alvin Starkman, operator of Mezcal Educational Excursions.
For the last week, I’ve been drinking a cup of aguamiel in the morning. Zapotecs in the know say that aguamiel has curative, medicinal powers and aids in daily digestion. I’m a believer.
Aguamiel is the sap that comes from the heart of the agave when you cut the top off. Honey water. That’s what they call it, and it tastes like it. After one day unrefrigerated, it begins to ferment and after a few days will become pulque. An acquired taste. After four days of fermentation, you are drinking pure bubbling alcohol that goes from clear to cloudy. Some flavor it with fruit or oatmeal to sweeten the taste.
Last week, I tasted tepache in the Tlacolula market. (Find the stand next to the row of ice cream vendors on the rug sellers street.) This is pulque with fermented fresh pineapple. A half a cup before lunch and I needed the arm of a friend to steady me. But, it sure was tasty. In the U.S. with the absence of pulque, some tepache recipes call for beer and pineapple!
Which brings me to mezcal, the epitome of distilled beverage in these parts.
I am not even close to being knowledgeable, but I now have about 14 bottles of locally produced mezcal in my collection. I added the last six — plastic bottles, mostly with the Coke label, filled at the source — during a day-long mezcal education tour with Alvin Starkman. (Plenty of tasting, too.) Nine family members and friends joined me. Those who flew away, left with officially bottled and sealed beverages, thanks to Alvin.
It takes an education and time to understand mezcal and one-day is just the beginning. So is a collection of 14 bottles. Hardly enough to matter to the serious collector.
On the trip with Alvin, I learned that I like tepeztate and clay distilled espadin. Clay gives the mezcal the flavor of loam and fire. I used to really like añejo and reposado, and these are very smooth. Now, however, what tickles my nose and throat are the nuances of the herbs and earthiness of the wild agaves.
Stick your nose in the glass. Inhale. Get that full smokey aroma from the roasted-over-wood agave heart (called piña or pineapple) into your lungs. Then sip. Just a little bit. Second sip, take a little more. You’ll see that what might have felt harsh to your throat at first is now subtle and delightful.
Each type of cactus will make a different type of mezcal. Maybe it’s an espadin distilled with a turkey breast (pechuga de pavo) hanging over the copper pot. Now, there’s a flavor worth trying. Is it fermented in oak, pine, a bull skin, plastic or stainless steel, and for how long? This impacts the flavor. Is it made from a tobala, Karwinskii or madrecuixe agave. Are fruits or poleo (wild mint) added for flavor? And what about that worm?
And what about the microclimates and soil types? Yes, the same agave will produce a different taste with a variation in soil temperature, altitude, and whether the field is shared with weeds or with squash and beans, and when it was last plowed.
Whether you live here or are visiting, mezcal is worth knowing about. It is an ancient artisanal craft on par with rug weaving, natural dyeing, clay making and more recently wood carving. Getting out to the palenques on country back roads is a unique experience.
Meeting the men and women who grow the agave and distill it is even more amazing. Many live very simple, humble lives and their production is small. They may not be certified but what they make can be every bit as delicious.
When you go to the source, you are able to buy, too, at a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle in the city. But, it’s not really about price, it’s about the adventure!
Mezcal Factoids, thanks to Alvin Starkman:
A Few Mezcal Resources:
Note: Most of these photos were taken on the trip with Alvin Starkman. Others were shot during an independent adventure I took with my son, sister and brother-in-law to San Juan del Rio the week before.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged agave, aguamiel, Alvin Starkman, cactus, education, facts, history, Mexico, mezcal, Oaxaca, pulque, resources, tour