Tag Archives: fair trade

A Story About Five Wool Rugs for Sale with 100% Natural Dyes, Oaxaca, Mexico

Omar Chavez Santiago went back to Mexico on Saturday but he left these five beautiful hand-woven tapestry rugs (tapetes) behind for me to sell for him and his family.

Omar’s family from Galeria Fe y Lola, use 100% churro sheep wool that is hand-spun on the drop spindle (malacate) in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, high in the Sierra Madre del Sur about six hours from the city. Here, many women each raise a few sheep and twice  year when the fleece is thick enough, they shear them and spin the wool by hand.  They then collect the balls from among the group for the Chavez Santiago family to buy enough to work. Hand-spun wool, a rarity now, is more costly but is the strongest fiber for rug weaving.

Listen to this GistYarn podcast with Omar Chavez Santiago

#1, 4×6 ft, Mountains and Rain tapestry rug, $1,325

#1. Detail. Cochineal, indigo, natural sheep wool

That’s one reason why these wool rugs are collector and heirloom pieces. 

The other reason is because the family uses ONLY 100% natural dyes. That means they prepare wool that they dye themselves using local plant materials and cochineal. This is a completely vertical process all done in the family home studio. They do not work in synthetic or chemical dyes at all — so everything from them is designed to be environmentally sustainable and healthy.

#2. A Thousand Stars, 4×6′, $1,325. All natural dyes.

#2 Detail. Cochineal, indigo, wild marigold, zapote, pomegranate

Many in Teotitlan del Valle know how to give the cochineal dye demonstration, squeezing lime juice or baking soda on a bit of ground bugs to show visitors how the color explodes and changes.  This does not always mean that the makers use natural dyes in their tapestries. Only about a dozen families actually work with natural dyes because it it more expensive and time consuming.

SOLD. #3. Relampajo, 2-1/2×5′, $550. Indigo and wild marigold

After buying the handspun balls of wool, Omar, his mom Lola (nickname for Dolores) and his dad Fe (nickname for Federico), make the skeins of wool, wash and mordent the wool, then prepare the dye baths.  They will grind dried cochineal bugs, grind and ferment the Oaxaca-grown indigo, prepare other plant materials like wild marigold (pericone), pomegranate, pecan shells and leaves, zapote negro, tree moss, huizache (acacia vine seed pods), palo de aguila (alderwood) and other dye sources. They have developed formulas to get over 40 shades of red, purple, orange and pink from the cochineal insect itself.

They are weavers, chemists, herbalists and artists.

SOLD. #4. Mariposas, 2-1/2 x 5′, Cochineal and wild marigold. $550.

This is #slowfiber and #smallbatches. It can take a week to dye enough yarn for one medium-sized rug. Another week to dress the loom and attach the warp threads. The weaver creates his or her design and executes it, standing at the two-pedal loom for several months working a six-hour day, six days a week. That’s about all the back can take!

When you visit a weaver, ask to see the dye pots. Weavers who work in small volume production have small inventories and are more likely to use natural dyes.

#5. Campo Rojo. 2-1/2×5′. $550. Cochineal, marigold, natural sheep wool.

In the fiber world we ask #whomademyclothes. The #fashionrevolution brings our attention to asking if what we buy is #fastfashion and disposable or made to last with excellent quality.  This is not just about clothes. It is about supporting makers who are using ethical practices, paying fair wages and selling at fair value for time and materials.

It can take 90 days to weave a rug made in this way. If it costs $500 USD, please do the math. That’s a little more that $5 USD per hour.

One of the most gratifying things for me living in Mexico is the opportunity to buy direct from the maker. I know my purchase is meaningful and valued. This is also an important reason that I organize textile study tours — to bring visitors directly to the women and men who make the clothes and home goods and jewelry, and all the beautiful artisan work that Mexico is famous for.  Afterall, in the end, it’s all about the relationship, not the thing!

I hope you will consider purchasing one of these beautiful rugs from Galeria Fe y Lola. Funds go directly to the family. Then, you will know the answer to #whomademyrug

How to Buy: Send me an email with your name, the item you want to buy, and your mailing address. I will respond with availability, send you a PayPal invoice (or you can mail me a check) that includes the cost of the rug and mailing.  Fixed price shipping is $35 per small piece and $60 per large piece anywhere in lower 48 states. Inquire about mailing prices to Canada.



Puech Ikots (Words of Our People) Collective Brings Economic Hope to Oaxaca’s Remote Highlands

Jenny Smith and I bumped into each other online.  Virtual worlds connecting, so to speak.  There was a strange name linked to hers:  “Puech Ikots.”  It peaked my curiosity and I discovered this artisans collective making alebrijes (fanciful carved and painted wood figures) in the remote mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur.  That presented a whole world to discover and started our dialog.

Anteater by Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, $250

Here is the story about Puech Ikots in the form of Q & A.

Note:  To inquire about sizes and to purchase contact Jenny Smith.  If you have trouble with the link copy and paste this:  jmsmith325@gmail.com

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator: How did Puech Ikots get started and why?

Jenny: Puech Ikots means “words of our people” in the Huave language of Oaxaca. Carlos Orozco, my co-facilitator in the project, is an indigenous Oaxacan of Huave descent.  The project was created by Carlos with my help in 2009.  Our goal is to contribute to the self-determination and economic independence of indigenous artists in Oaxaca, while also giving them the opportunity to develop their craft.  We also want to promote Oaxacan art and culture to the American public in general.  As the translation of Puech Ikots’ name suggests, we feel that the art of Oaxaca is one of the purest forms of expressing the spirit of the place and its people.

White Puma by Patricio Melchor, $175

OCN:  Who is involved with it in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Carlos Orozco directs the project in Oaxaca.  He is an artist, musician, and cultural activist.  The membership of the collective has been fluid.  Right now we have a core membership of six artists who are very committed to the collective.  Over the past couple of years we’ve worked with about a dozen people total.  Historically, we haven’t been limited to one place — we have worked with artists from various locations in Oaxaca state.  Carlos is based in Oaxaca City but regularly travels to remote areas of the Oaxacan Sierra to meet new artists and tell them about the collective. Members are welcome to join or leave at any time; the collective is always open to new members.  The only requirement (as such) for participating is that the artist should live in an area where he/she does not have easy access to traditional tourist markets.

OCN:  Who is involved with it in the States?

Jenny: I am the facilitator and contact person in the USA (Chicago).  Our fiscal sponsor here is the Cuentos Foundation, which is a 501c3 dedicated to fostering cultural understanding and expression through art.  I am part of the board of directors of Cuentos.  The foundation itself is not part of the Puech Ikots project, but we work together on events and we’re grateful for their support.

Seahorse, $200

OCN: Why are you involved?  What motivated you?

Jenny: I loved Oaxaca from the first time I visited in 2008.  I met Carlos during that trip and we became good friends.  He had the original idea for a fair trade/cultural exchange artistic project, and over the course of a year we developed this idea.  I was, and still am, very excited to be a part of it.  I have a strong personal commitment to the concept of fair trade.  It’s also important to me to support initiatives that are local and indigenous-directed.  So for me, supporting these talented people in this organization is an act of solidarity. Puech Ikots is non-hierarchical and based on a “usos y costumbres” model, so decisions in the collective are made by consensus and all collective members have a voice.

OCN: Where is this particular village located in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Sierra de San Pedro Mixtepec is about four to five hours from Ocotlan via pick-up truck.  You can experience a bit of the drive in the YouTube video.  However as I said before, we work with artists in other places as well.

Purple Frog by Patricio Melchor, $200

Porcupine by Jose Hernandez, $300

OCN: How is it different from San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola, the two most famous wood carving villages?

Jenny: Puech Ikots specifically focuses on artists who do not have access to traditional tourist markets such as San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola. We developed the project for this purpose.  We want to support these artists by facilitating their ability to preserve and develop their cultural heritage while also making a living. Puech Ikots alebrijes are sold at prices the artists determine to be fair.  The proceeds are then returned to the members of the collective.  We feel that this is fair trade in its most direct, grassroots form.

OCN:  How does the relationship with the artists work?

Jenny: We do not pay for the art up front.  The artists give their work to Carlos who give it to me to sell in Chicago and I return the money to the community.  There is an enormous relationship of trust in this relationship that is very humbling.  This is thanks to Carlos’ reputation and effort in working in indigenous communities. Carlos and I do not keep any of the profits.  We barely make enough to cover administrative costs (postage, publicity, fees for entering art events, etc).

We are working on addressing issues of sustainability with this model, however.  This is our major challenge right now.  Carlos and I manage the project ourselves, and unfortunately don’t have the resources to pay for the art up front. This means the artists have to wait — sometimes quite a while — to get paid.  The artists know this when they enter the collective, but it can be very frustrating for them when sales are slow.  Some have chosen to leave the collective because they were uncomfortable with the uncertainty.  Carlos and I are working on trying to get cash reserves to be able to pay the artists right away, but it’s difficult.

OCN:  What do you dream about accomplishing?

Jenny: In addition, we also want to pursue cultural programming in Chicago.  We had an event last month at an art gallery in Chicago where I presented video footage of the collective and talked about Puech Ikots, and it was very well received.  We’d like to have artistic events/workshops here too.  Our 2011 goal  is to compile all the video footage we have into a short documentary.  One long-term dream we have is to open a Puech Ikots taller (workshop) somewhere in Oaxaca, where our artists can have a space to work.   We feel that we’ve accomplished a lot in a short time, but there are still so many things we’d like to do!  Really, when we started this project we had no idea where it would take us.  So it’s been very exciting for us to see that there is a lot of interest.

Blue Ram, $175


See the Web site:  www.puechikots.com

Here is a video about the project.  Featured are Patricio Melchor, his wife Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, and his grandmother, along with Puech Ikots co-facilitator Carlos Orozco.


To learn more about Puech Ikots and how you might help, contact Jenny Smith.

You can also find out more about the Cuentos Foundation at www.cuentosfoundation.org


Organic Mexican Produce, Fair Trade and the Cocaine Market: A Discussion

With permission, I am sharing this email that came in to me today as a follow-on to the discussion about Fair Trade chocolate, and where Mexican chocolate comes from.  The following comes from a reader who only buys organic and who is frustrated with the demise of the small Mexican farmer as NAFTA drives down prices and drives up the production and sale of cocaine.

“The “organic” designation in Mexico is very difficult to get.  It is strictly given, but costs a fair bit to renew every year.  You can buy a number of Mexican products (I know a coffee grower in Guerrero) where the growers only get their “organic” designation every few years so the product might not be labelled.  It is simply too expensive to do every year.

“I can though buy “organic” Mexican limes that are small and irregular in colour and shape and very flavourful.  I can buy “organic” US limes which are the size of oranges and all uniform in size, and have a bland flavour.  I will bet that the Mexican ones are honestly organic, and that the US ones have chemicals and are GM (genetically modified).  Unfortunate that this is allowed to exist.

It is worth research as well, how much it costs to get “fair trade” designation. Large companies who can afford it, are more likely to have the legal right to use it than small producers.  There is a lot of trickery in these things…  one of the funniest ones I find now is people being “green” and advertising “organic bamboo” clothing for a higher price than cotton.  Fabric made from bamboo is actually “rayon” which has been sold for many years.  Since bamboo grows so quickly (I am sure you notice that in Oaxaca) it doesn’t need chemicals.  There is always a way to get more money than something is truly worth.

“I spend lots of time in Mexican markets, and lots of conversations with sellers – unfortunately because of the “free trade” agreements, foods like avocados from Mexico were banned from sale in the US for many years, in competition with those from California.  At the same time, most of the apples and pears that you find for sale in Mexican markets are from the state of Washington in the US.  It is all a mess, not just as simple as one might think.

“Mexico is losing its closest trading partner as far as produce goes.  The US is the largest user of cocaine and other drugs, so the so called “free trade” agreement is pushing people to get involved in the drug trade, a product that can easily be sold within the US.”
Central to this discussion, is the impact of fair trade in Mexico on the business of tourism.  As the demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. goes up, the drug trafficking in Mexico will also increase along with the associated violence.  I am hearing daily about the fear people have of traveling to Mexico.  And, while the violence is pretty much contained to the U.S.-Mexico border states, there is widespread fear of travel to all parts of Mexico, including Oaxaca.  Perhaps it is time to redefine Fair Trade?

Chocolate: What’s Not to Love About It?

Click here for Kathleen’s Chocolate story   http://wp.me/pTTp9-1gU

My fellow writer, expat food aficionado and socially/politically/environmentally conscious advocate for responsible living has just written an important article.  I encourage you to read it.  The slave trade in Africa, a centuries old practice, endures because of the world’s love for chocolate.  Kathleen Dobek writes about the chocolate candy makers who don’t and do use fair trade practices, the regulations and compliance issues around chocolate manufacture, and what we can do to ensure that we are not supporting companies that are not adhering to ethical labor practices.

I love chocolate.  What’s not to love about it is the enslavement of children who harvest the cacao bean for some of the world’s leading chocolate manufacturers.  Kathleen has researched and written a great article.  Please read it.

It raises the question for me about Oaxacan chocolate.  Where does the cacao bean and chocolate come from that goes into making that delicious, frothy morning cup of hot chocolate.  Where does the chocolate come from that is the primary ingredient for mole negro, my absolute favorite mole that covers chicken and rice?  If anyone knows the answer, do tell!

This comment just came in to me via email from Silva:  the chocolate used in Oaxaca for drinking and mole comes from the Mexican State of Tabasco.

She sent this link to the USDA web site for an explanation of terms regarding organic labeling.   http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateA&navID=NationalOrganicProgram&leftNav=NationalOrganicProgram&page=NOPUnderstandingOrganicLabeling&description=Understanding%20Organic%20Labeling&acct=nopgeninfo

She goes on to say that many people take the “USDA organic” label for granted. If you check USDA, you will find that the term means that up to 5% of the item can be chemicals and non-organic materials. This agreement was made by
pressure from Monsanto, Dole, etc. Many so called USDA organic items at the grocery store are NOT organic, but 95% organic. They can be identical to non-organic products, just cost more money – great profits for companies like Dole.  The only items that are organic are those that say “USDA 100%
organic”. I have never seen that label in a store.  Just worth keeping in mind when using that term…