As part of the 10th International Shibori Symposium, we took a day-long tour of the area and visited with the Chavez Santiago family in the local weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. Federico (Fe) Chavez Sosa is a master weaver who has been weaving for generations, adapting traditional designs with his own color combinations and patterns. Son Omar spoke gave us an introduction in English, and then we were shown quite a big selection of rugs of all sizes.
Like many of the 2000 weavers in the area, he had been using aniline dyes in his spacious studio attached to his home. But since the processing of these dyes was in tandem with a home and living environment, he decided to return to natural dyes used by his ancestors, including his grandfather. Federico’s wife Dolores (Lola) also weaves, as do other family members, including son Omar, Janet and Eric.
Looms are built locally, with carved wood ratchet and wheel (wow- contemporary looms elsewhere use metal for these critical parts) and take about a month to complete.
The family also operates Galeria Fe y Lola, a small, well displayed shop at 5 de Mayo 408, Centro, Oaxaca. It’s located behind a storefront with other shops, as is often found in Oaxaca. Well worth a visit as these are excellent works using natural dyes only.
One of the highlights of the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, Mexico, was Traditions from Teotitlan: Optimizing Natural Dyes on Wool, a short, intense presentation by the Jacobo Mendoza family, who have been weaving rugs for generations. The Symposium program describes the presentation in this way: ” Jacobo Mendoza is a longtime dyer and weaver who runs his own weaving studio in the famed Teotitlan del Valle, known for its natural dyes and intricate wool tapestries. Jacob has previously studied under Michel Garcia and has applied a scientific approach to his inherited knowledge of dyeing. Combined with his comprehensive understanding of local natural dyestuffs, Jacob’s weavings exemplify how natural dye on wool can achieve great color fastness and a wide ranged of colors within his own unique bright palette.” A disclaimer here: any technical information included in this post is based on my notes about the presentation, through translation. Please use it to do your own further investigations rather than as a completely accurate source all on its own.
To start the presentation, Jacobo gave a short traditional greeting in Zapotec, then explained that his family continues to further the skills that “our ancestors gave us.” A skilled presenter, Jacobo engineered a one and one half hour presentation which included spinning wool and using four different natural dyes with overdye variations. Mendoza is an award-winning weaver. He concluded his presentation by showing us a rug for which he recently received the top award among 900 entries.
All are dyes that have traditionally been used in Mexico before aniline dyes were introduced. Most of the many Oaxacan weavers use aniline dyes. A number of families have researched and reinstated natural dyes in their practices, and some never abandoned them. This makes their work particularly valuable and noteworthy.
The presentation started with Jacobo’s wife carding wool, obtained locally from sheep, llama and some silk, depending on use. This roll of carded wool was then spun using a large spinning wheel, resulting in skeins of natural colored wool.
Cochineal is a small insect that attaches itself to a particular kind of cactus. In the days before aniline dyes, it was a big part of the reason for the importance of Mexico to Europe, as its intense, permanent red was the stuff of royalty and aristocracy. Mendoza purchases cochineal in its dried form; it is then ground into a powder and used for dyeing.
Mendoza says that indigo is too expensive and labor intensive to grow and process themselves. A ton of indigo plants yield about 15 kilos of indigo chunks for dyeing. Their indigo comes from a village near the southern coast, where it is grown and harvested in August/September. After harvesting, the indigo is processed in concrete pools over a number of days. On Day 1, Indigo is cut and bundled. On Day 2, these bundles are placed in concrete pools, to which water is added. Weight is added to settle the indigo to the bottom and start the process of fermentation. On the next day, the plants are withdrawn; the “oil” remains. Then, finally, the liquid is beaten for two days until the froth comes to the top. It is left to rest for two days until the froth settles to the bottom as sediment. The substance is strained in muslin cloth. The sediment that stays in the cloth is dough-like and is put out to dry for 15-20 days.
The Mendozas buy the chunks of indigo. In a method that is not traditional, but faster, they dissolve the indigo in water with chunks of mango peelings or pineapple, cooked for two hours.
The Black Zapote is widely used as an edible fruit, with a black flesh when ripe. For dyeing, it is used in a more immature form. There are many variations of the Zapote plant. Black Zapote is the one that works. No mordant is needed. If the wool is mordanted, the color will be different and less intense.
For its weavings, Mendoza usually creates wool colors in 14 variations of each of the four basic dyes. The weavings below show the incredible range of color Mendoza and his family are able to achieve with their work.
And how about all of those other areas of experimentation? I was once a weaver and a spinner, and I first learned to print and dye textiles because as a student, I was printing large etching plates on canvas. From there, I wanted to alter the surfaces on which I printed, and I started weaving. I was living in a geodesic dome in the lovely countryside surrounding Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to school. We hoisted the 300 pound Kessenich loom up a ladder and into the dome. We were crazy kids. In one of my first dye baths there, the water turned clear. That’s never happened since. It was a good thing, too, because we didn’t have running water. The pump froze and cracked during a wickedly cold winter. I was discovering how in love I was with the world of fiber.