We have a small community of backstrap weavers here in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico that get together once a week to weave, share and learn. After the isolation and depletion of our ranks by the pandemic we needed an invigorating project. We selected this type of huipil and invited a young, very accomplished weaver from San Mateo del Mar, Noé Pinzón Palafox, to mentor us.

A huipil from San Mateo del Mar recently woven by Jazmín Azucena Pinzón Palafox

Noé comes from a family of masterful weavers . He learned to weave in his family starting at age five. His younger sister, Jazmín Azucena Pinzón Palafox, wove the huipil in the picture above. His mother, Francisca Palafox, is credited with reviving the techniques for weaving this huipil. The weaving of this huipil had all but disappeared by the end of the last century. His 8 year old nephew is already winning national prizes for his weaving. That is how one learns to weave here in Oaxaca.

San Mateo del Mar is an Ikoots (sometime called Huave) community in the hot costal lands of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is located on a narrow peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and a lagoon (https://goo.gl/maps/G3mpSZWFBnbYDBxC8). It is all about the sea.

The huipil itself is made of cotton, now a days commercially spun. The cool sheer cloth is nearly a balanced weave sometimes with heavier weft stripes, woven brocade designs and several warp stripes. The brocade designs feature marine and coastal imagery or geometric patterns. A curious feature is a tassel at the end of the center front warp stripe. The huipil is woven in one or three panels, each piece with four selvages. The neck opening is a woven slit.

Here is some background information on these huipils :

Traditionally the huipils are made with natural colored cotton with colored warp stripes and colored brocade. Local natural colored cotton can be either off-white or brown (coyuche). Both were hand spun on a supported spindle. Preparing and spinning the locally grown cotton is very time consuming and has been largely abandoned now. Off-white cotton is now available commercially spun. The color grown cotton must still be hand spun because of its short staple length.

The natural dyes available locally were sea snail purple (caracol purpura), indigo and cochineal. The sea snail is now extinct in this area. A small sanctuary for the sea snail exists farther west on the Oaxacan coast, harvesting the dye is limited to a few authorized individuals. Indigo is grown inland nearby in Santiago Niltepec. A few people still cultivate indigo plants, but the production of the dye can be effected by earthquakes which destroy the tanks used for extracting the dye and by drought. Cochineal, a highly prized red insect dye is native to Oaxaca. The insect grows on prickly pear cactus. It is not particularly good dye for cotton, it is hard to get the bright red known on wool, giving instead a pale or purplish color. The cotton must be meticulously prepared and mordanted to have a stable cochineal color on cotton.

Todays huipils have evolved and updated and are woven in all sorts of colors. The huipil is woven in 3 panels a center one and two side panels. The center panel has designs created with supplementary weft, i.e. brocade. The weave structure is nearly a balanced plain weave, the openness of this structure allows space for the supplemental weft. The supplementary weft can be continuous or discontinuous but the design is formed when the brocade weft is placed in the shed. The panels are sewn together in the stripes. If the huipil is narrow enough and the weaver and loom are up to the task, it can be woven in one piece thus eliminating the seams. Each panel is woven with 4 selvages. Four selvage weaving is demanding and time consuming but highly regarded, giving a special spirit to the cloth. The neck opening is woven as a slit. The huipil made from four selvage panels is finished by sewing it together, no cutting involved.

A unique feature of these huipils is the center warp stripe, that is called the umbilical cord. It is woven into the cloth for most of the length of the panel, then it is not. The unwoven ends of these warps hang free looking like a tassel. Weaving this is a bit a a challenge to us but also why we chose this style of huipil and why we have a mentor.

Noé suggested we weave a mini-huipil to learn all the techniques. He brought an example he had previously woven.

The back of Noé’s mini-huipil.

This mini-huipil is about 30cm long and 40cm wide. The cloth is sheer enough that you can vaguely see the designs and stripes on the front. He demonstrated making the warp using 16/2 natural cotton and a softly spun merino wool silk yarn in a midnight blue. Then we made our warps, we chose different colors. You will see various warps in this post. Care must be taken with the center colored stripe when lashing on to the loom bars, as it is not woven at the beginning.

Preparing the mini-huipil warp.

Here you can see the loom being set up. The heddles have been made. The far end has been lashed-on to the loom bar and a bit was woven before the loom was turned around. Note that the center colored warps have not been woven but pushed down to right side. The warps must be carefully distributed on the loom bar to weave a sheer cloth.

This end has been lashed-on and the 3rd beam is ready to be removed.

The distribution of the warps on the second beam must match that of the upper beam before lashing-on. The final distribution of the warps is done with the first wefts. The colored center warps are not woven initially but pushed down to the right side ( the cloth is woven with the wrong side facing the weaver).

Initiating the front body of the huipil.

The weaving continues for a bit until it is time to incorporate the colored warps in the center. These warps are raised and now woven with the rest of the cloth.

Bottom front woven without the center stripe.

Obviously the warps near the center will have to curve around the newly incorporated warps.

Center front with ground warps bending around the center stripe.

Once the center stripe is incorporated the brocade designs can begin.

Plan for weaving the mini-huipil.
Adding brocade birds with discontinuous supplementary weft.

At the right height the neck slit is begun and woven using two wefts. Also two more stretcher bars, temples, are added to keep the cloth from pulling in at the slit.

The start of the neck slit, with 3 stretcher bars in place.

The design may continue along side the slit. The slit in the back is shorter than the front slit.

Finishing the brocade birds and weaving the neck slit. You a looking at the wrong side that faces the weaver.
Loom protection.
Araceli’s hens from the right side..

Weaving continues with two wefts until the end of the slit in the back. The back may or may not have additional brocaded designs. Eventually the center stripe is dropped again. Finally one reaches the tedious weaving of closing the gap, or terminal area, that is part of four-selvage weaving. This requires smaller tools and finally a needle. But finally the entire cloth is woven.

When closing the gap, the final few passes of the weft are done with a needle.

The gap has been woven.
The wrong side,the side that faces the weaver, of the completed cloth still on the loom.

And the right side.

The cloth is removed from the loom, washed and finished. The under arm selvages are butted and sewn by hand. Nothing has been cut.

One completed mini-huipil.

There are no holes where the center stripe has NOT been woven.

Cloth under the front tassel.

Three of the five participants have completed their mini-huipils so far, different colors, different designs- Noé’s birds (not charted, done free hand), Karren’s dragonflies and diamonds, and Araceli’s triangles and hens. Two more participants are working on theirs.

Finished mini-huipils made by Noé (left), Karren and Araceli (right).

Now that we know the techniques we can tackle larger huipils.


Short answer: Two men, some buckets with tools, shovels, pickaxes, and scrap wood and construction materials.  Of course they must be the right two men.

The type of construction used here is a reinforced concrete frame work with adobe, brick or cement block infill. The men that do all of this are called albañiles. I don’t know a word in English that conveys the same set of skills. The team that I have here working is a maestro, with 22 years of experience and a team mate. They have obviously worked together for a long time.

They are employed by the architectural firm that did the design and oversees the construction. The firm is two architects, a woman and her husband. She handles more of the design work and he supervises the construction. They handle the logistics, they see that the construction materials arrive before they are needed, that a team of plumbers or electricians arrive as needed. The architectural firm has 3 to 4 buildings under construction all the time. The two albañiles working here arrive at 8 am, by public transportation, and work until 6pm, Monday through Friday and 8am-2pm on Saturday. They arrive here everyday on time. Last Saturday the architect took the maestro to another site to do some finish work. The plumbers and electricians also work in pairs, but are younger and arrive two on a motorcycle, their tools in a backpack. They come when needed, do their work and then leave.

The first order of business was demolition. The master bedroom suite was gutted. All fixtures removed from the bathroom, closets and dividing walls removed, doors and windows moved and the floor removed. The floor was too high so both the wood boards and the slab were remove. Each room of the house had a different floor level.

Step up from hallway to kitchen

The renovated house will have all floors the same height. Sledge hammers and chisels are the main tools used for demolition. The only power tool I have seen them use is a small rotary saw to make straight, smooth cuts in the wall, say for a new window or door.

A Power Tool

They really dislike this saw because it fills the space with very fine dust that gets in their eyes, nose and lungs. The dust gets in every page of my books too. Used only when a straight clean cut is needed.

The rubble is removed bucketful by bucketful. They make a wooden handle inside the bucket (visible in the 4th picture from the top), held in place with scrap rebar, to grab and then hoist the bucket onto their shoulders. I have seen them smoothing the bottom of the buckets so that the rim doesn’t cut into their shoulders. The rubble is carried out into the corner of the property. The whole space is very crowded when you have a truck load of sand, another of gravel, bags of cement, rebar and bricks. So when the pile of rubble got high they built a ramp from scrap wood to carry the rubble up to the top and keep the footprint small.

They also built the ladders that they needed as well as the saw horses in the photo. They make many of their own tools too.

When they had a truck load of rubble, a dump truck came to take it away. But the dump truck would not fit through the gate because of the wall above the gate. The electricians came and raised the wiring for the automatic door opener. Then the albañiles knocked out the wall above the gate. The dump truck came with a load of sand but could only get in part way , dumped the sand and was empty to take away the rubble. How do you get a huge pile of rubble out of the corner and into the truck bed?

You throw it up shovelful by shovelful.

Rubble flying into the truck, propelled by a man and his shovel.

Interestingly the truck showed up with a driver and two men. The driver watched as the other two men loaded the rubble. The truck left to return with a load of gravel. Since the truck could only back in one place to dump the albañiles moved the pile of sand, with their shovels, to make a space to dump the gravel.

Taking up the floor made it easy to upgrade the plumbing and services. After the plumbers put in the basic plumbing for the bath, the albañiles built forms for all the concrete work. Shower stall with niches in both sides, the sink and countertop. The entire bath is done in polished concrete. They moved doors and window spaces and completed the wall between the bath and large walk-in closets.

The master albañil, left and the journeyman mixing cement for the floor of the walk-in closets behind them. Through the door you can see the concrete sink and counter in the bath.

All their concrete is mixed on a with shovels. They measure, by the bucketful, the sand and cement the mix that together, then add gravel, water and mix again. The wet concrete is shoveled into buckets and carried to the form, many times up a ladder. I have seen a small cement mixer here at another nearby construction site, but the work on that site is on and off and the work here is advancing much faster. I have not seen truck cement mixer here.

After they finished the floor they tackled the walls. The electricians put in the wiring, the albañiles covered them with cement. Burying the wiring in the walls is an upgrade.

Note the arches in the ceiling, homemade ladder and wiring now embedded in the walls.

In this photograph one can see one of the most onerous jobs in this suite. The wall were covered with a textured white plaster that the architect said needed to be removed so that the new plaster could adhere properly. There did not seem to be a tool that could scrape it off effectively. They did it mostly with the claws of their hammers but tried many different things. Tedious job that took a long time.

Next job was to plaster all the walls. I have not seen this done in the US. Everything in the US is wallboard now.

A bag of the mix used to plaster the walls. Bruce, might understand the irony of the brand name here.

The non-weight bearing walls for the closets were made by another tradesman. He installed some aluminium frames then wall board. He left the finishing to the resident albañiles.

Next task was to make the foundation for the addition. The addition goes from one perimeter wall (see previous post about perimeter walls) to the other about 3.5m out from the end of the house. Part of the space will become part of a great room and the rest will be a covered terrace. This requires a T-shaped foundation, a straight line parallel to the back of the house and a perpendicular branch to support the wall that divides the room from the terrace. Each perimeter wall has its foundation but the new walls must tie into the existing perimeter walls and their foundation.

opening a front door

All excavation was done by hand using shovels and a pickax. The big puzzle was where to put the dirt. It was piled up against the back of the house making it difficult to use the only door. So they opened a provisional door where the future front door will be.

They dug an L shaped trench, only part of the T, because there was no where to put more dirt that they dug out. once they had it dug out and shaped they poured in a layer of cement, bucketful by bucketful. Then they added a long rebar grid and protruding pillars and poured cement over that.

Starting the foundation. Blue line is the height of future floor.

On top of the poured cement they added cement block. Then more cement with rebar.

Then on to the other branch of the T. Excavate, pour cement, place rebar grid, cement then cement block. The tricky part is tying into the existing perimeter walls and their foundations. On the side with a neighboring house the wall was only brick thick so they skipped the cement block, replacing it with poured cement.

To be continued.

Houses in Oaxaca

27 July 2019

A colonial era building I recently visited because it was the venue for a small crafts fair.

The city of Oaxaca was started by the Spanish is 1528  and still has many buildings of the colonial period even with its many earthquakes.  This lovely old architecture makes the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination.

All the writings I can find about Spanish Colonial architecture in Oaxaca are about the churches, missions and convents.  Masterpieces made by the Spanish crown and Catholic church, paid for by Oaxacan cochineal and built by the local indigenous people who were converted to Christianity.  What is interesting to me is what the Spanish colonial homes were like and how they influence the style of homes in Oaxaca today.

One can see some of the grand colonial homes today as many have been converted to museums and mini-malls. Typically these have a small entrance from the street that leads to an open courtyard surrounded by columned portico and behind that rooms.  They remind me of the Roman atrium style houses we studied in Latin class. Besides the open central courtyard these houses have few windows and a small secluded entrance, any opening to the street is likely to be covered by a massive door or iron grill (reja).  Some of these features continue in current Oaxacan homes.

A historic interior courtyard currently used to park cars. Convergence of Colonial Spanish influences and US car culture.


The climate and geography also influence the architecture.  The climate here in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, at 5000 ft in the tropics, is mild year round and no heating or cooling is required.  That is the benefit of being in the mountains, the catch is there are few level places to build.

A street next to a market connecting two principal thoroughfares. Obviously not open to motor vehicles.

Many places in Oaxaca are only accessible by foot as I found out while house hunting.   Floors often have a random step up or down, a constant falling hazard.  My small house, so called one story home, had 4 different floor levels when I bought it.


The windows of this historic building make you wonder what is the level/s of floor inside.

As the historic center of the city has gotten crowded the houses have gone up, two stories or more, on smaller pieces of land.  I saw a small house built on 6m x 6m piece of land, not even in the center of town.  It had 3 bedrooms, a balcony and everything needed for a family of 4, each room on its own level; not a tiny house but a new dimension on split level homes.


The  interior courtyards have either disappeared or been  transformed  into a smaller open space, but still paved.

The first thing that most Oaxaqueños do when they buy a piece of land  is build a wall around the perimeter of the property.  A wall with foundation and support columns.  This is an sizable expense for most people here. Once the wall is completed  you can live on the land; improvise a shelter, outhouse, have a barrel for water, cook in the open and plant corn, beans and squash on the land, ie., live.

Step 1. Build a wall around the perimeter. Sturdy gates to the street.

When more funds are available you can make a proper room in a corner, by just adding two more small walls and a roof. The roof and floor usually extend beyond the room to create a little sheltered area much like the portico.

Step2: Build a room in a corner.

This is what I saw at the humble home of my first weaving teacher.  The corner room has a window and door facing the porch which is where a floor loom and yarn were stored.  Later a second room was added right next to the first, also with a door and window facing the now extended porch.  When the kids graduated from college they build a weaving studio and a bathroom.

Stage 3: Adding a family weaving studio.

The studio has open walls on two sides and a large window like opening to the street, which closes with sturdy wooden shutters.  The columns inside the studio support the roof and the backstrap looms.  My weaving teacher was accumulating building materials to add two more rooms on top  of the two existing ones. Many buildings have rebar sticking out the roof so that additional stories can be added.

Most houses have been built piece meal, including the one I bought.  My house has a perimeter wall and  two different kinds of roofs, one made with bricks and arched (boveda) and other  a concrete slab.  The boveda is the older style so I think that that the first part of the house was built, in a corner of course.  The main street runs across the top of the house and a side street is to the left, a neighbor shares the wall on the right. The only existing door faces the back open area that was covered in gravel and used for parking, accessed through large metal gates on the side street.

This style of building limits the windows.  By ordinance windows are not allowed to face a neighbors property for privacy reasons.  Windows can face the street but increase the perceived vulnerability of the house.  Or windows can face your own open space, ie., the remnants of the courtyard. Because this house is on a corner and there is open space in back,  windows are possible on 3 sides.   The previous owner kept a 5 m strip of land at he back of the property and first built a wall of adobe and now has a two story building there.  No windows overlooking my place.

The grey adobe wall was built to define the new property line. The metal structure is an apartment over the workshop/garage. No windows overlooking my house.

On 7 February I signed and paid for a small one story house  at 13 de septiembre, #400, Pasajuegos, Niños Heroes in Oaxaca de Juarez.  It is officially 1 block outside the historic center of the the city and next to a cultural and arts center, La Calera. I bought it from the owner of the Calera.

The street, 13 de septiembre, dead ends at the Panamerican highway, up the hill.  There is a pedestrian bridge that crosses the highway there. All the traffic is foot traffic.  People who live on the other side of the highway cross the bridge and walk down the street to Niños Heroes or Madero to find public transportation.  Walking is the way most people get around Oaxaca.

Looking up the street to the Panam highway, the pedestrian bridge and the Cerro del Fortin.

It took 4 months to separate 5 m strip off the back of the property, which he wanted to keep as it oversees the service entrance to the Calera.  The gentleman that takes care of the Calera is building an apartment and workshop on this piece of land (5m x10m).

My house has a large master bedroom suite with bath, 2 more bedrooms , 1 more baths, a closet sized kitchen and a hallway. No living or dining rooms.

Second bedroom and bath

Third bedroom, with termite tunnels up the wall due to the wood floor.

Master bath

Master bath


Closet sized kitchen


Exciting backyard

Actually the concept of a backyard do not exists here, this was used for parking.

What you can not see in the in the pictures, this small house has 4 different heights of floors.  Common here, the house was probably built piece meal and they just put the floor at an easy height.  You took a step up or down everytime you went from one room to another. The Master suite has arched ceilings, a charming old style.  But also an indication that it was built first.

I had been working with a architect, who not only designs the modifications and oversees the construction, and we came to the house and made some holes to see what was under the wood floor(a curious thing here) and where the reinforced concrete columns were. He came back with workers and found many scorpions living between the floor boards and the slab.

Large black scorpion near the backdoor.


I was busy getting all the services changed over to my name.  He had an uncle die in Veracruz and went off , he was executor of the will, and had to go to court.  Then he disappeared. By the beginning of April, 2 months after I bought the house I decided I couldn’t wait any more and I was going to move to my house renovations or no.  I gave notice at my apartment that I would be out by 15th of May.  I started looking for another architect.

I had no idea how long I was going to live in the house before we renovated it, so I fumigated, had the water system cleaned (there are both underground and rooftop tanks since the water comes from the city once a week.  Three months of neglect and the rooftop tank was empty and the solar water heater broke!  Anyhow I got things in working order and moved here on the 13th of May.

I bought a fridge and a washing machine (one delivery instead of two).  I brought both cats, Lola and Ixtle. Ixtle was terrorized.   Life was immediately better for me, ice, a stove that could brown meat and a washing machine.

I talked to 2 architects, and they both presented me plans for the remodel.  One’s plans make me cry and the other was exciting.  The exciting one is from a couple, both architects, she does the design and office work and he oversees the construction.  They were wanting to start work on the 20th of May, I had them wait until the 27th.

Exterior design

The plan

We took the 3rd bedroom and combined it with the kitchen and added a new space to make an open concept great room.  In addition there is a large covered terrace and folding doors so that it can all open into one large space.  The style is minimalist, modern and industrial.  No fancy materials, polished concrete floors and the sinks and counters too.  There are skilled artisans here who can do that kind of work.  The  floors have to been torn out to make them all one level, and the architects is taking advantage to put wiring and plumbing in before the floors.

So I am living in the other part of the house  while they work on the master bedroom suite.  They gutted it the first week, everything out of the bath and bedroom including the floors.  Only thing kept were the walls.  But the location and size of the windows and doors is all changed.  So basically my master bedroom space now is a muddy cave. And the backyard is full of construction materials; rubble, sand , gravel, wood,….

Backyard, aka construction materials.

But there is progress everyday, the master bath, has a new door , window, floor.  New electrical and plumbing went in before the floor.  They have poured the counter top, sink, shower wall too.   The shower wall has two niches, one on each side.  They are now starting the finishing layer of cement on the walls.

The sad news is that Ixtle ran away.  Too much with all the construction for him. He seems to be running with a group of cats in the Calera.  I don’t know where he came from and I don’t know where he has gone.  He spent two years with me.



Backstrap weaving in Mesoamerica has pre-hispanic origins and is the oldest, most common and highly reguarded art.  Zapotec and Maya goddesses weave.  Weaving is considered a way of communicating with the gods.

Yet watching an accomplished backstrap weaver can be as baffling as enlightening.  I have two up-coming events that are designed to enlighten you about backstrap weaving.

Victoria Hernandez, an Amuzgo,weaving brocade on her backstrap loom a San Pablo Cultural Center

1. A lecture/demonstration on Backstrap Weaving by me, Karren K. Brito, on this Friday, January 19, 2018, 5pm at the Oaxacan Lending Library.  This lecture will be in English.


Arturo Hernandez of Mitla weaving on a backstrap loom.

2. A one day tour, A TASTE OF WEAVING, on Friday, 2 Feburary 2018.  Tour leaders:Karren K. Brito and Pablo Gonzalez Marsch (both bilingual).

We will go to Bia Begung weaving and dyeing studio in Mitla. Maestro Arturo Hernandez weaves on a back-strap loom, and has many floor looms for production weaving and an efficient natural dye studio which he will shows us.

Each participant will have their own prepared back-strap looms. Karren and Arturo will be helping teach you how the weaving proceeds.  You need to open the sheds in the right sequences and pass the shuttle. 

We will take a break from weaving and Pablo will take you on a tour of the Mitla ruins with their designs inspired by weaving and have lunch at a local restaurant. Then we will return to the weaving studio for more weaving before, returning to Oaxaca.

The limit is 5 people.  The tour costs 1600 Mexican pesos per person and includes:

  • transportation from OLL at 8:30 am and returning to OLL about 6pm, transportation to the ruins and to lunch
  • Bia Begung studio visit
  • Use of the prepared looms and instruction
  • Guided tour of Mitla ruins (pre-hispanic Zapotec)
  • Lunch, with non-alcoholic drinks ( alcoholic drinks cost extra)
  • Bottled water

For further information contact Karren by leaving a comment here.  To sign up contact Pablo at +52 1 (951) 134 7391, by WhatsApp or by calling or an email to marsch@prodigy.net.mx.

How to grind chocolate

29 October 2017

In Oaxaca chocolate is second only to corn in the traditional cuisine.  A friend told me that the gods gave corn for daily substance and chocolate for fiestas.

Traditionally one can buys cocoa beans in the market and prepares them to your own taste.  (Do you know what cacao beans look like?)  First they are toasted over a wood fire on a round ceramic griddle (comel)  also used to prepare tortillas, the substance of every meal here.

Here, in the center you can see the place to toast beans. The brush like thing, made from local plants, is used to push the beans around on the hot griddle.  How you proceed next depends on what resources you have.

If you are just one woman, you grind your beans on the gridstones, tejates, that you see to the right and left of the griddle in the photo above.  You mix in sugar, cinnamon, almonds according to your recipe and taste.  Different communities add in different things.   The ground chocolate, a moist grainy paste falls into the tray at the bottom.  This paste is then mixed with either hot water or milk  and frothed  to be served as hot chocolate.  Grinding on these stones takes experience and strong arms, it looks simple but requires a technique and experience.

Now if you have a few more resources, like and old bicycle and young men, you can grind your toasted beans like this:


Note it takes two young men to do what one housewife can do:


If you have even more resources such as four strong men you can then use an electric mill to grind your chocolate.

These mills are common here in the city, in some markets and stores selling chocolate, that is the ground moist paste used for making hot chocolate.  In some markets you can take your own toasted beans and ingredients, and have them grind it for you.

A traditional drink to warm up in chilly moments here in Oaxaca is hot chocolate served with a individual bread, pan y chocolate.  The chocolate is served in a bowl, a generous about, with the very important froth on the top.  The bread is dunked in the hot chocolate.

Wishing you “pan y chocolate” for all your chilly moments!


Last week was a rough week, I haven’t felt so betrayed since JFK was assassinated.  I may not live long enough to see to have a president of the quality and values of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Having her as president at the end of my life would have been recompense for the long battle our lives, hers and mine, have been,  just to be recognized for the professional contributions we have made to society.

I have been looking forward to participating in a Waje (https://www.facebook.com/waje.com.mx/) event since I learned about them and on Saturday, 12 November I got to spend and evening orchestrated by them.  In anticipation, I thought the experience, on a Saturday evening– the evenings here in Oaxaca are very beautiful, and my favorite– I tried to calm my mind and open it all sensory experiences, new and old. I tried to be in the moment and mindful.

From the time I contacted them, I was treated with dignity and respect.  The invitations had been planned to give a spare contemporary style.  The event was called Cenizas Vivas.  We were transported to an outlying village and into a outdoor space under a huge  flor de cacao, or cacahuaxochitl tree (Quararibea funebris) .  The path to the table was lit with luminarias and the table was elegantly set, under hanging candlelights.

Each course had a story.  Respect for tradition, variation, and innovation was evident. The start was chocolate, mezcal and cream, all very Oaxaqueño.  The next 3 tiny plates were eaten in pre-columbian style, with our fingers. Chia seeds, squash blossoms and huitlacoche all made an appearance.  img_3515The meal continued with interesting ingredients and thoughtful preparation, and impeccable presentation, many edible flowers included. A breathtaking palate cleanser. We had wines or local beers.  Seasonal ingredients.  Ambiance was Day of the Dead with marigolds everywhere.

Each ingredient was sourced from a local grower or producer. We were told the stories of many of the courses. There are people out there who still care about what they are doing and producing, making sure that the spinach leaves  they provide are at the peak of their flavor or providing cilantro with flowers.  These marvelous young men are doing their research into special growers and suppliers, innovating new preparations and combinations. These events support not only the these inspirational endeavors but  a whole chain of growers and suppliers what work with care and heart  to produce the best they know how–not what corporate food companies want– to be uniform, last forever in the stores and make the most profit– taste and nutrition lost.  The pace of the meal was just right, in both amount and timing.

I hear the same themes about the food that I hear about the textiles here:




That is how to preserve the cultural heritage that is unique to Oaxaca.

A lovely, magical evening.


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

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.