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.


Silk lecture and tour

4 December 2017


I have worked with silk since 1989 and was thrilled to find a active silk production here in Oaxaca.  If you are curious about silk here in Oaxaca there are two upcoming events that might interest you.

On Friday, 15 December here at the Oaxaca Lending Library I will give a lecture/ demonstration on local silk production and products.  Information and registration here.

The following week Pablo González Marsch and I have organized  a one day tour to a studio that raises silk and transforms it into textiles. You will be doing  the processes involved in transforming cocoons into silk thread.

Hands-On Tour

Silk in Oaxaca

Karren K. Brito, Pablo González Marsch

Monday, 18 December 2017


Meet at 9 am at the Oaxaca Lending Library and travel to Teotilan del Valle, a nearby Zapotec village famous for its weavers, to the studio of Arteseda. Rina, Aurora, Miguel and Reynaldo will receive you and show you their studio where they weave and dye silk, cotton and wool and raise their silk worms.

First you climb up to mulberry grove to see how the trees are planted and tended and the leaves collected for the silkworms. Then you will see the space and beds where the silkworms are raised. There are not any silkworms feeding this time of year, there may be some eggs. You will work with the harvested cocoons, both yellow and white. Some cocoons will be perforated because the moths have emerged. Others have been stifled. They need to be sorted, ones for spinning, ones for reeling,and cleaned before degumming by boiling for an hour.

While the cocoons are boiling you will have lunch at a the local traditional restaurant, El Descanso. Pablo will take you to see Santa María, a XVI century baroque style church in the center of Teotilan del Valle. It shelters several altarpieces and some slabs with ancient Zapotec engravings. This catholic church was built atop an ancient platform.

Once the cocoons that have been selected for spinning are boiled, they need to be dried then opened to prepared them for spinning. The prime cocoons are reeled hot and wet once softened by boiling. Once you find the end of the silk thread the larva spun you can simple unravel the cocoon to produce fine silk filament yarn. The dried, degummed cocoons need to be stretched and fluffed before spinning. You will have a chance to try spinning the silk fluff with a supported spindle and/or a spinning wheel.

You will then return to the OLL by 6 pm.

Arteseda does have a shop on the premisses en Teotilan del Valle and a booth a the Pochote market on Calle Marcos Perez in Oaxaca de Juarez on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Limit 12 participants

Cost person: MX$900 (includes transportation,materials, lunch and bottled water)

To register contact Pablo González Marsch at or call

(52 1) 951 134 7391 or WhatsApp.

For tour questions contact Pablo, for technical questions about silk  you can leave a comment here and I will get back to you.

Many Ways to Weave

27 March 2017

When I have started people weaving on a backstrap looms, I start them with a narrow warp that doesn’t require any sticks. Once they can do plain weave, warp-faced, I show them how to make a pick-up design with  paired floats. Laverne Waddington has a good description of this process on her blog.  Mostly we use our fingers and maybe a popsicle stick to beat the weft in place. There is just a shed loop and heddles and the pick up is done either with fingers or a large needle.   Here  in Oaxaca a large needle is a common tool for pick up.

Here in Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of Oaxaca state, a group meets weekly to weave.  This year every one has been working on narrow warps and either plain weave or paired float designs.

This technique is used here in Oaxaca by the indigenous people who live on the northern coast of Oaxaca.  Here I have not seen many narrow bands woven in this technique but  wider cloths with multiple design bands are common.

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photo by Karen Elwell. I think these are natural dyes.


photo by Karen Elwell

We went to the Museo Textil de Oaxaca on Saturday to register for a backstrap weaving brocade class in April given by a woman coming up from Carranza, Chiapas.   Bonfilia Bautista Tapia from Pinotepa de Don Luis, was finishing a workshop on  this paired float technique and she and her students were weaving away.  Here is a picture of her loom:

It is very interesting that she has a second set of heddles and a second shed rod behind the usual ones used to do plain weave. Both of these extra shedding devices deal only with the red warps in the design band; the shed rod has all of the odd numbered pairs over it  and the second set of heddles raises the even numbered pairs. Here is a close up so that you can see the pairs of red warps going over the second shed rod and the sparse green string heddles are around the other pairs of red warps within the design band.  One usually uses a second weaving sword   when using the second set of heddles/rod, but I don’t see one in the photo maybe because she doing plain weave at this moment.

Here on this student loom  you can see the second smaller sword. It is right behind the plain weave string heddles.  It looks like it still has the warp pairs he picked up to make the bar design he just wove.

two sets of heddles/shed rods and two swords are visible here

All of these lovely woven critters are made on 25 pairs.  Here is some more student work with enough detail that you could make the same designs.

And one more photo of a fragment of an interesting critter woven in this technique, the brown is hand spun brown cotton, coyuche,  that has been grown here since pre-hispanic times.

And yes, there are 5 pick floats in the bars between designs.

So there you have another way to weave paired float designs  using pattern heddles and shed rod.  Might be especially useful when doing multiples of the same design.


Oh well.

29 January 2016

Today I went to the little market near here,IV Centenario, just past La Basilica de la Soledad.  Soledad is the virgin of Oaxaca.  As I have explained before, if you walk in Oaxaca you either go uphill or downhill.

My lovely apartment is a second floor walk up.

Armed with my shopping list and the Frida bag I start out down the steps, down the hill, around the corner, up the hill to Plaza de la Danza and a view of Soledad.

All one church, obviously built at different times and styles.

Continue walking past the police station to arrive at the market at la hora de siesta de los perros.


The market itself is on a hill, steps to go in, steps down to the first level, steps down to the next level….

I bought wonderful Oaxacan cream, a small bread for breakfast, some chicken breast, tomatoes, an avocado ready to eat today, eggplant, radishes, poblanos, jicama, tangerines, a pear, platanos, green beans, spaghetti,and half a case of eggs, carefully packaged for carrying. Oh, yes and vinegar.  So now the Frida bags weighs considerable more than it did empty.

Going back home starts with a climb up about 4 flights of stairs to get out of the market with the bag.  Then up the hill, down the hill  around the corner and up the hill and finally up the stairs to the apartment, all with the heavy bag.

When I get home catch my breathe, unpack the bag. Check email and decide to look at the health data: 3691 steps, 2.67 km and no flights of stairs climbed.  Oh, well.

Second Huave Style design

Second Huave Style design

I started another continuous brocade piece on the same warp that I used for the yellow piece.

First Huave Style cloth with geometric design

First Huave Style cloth with geometric design

This time in addition to a new design and brocade color I added a stretcher to keep the width of the cloth constant.  The biggest problem I had with the first piece I made with this technique, is that the cloth got narrower as I wove.

The commercial stretcher that I have are too big for this 14″ wide cloth so I used one made to fit this cloth.  It is simply a piece of hollow bamboo cut to size and two little nails.  I learned this from my backstrap weaving teacher, Doña Euforsina, last winter in Oaxaca.  I grow lots of bamboo but it is not straight and has bumps where the leaves emerge. So after some cutting and sanding and I had a tube that I thought would work.

The stretcher goes on the back of the fabric, thus not obscuring the pattern.  You place the bamboo under the web and insert the nail through the selvage into the hollow of the bamboo tube.  Do one side then the other, the second side takes a little tugging but you want the web taut.

Bamboo stretcher in place on the underside of the web

Bamboo stretcher in place on the underside of the web


the hollow bamboo and two nail for stretcher

the hollow bamboo and two nail for stretcher

Here are the pieces used to stretch the web, a piece of bamboo and two nails.

The other picture shows how the nail in the selvage holds the bamboo in place.

Nail attaching the web to bamboo stretcher

Nail attaching the web to bamboo stretcher


I finished this piece and after some separators started on another  and I pleased to see that as the cloth rolls on the cloth beam it is all exactly the same width.

A solution without buying a thing!