Feathered Thread

22 October 2016

fullsizeoutput_5d5There are many ways to weave with feathers and but study of this 300 year old textile fragment, tlámachtentli de Madeline,  at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca(MTO) revealed that it was woven with a thread spun with down feathers.  Sorry about the quality of the picture, it is from a slide.  The white feathered yarn jumps out at you but there is also red, yellow and blue feathered areas.

Research at the MTO suggests that this is bottom of a panel from a huipil backstrap woven on a striped warp  They found only 6 pieces, all old, all made in Mexico that were woven with this this feathered thread and no one now was doing it. About 10 years ago MTO initiated a project to recover  how to make and weave with this kind of yarn.  The results are now in a current exhibition at the MTO,  Hilar el Viento: Los Tejidos  Mexicanos de Pluma ( To Spin the Wind: Mexican Feathered Cloths).

Current artists have developed 3 kinds of feathered yarn.  All use down feathers from geese or ducks because down feathers are the only feathers pliable enough to twist into a yarn.  Groupo Khadi cards the down into the cotton and then spins it on a driven spindle wheel.


carding down with cotton


spinning the down cotton yarn










Another artist , Román Gutiérrez,  adds the feathers when plying.  He starts with two strands of cotton thread, singles, and as he plies them he catches the down between the two strands.  Lots of twists is added to secure the down.  This yarn is fluffier than the carded yarn.  All done on a medium sized great wheel with two chairs working as a lazy kate.

I did a pre-conference workshop, on dyeing and spinning with down feathers, with Román in Teotilan del Valle and here is my piece of purple feather yarn,


that I did on my drop spindle because I had it with me and access to one wheel was limited.

Others ply this feathered yarn together to get a thicker fluffy yarn, 4-ply cabled yarn, that I saw couched down on the surface of textiles.

Here are a couple of piece from the MTO exhibit just to give you and idea of the impact of feathered yarn.

img_2166 img_2167 img_2169


Portion of a textile woven by Noé Pinzón with down feathers. Noé was my teacher in backstrap weaving in the spring.

I have returned to Oaxaca just in time for TEXTIM, a conference on Mesoamerican Textiles.  A friend had signed me up for a workshop and conference and we stopped by the museum, Museo Textil de Oaxaca, today to check out the details.  The workshops are all on using feathers.  There was an exhibit  with feathers that we got to look at briefly.  My workshop starts on Wednsday and the conference goes through Sunday.  More to come….


I have been looking for a hand woven huipil to buy since I’ve arrived in Oaxaca de Juarez in December 2014.  I finally found one! 

black cotton three panel huipil with coyuche and purpura pansa brocade

I found it at the Festval of Artisans that the state organized just above the Santo Domingo Church for Holy Week. 

I do have my criteria:

  • Back strap woven
  • Good craftsmanship 
  • Three panels
  • A colorway that I would wear
  • A size that I feel comfortable in. 

The size has been the stumbling block. Most are made for Señoritas, I need twice as wide to feel comfortable.  I did a turn of the whole festival and came back to an Amuzgo booth. She had many beautiful, well woven huipiles. Mostly on a natural or off- white ground, which looks lovely with their black hair but I don’t much like with my all white hair, too monochromatic.   She did have a pale pink one that looked a little greyed and a Mexican Rose one with black brocade. I love Mexican Rose but the craftsmanship  of this one wasn’t top quality, particularly in the construction. She had an elegant black on black  huipil, sized for a small señorita. 😟

She hung up a very beautiful  huipil in a cinnamon brown with natural colored brocade.   It was very fine brocade and the colors were spectacular, the brocade almost looked golden. Very elegant and special. When she got it down so I could see it closer I recognized the color as that from nanche, a tree that has an edible fruit and the bark can be used for dyeing. Unfortunately the nanche color had already stained parts of the natural colored threads that were used for brocade and construction. Yes, it was natural dye but it was not well dyed. 

Reluctantly I left that booth and went to a booth that had some lovely small utility cloths with brocade style I associate with San Juan Colorado, but wasn’t from San Juan. There were several styles of brocade in the booth, which I think was a coop. Some pieces had women’s names on them, which I thought was the maker’s name. She began showing me huipiles too and some were lovely but small. She finally showed me a “large” three panel black huipil with brocade in coyuche, that is always hand spun, and purpura pansa, the seashell violet. Excellent workmanship.  Price I could afford. Perfect except it was too small. She thought it was big enough, but I insisted that it was only as wide as the top I had on and the top had slits from the waist down. The black huipil was ankle length and I had to convince her that it was going to catch on my hips so I wouldn’t wear it.  As I was ready to walk away she said she had a very large one.  I said let me see it, she had to root around a bit to find it and when I saw it it was perfect. Big enough, well made, black ground with Leno and coyuche and purpura pansa brocade.  It is now mine!


detail with purpura pansa dyed yarn used for brocade and construction

The ground cloth is 16/2 black cotton in plain weave and leno. The cloth is light weight and drapes well. Not hot because of the open work, leno. Each panel has a few warps of purpura at each side selvage. The panels are joined by hand with a faggoting stitch in the same purpura.  The neck edge is carefully made and decorated with the same purpura dyed yarn. 

The purpura dyed yarn is commercially spun yarn that is taken to the seaside. The wet yarn is held in the hand and the sea snails are pried from the rocks and their excretions rubbed on the yarn. The snails are returned to their rock. The secretions slowly change color, in the sun and air , until the yarn is a pale red- violet color. 
The coyuche is a brown cotton that grows here. It is short staple and thus hand spun.  Both colors are from prehispanic times. 

The brocade technique is discontinuous inlay. This inlay is done with the weft turns on the top making tiny scalloped edges around each motif. 

  • detail of the brocade with coyuche and purpura

This brocade style has a neat backside that is only slightly different from the front. 


here is the fourth selvage carachteristic of back strap weaving and the neat backside of the brocade

 Blessing on the weaver that made my cherished huipil!

Rebozo weaver

16 March 2016

Yesterday the Museo Textil de Oaxaca had a midday celebration to honor a 90 year old rebozo weaver from near Mexico City, Evaristo Borboa.  


Señor Evaristo was weaving in the interior courtyard of the museum, a beautiful space with natural light and many pillars. 

He weaves jaspe or ikat rebozos in cotton. 

  He weaves standing. As you can see the warp is wider than he is, 28-30″ would be my guess.   It must take a lot of upper body strength to open the sheds and standing allows him more leverage.  

These rebozos are large, 28-30″ wide by  90+ ” long by our standards but because they are light and drapey they are just the right size to wrap yourself  up. 

The resist dyed design is in the warp and to show it off the cloth is warp- faced.  The warp threads are ultra- fine mercerized cotton; the final cloth feels and drapes like silk. I can’t even guess at how many threads there are in this warp. Each one has been dyed and placed in order to create the design. 
Here you can see both the woven cloth and the unwoven warp.   If you have trouble finding the fell line look for the bottom edge of the sword or machete. Farther from the fell line the pattern on the warp is less visible, all you see are tiny spots.  This is just plain weave folks, but there is nothing plain about this. 

 If you are observant you can see that his loom is set up to weave four selvages. The final rebozos all have long elonorate fringes. 

My conclusion is that the fringe is added after weaving. This maybe the reason that other ikat rebozos have incongruent colors in the fringe. 

Here is a video of Señor Evaristo weaving.   Interesting to me is how he uses his sword to open the heddled shed.   I first noticed the hump in the warp threads when he took out the sword to open the heddled shed, then I watched it form. 

Señor Evaristo has been weaving for 83 years. That is longer than most of us have been talking, weaving must be as second nature for him as talking is for us. 

Done dyeing, packing

6 December 2015

I haven’t runout of things to try but I have runout of time.
I dyed many skeins with cochineal this year.

samples skiens dyed with cochineal

samples skiens dyed with cochineal

My goal was to understand how cochineal on cotton behaved and to get a stable color.  A pretty bright color.  Dull dirty colors are plentiful  and not worthy of cochineal, but I got those first

before I got to the clear bright fuschias on cotton.

It seemed to me that what I had learned dying the recalcitrant cotton would also improve my work with wool.  Wool is easy to dye with cochineal but still sensitive to hard water and pH.  I was right and I got a beautiful red on the wool, best ever.

beautiful color on wool alpaca yarn

beautiful color on wool alpaca yarn

So now I am packing, I leave for Oaxaca again on Thursday for a long stay.  I’m going to teach at the Museo Textile de Oaxaca in Jan. a course on dyeing cotton with cochineal. So packing teaching materials too.

Next post from Oaxaca!

All these cotton yarns have been dyed with cochineal.

All these cotton yarns have been dyed with cochineal.

Dyeing cochineal on cotton can be a challenge.  Cochineal on wool or silk is so easy.  It is all in the steps before the dyeing that determine the quality of the color ; scouring and mordanting.

Twenty years ago I dyed some cotton with cochineal and the samples are in the box, still dark and strong colors.  But then we did a scour, alum, tannin, alum mordanting—- that is four hot baths before you get to the dyeing. Today we generally use  two baths, a hot scour and a warm mordant and that is a big improvement.  Others have been working on mordanting cotton problem,  but cochineal has special challenges; it doesn’t like hard water and it is sensitive to pH.

So I have been working on what is the best way to mordant specifically for cochineal.  I have very hard water here, dilute limestone you could call it,   so even if I use distilled water for the dye bath, do I have to use distilled water for mordant and scour baths also?

The study mentioned above suggests that a tannin treatment can be used  make the colors darker and make them more light resistant. Cochineal has good light fastness but I wanted darker colors.  Here is my first study of tannin treatment, after scouring but before mordanting:

The scoured substrate was first treated with a tannin from pomegranate, then mordanted with aluminium acetate and then dyed with cochineal. From the left; substrate, tannin alone, then 4 with cochineal also.

The scoured substrate was first treated with a tannin from pomegranate, then mordanted with aluminium acetate and then dyed with cochineal.
From the left; substrate, tannin alone, then 4 with cochineal also.

The natural colored substrate is on the left, next is the the scoured substrate that has been treated with tannin from pomegranate, it actual color is mustard yellow.  I was expecting a much paler yellow beige color.  Could be that the pomegranate powder I have has deteriorated with age?  I need to try some fresh pomegranate tannin, but don’t have any at the moment. But I had already treated a bunch of skeins with this old pomegranate so I decided to continue to see what I could learn. The next 4 sample go from brown to dark red.  This little study has 10 baths involved.  When I try to  save time by treating a bunch of skeins at the same time and something goes wrong, such as the tannin is old, then a bunch of skeins have been ruined.   After I get some fresh tannin I’ll need to redo these samples. I have gone through 59 skeins so far  and may have more questions than when I started.  I think I will be dyeing all summer.

The point being that I have not been weaving much but dyeing a LOT.  I still have lots of work to do.  First I have to wind small sample skeins from the yarn I brought back from Oaxaca, a rather tedious task. Luckily I have a friend that will keep me company and chat while I wind them  and all I remember is the pleasant company.

Three natural dyes are highly touted here: Indigo, cochineal and caracol purpura. There have been some recent museum exhibitions featuring these 3 dyes.

This is a piece in the current exhibition at Museo Textil de Oaxaca (MTO) with indigo, cochineal and caracol purpura. This is wool and has been woven in 3 panels , the are seams in the red stripes.

During my workshop on fancy seams at the MTO I found some skeins of fine wool dyed a lovely red with cochineal.


Before Christmas I went to a special textile sale organized by the MTO where you could buy directly from the makers. As I wander around I found some cotton handwoven yardage in brown, natural off white and a rosy color. I asked the maker about it and it had coyuche ( local brown cotton) and a yarn that was dyed with a natural dye, brazilwood. Brazilwood is an old red dye that fades pretty easily and I said that to the weaver and he said yes, that was true but that cochineal didn’t take very well on cotton and that he wanted that rosy color. We than had a conversation about madder ( Rubia tintoria) and he didn’t seem to know about it and didn’t know if there were and local members of the Rubia family. The young man said he was new at this and had only been doing it for a year and a half.

The following Monday, I meet with my weaving teacher and she showed me some of here pieces, all cotton with the exception of a bit of silk brocade. On piece,


a huipil with a natural cotton ground and red cotton inlay, she said the cochineal was weeping. You can see just the slightest tinge of red on the light ground abound the brocade figures. She said that cochineal on cotton weeped.

She also has a huipil that is indigo dyed and has red silk brocade. The red silk is cochineal dyed. ( For those of you who are not dyers, silk is the easiest fiber to dye, then the wools and cotton is the hardest to dye.)

She was showing me some personal pieces she had made over the years including a huipil she had made for her daughter when she was a baby and another when she was a little girl. These are some the most charming pieces I have seen. The girl’s piece has butterflies, pinwheels and worms.

This piece, done in traditional colors of purple and yellow, commercial yarns, looks fresh. Her daughter is in her late 20’s. The baby huipil also has charming motifs but you can barely see them. She explained that she had wanted a rose color for her baby girl and had used yarn dyed with brazilwood for the brocade.

On this Monday, at her studio we got to talking about dyeing. They were going to start dyeing on the weekends in the new year, indigo. Indigo is fairly easy on cotton. Then I asked about mordant she used for cochineal. None, just salt was the answer.

[To the best of my knowledge and experience, one can get cochineal to color silk without a mordant and wools but you get pinks and roses, not reds or wines. Cotton which is so much more difficult to dye would definitely need a mordant. Mordanting cotton is a whole topic by itself; just alum, alum-tannin-alum or the newest- refined alum or aluminum acetate.]

I asked her if she scoured the cotton before dyeing? And she asked what was that. I explained that natural cotton, is full of pectins and waxes which inhibit the dye take up. They can be removed by boiling with soap or detergent and soda ash or other alkali. She she asked if one could use lime ( a common household item here used to prepare dried corn). Cochineal turns blackish in hard water because of the calcium and lime is a calcium compound, so the answer is no, lime will not work to scour for cochineal.

Cochineal is also sensitive to pH, The color changes from red or red with blue cast to oranger with the addition of an acid such as lime juice or vinegar. She did not seem to know this. This color shift can happen even after it is dyed, for example when you wash it.

The tannins, from many kinds of leaves and woods, can be used for mordanting themselves, and should be stable. But look at this weeping figure:

She told me it was a natural dye from some wood, I didn’t catch the full name.

So that is the current state of natural dyeing in this little corner of Oaxaca. I don’t know if there are pockets of better dyeing here. It seems that natural dyeing is a re-introduced craft. It could be just the natural mix of dabblers and competent natural dyers that one sees in the US. Information on natural dyes is hard to come by.

Stay tuned for updates on natural dyeing. I said I would love to see them dyeing and that I knew a bit about natural dyes and would be glad to help. We’ll see if I get invited out to the studio for dyes days.

The Easy Indigo Vat

20 September 2014

As mentioned in the prior post the  the 1,2,3 Indigo vat was easy and holds well.  It has been a week and it still has a nice flower on it.  The only draw back was that it was giving pale colors with a 3 min. dip., so I tried a 30 min. dip and got this:1dip

A very respectable color for a first dip.  I have gotten darker blue with more dips, as you would expect.

A young woman , Abra, made her first ever indigo vat today with this 1,2,3 process brought to us by Michel Garcia.  No fuss.  It dyed well.  This is easy folks.

New ways to do indigo

17 September 2014

On Friday 4 of us gathered together to dye indigo.  They had things they wanted to dye, I wanted to explore two new ways of making indigo vats.

I learned to dye indigo, and many other dyes, from Michele Wipplinger.  She taught me how to make a chemical vat using lye for the mother stock and thiourea dioxide for the reducing agent.  This has been a reliable vat for me and I have used as my default indigo vat.

One summer in the early 1990’s I kept a fermentation vat.  The biggest problem I had was keeping it warm enough. It did not like to cool off over night, I resorted to electrical heating pads/blankets but it was obvious to me that I did not have the right set up.  There is some reason that many on going indigo fermentation vats  are set in the ground and or have provisions for gentle heating.

Anyhow, there are now directions for new types of vats: one using pre-reduced indigo and another organic vat advocated by Michel Garcia, a biochemist, avid natural dyer and author (see references at bottom).  Both of these by-pass the use of lye, sodium hydroxide, which is getting harder and harder to buy in small amounts, and is quite hazardous to handle. Also I had heard several people advocate the use of hydrogen peroxide to reduce the crocking of indigo, and consant problem.

I had previously tried Garcia’s 1,2,3 Vat without success.  So I reread the directions and got some new supplies in: distilled water (for non-chlorinated water) and pickling lime and cal— both food grade lime, before I had tried tap water and gardening lime.

For the pre-reduced indigo I purchased from Pro-Chem and followed their instructions.

And just for security, I made sure that my mother stock for a traditional chemical vat was reduced and ready to go. Just as a back up.

Here is a look at the supplies for all 3 vats:

indigo supplies

Here is a list of supplies I had on hand:

  • Indigo
    • synthetic, micro-perle
    • pre-reduced indigo
    • natural indigo, several sources
  • Alkalis
    • lye
    • soda ash, sodium carbonate
    • ammonia
    • pickling lime, cal-both food grade lime
  • Scours, detergents
    • synthrapol
    • eco-scour from Earthues, for cellulose
    • Orvus paste
  • Reducing agents
    • thiourea dioxide
    • fructose
  • Protection for protein fibers
    • hide glue
    • gelatine, unflavored
  • Neutralize
    • vinegar for proteins
    • tea, tannic acid, for cellulose
  • Aid for oxidizing
    • hydrogen peroxide, 3%  this helps reduce crocking

Also had on hand pH strips for measuring high pH’s, 9-11 and distilled water.


We followed the instructions for the mini-vat for wool  but made it in a plastic bucket and keep it warm in a water bath. I added 25g of pre-reduced indigo and hide glue.    The slowest step is dissolving the soda ash.  It turned green shortly and we dyed wool, alpaca, leather and silk in it.  One dip gave a medium blue, two dips a medium dark blue.  It held up well as we dyed shibori pieces.  We stopped when the vat was down a third and poured the oxidized drippings back in the vat.



Since I had had trouble with this  all four of us made a half gallon mason jar for the vat, using a variety of indigos (not the pre-reduced ones) and limes with the hope that one combination would work.  We each added 25g of indigo to the vat and used distilled water.  Each person was to keep track of what they used.  I went first and put mine aside .  I could see that it was starting because of the flecks of coppery scum on the surface but in an hour the clear  settled liquid was neither green or brown.  The others started to make theirs.  Sandy sprinkled lime all over, turned hers in a globby paste before adding the full amount of water.  She sat it down and in 15-20 it turned brown with a bit of flower on top!  So we added it to a vat and started dyeing.   The goods came out a very pale blue.

It took 4-5 dips to get the same value of blue that we got with the pre-reduced indigo pot. we used the same dipping process for both.

Into the vat for 3-5 min., out and into a bath containing hydrogen peroxide for 15 min. then air exposure for 30 min. more. Repeat until darker than the desired color.  After a long final oxidation, neutralize by soaking in vinegar water for 20 min. and finish with a vigorous wash with synthrapol.


My mason jar of 1,2,3 vat turned brown also so I added it to the vat.  The vat now had a total of 55g of indigo but still only gives pale colors.  You can build up layers.

The 1,2,3 vat has remained an active vat, staying reduced for 4 days with no effort on my part.  I suspect that this is due to the sludge in the bottom.  Calcium hydroxide is not very soluble and it probably is some of what are the solids on the bottom where it acts as a reservoir and keeps the pH constant.  I wonder if there is undissolved fructose there too that keeps it reduced. I have been putting a few things in each day and the vat holds well.

Today I have been reading more about the 1,2,3 vat and others have commented on the pale colors. I did see that someone suggested that the goods needed much longer in the vat, 30 min. was suggested.   I will try that tomorrow.

The pre-reduced indigo vat has been reluctant to reduce after the dripping were put back, I have made 5-6 small additions of reducing agent and it is just swamp green so it still needs a bit more.


Both these new vats worked! We did not need to use the lye for either vat.  This is progress for home dyers.  I will continue working with both these vats.  The pre-reduced indigo was quick and easy and gave a nice depth of shade. Great for a workshop.  The 1,2,3 vat holds very well over several days, nice for a long project that requires many dips.

The hydrogen peroxide bath turned the dyed goods  blue almost instantly.  It may reduce the crocking ( I have not yet got to testing this yet) but it takes away the fun of seeing the color change before your eyes.


Blend 1 woven

9 July 2014

blend 1 wovenHere is blend 1 woven on a pin loom.  Since the plied yarn had already been finished in hot water with detergent I just soaked the woven piece in room temperature water with a bit of Orvus.  The 8% of hot pink is just as visible, if not more so, as the 28% of olive.