Meet Kelly Moe-Rossetto!

We have the great pleasure of introducing our good friend Kelly as one of the co-leaders of our upcoming Textile Travel in November, 2022. “From Fiber to Fabric” is our favorite week-long itinerary for fiber and textile enthusiasts. Spinners, dyers, weavers, knitters and overall creatives — this trip is for you! And if you’re just getting started on your fiber art journey, you’ll love the introduction to the techniques included in this week.

So, who is Kelly, you ask?

She is a passionate art educator and practitioner who draws inspiration from her extensive travel all over the world:

Kelly has taught in France, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Italy and has attended classes and art workshops in Italy, Sweden, India, Peru and Guatemala. In her graduate work she took a close look at the way we can explore issues of history, place and community through the artistic traditions. She is the owner of Cardamom Collective, which uses the traditions of textiles and craft along the Silk Road to connect and understand the way we have influenced each other throughout history and across continents. For the past six years she has taught K-8 art in Milwaukee Public Schools where she strives to create a dynamic and supportive space rooted in social justice and artistic traditions around the world. She has traveled to nearly thirty countries and believes the best way to understand the world and ourselves is to have authentic conversations with each other and learn from the communities we are fortunate to visit. She loves Guatemala and is thrilled to be co leading this trip!

Kelly in Iceland

Last year during our week at Lake Atitlán, Kelly was kind to lead a watercolor workshop for the other participants one afternoon. It was so much fun — and we’re sure to include time for some more painting this year!

This year’s trip is sure to be another week full of artistic exploration rooted in cultural heritage, learning alongside our local Tzutujil teachers at Lake Atitlán. Join us November 20-27th! We are currently taking reservations with a $250 deposit. As this trip is held on Thanksgiving week, we have participants joining us both in solo and family units – it will be a great mix of artistic minds.

<Learn more about this itinerary and others here>

Pretty in Cochineal

One of our favorite natural dyes to work with is cochineal. Maybe you’ve heard (because we can’t stop talking about the wonders of this dye) 😆 but do you REALLY know the dye responsible for the gorgeous hot pink?

From vibrant to soft pink, we love the hues produced by cochineal, called “cochinilla” in Spanish. It is the only natural dye we use that is NOT derived from a plant.

Believe it or not — it comes from the tiny little insects, seen below in white, growing on hanging cactus paddles.

We’ve been importing our cochineal in dried form from Mexico for years, but this image was taken at Lake Atitlán at a new cochineal-growing project. After some trial and error experimentation (because every cochineal population is a little different), we’re so pleased to be using the locally-grown cochinilla for some of our favorite hues!

So… the color comes from bugs?

Yes, it does! Does that creep you out a little bit? If so, you might be even more surprised to hear that the insect-derived dye is FDA-approved for food use, and is commonly used in items that look more appetizing with a little blush, like strawberry yogurt. It’s also a common ingredient in cosmetics.

It’s not vegan, but many traditional art forms that we consider sustainable are not. Like the use of wool fibers – wool is regarded as a sustainable fiber as it is biodegradable and when practiced well, keeping sheep can even lead to carbon-negative farming practices with improved soil enrichment. Wool is not vegan because it’s derived from an animal source, but it can be very sustainable.

What do you use this dye for?

Pretty much everything we make, we offer in a cochineal variant. We started with cotton fibers but have also since been exploring dyeing wool. Cochineal is one of the most colorfast dyes we work with, so we love incorporating the hues achieved. Take a look for yourself:

Want to learn more about this natural dye?

Join us for a hands-on experimental Textile Travel this year! A visit to the cochineal farm as well as dyeing with the natural dye are included in our From Fiber to Fabric itinerary from November 20th-27th.

Another exciting trip this year:

Which backstrap loom is the best for me?

Since we started offering backstrap weaving kits in 2020, we’ve added a few different types of looms, and have understandably received questions about them. Have you been wondering the difference among the different looms we offer? We’re here to explain and help you choose the best option for your practice and goals.

1. Practice Backstrap Loom

This is the “original” loom we started with when we made this pivot to offer at-home weaving kits. We designed the loom in practical and achievable measurements, and we think they make excellent wall hangings when finished, with all the tools still intact. These looms are made at Lake Atitlán with naturally-dyed cotton and ikat designs in the warp. The included weft is naturally-dyed in indigo.

This is an excellent choice for beginners who want to practice Plain Weave. We think the softer hues make these looms especially apt for home decor. $60 per kit with all materials included.

2. Brocade Backstrap Loom Kit

This is the loom of choice for intermediate weavers ready to practice supplementary weft brocade! Each loom has been prepared by master weaver Doña Lidia and her family from San Antonio Aguas Calientes. The main difference for this loom is that it comes with two additional sheds created with the “pepenado” rods, seen at the top of the loom. These extra sheds facilitate many brocade figures, and others can be woven by picking up the warp with the included wooden needle (so cute in quetzal form!). $85 per kit with all materials included, and we also have the option listed online for choosing your custom colors.

Looking for a little extra guidance for brocade? We produced professional videos that show how four important local motifs are created with Doña Lidia. Purchase the access through our PDF guide for $15.

The best option for weavers ready for brocade!
Optional: add a brocade sampler to your loom purchase for $30. These are the exact figures covered by Doña Lidia in our PDF guide for intermediate brocade, and are helpful to have on-hand for counting stitches and following directions on the screen.

3. Kids’ Practice Backstrap Loom Kit

As the name suggests, these looms were designed with children in mind for beginner Plain Weave. The looms are smaller for narrower waists and the warp is arranged in a way that makes picking up the “chocoy” (string heddle) easier for the smaller-bodied. Also priced affordably in-line with our committment to making art education as accessible as possible. Made with naturally-dyed cotton just like our original Practice Backstrap Looms. $40 per kit with all materials included.

4. Handspun Cotton Backstrap Loom Kit

Made with organic and local handspun cotton, these looms available in natural white and heirloom ixcaco brown are truly special! Prepared by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán, these looms are made for the eco-conscious intermediate weaver ready to take on a little challenge. Working with handspun fibers is a bit harder. Namely, the string heddle can collect fuzz from the warp fibers easily, making even plain weave a bit more challenging. Weavers should pay attention to all the little movements made during the weaving process in order to limit the lint from collecting. $80 per kit with all materials included.

Available in natural white cotton and heirloom ixcaco brown cotton, while supplies last – we are heavily dependent on local harvests for this loom, production is very limited.

5. Make Your Own Loom Kit

This kit was developed for our “Intermediate Loom Set-up” online class with Doña Lidia. After we received requests for this class, we realized we should make a material to go with it. And ta-da! The Make Your Own Loom Kit was born. The kit includes everything you need to build your own loom, with the warp already prepared, the sticks and rods carved into perfect size, etc. Prepared by Doña Lidia and her family, these kits are $65 each. You can also choose custom colors on the product page.

Questions? Comments? Let us know by emailing hello@kakawdesigns.com and/or joining us in our Backstrap Weavers group on Facebook.

Backstrap weaving troubleshooting 101

While online backstrap weaving classes have made learning and practicing this heritage art form accessible around the world, we’re aware of the unique challenges online learning can pose, especially for beginners. That’s why when I received these questions from a new weaver recently, I thought so many more beginners could benefit.

Take a look below at some of the common beginner questions when it comes to backstrap weaving:

  1. First pic is of my progress. It is very slow especially when I have backtrack because of a mistake. I try to check after each line of weaving but somehow the mistakes showed up afterwards.
  • It looks great! It looks like you are progressing really well. Good on you for also fixing mistakes, I know that can be frustrating. I like to think of beginner looms/panels are practice pieces, that you can hopefully look back on later and see the improvement in your practice and technique from beginning to end. Likely, you will notice that you are making less mistakes as you progress.

2. This next pic shows the back. After weaving a little I noticed a warp thread that was not incorporated. It’s connected to the top and bottom wood pieces but was not included in the the initial weaving at the top or bottom on the loom. Should I just leave it dangling? Or try to include it somehow?

  • It’s not uncommon for loose warp threads to appear on the back, especially when they’re the first or last of that color bordering another color. This is not a problem. I would recommend weaving just like you have been, basically ignoring the loose warp. And when you’re done weaving, you can simply cut it off and tie the top end securely. The bottom loose end shouldn’t really move anymore if the rest of the warp has been woven.

3. Last photo is a close up of the wood dowel that is connected to the bottom warp threads. I really have a hard time bringing the bottom threads up to weave and I noticed there is a lot of fibers stuck on the little threads. Am I doing something wrong? Should I remove these thread fibers or just leave them?  It seems like the more I weave the more there are.  If I need to remove them, what is the best way to do so?

  • I see the fuzz on the string heddle. This is a common situation for beginner; it still happens to me, too. It happens when the weaver moves the string heddle more than “necessary” — advanced weavers are used to making little movements so that the fuzz doesn’t collect. I would recommend trying to get the fuzz off (without damaging the string heddle). I have used tiny scissors carefully in the past, or a pair of tweezers – I wonder if that might also work for you? I’ve found these fuzz balls are hard to yank off. This also happens because the weavers in San Juan la Laguna who dyed the warp and prepped the loom prefer to work with unmercerized cotton. Communities have different preferences, and in many other areas this problem is avoided (somewhat) by using mercerized cotton. It might be that the unmercerized cotton takes natural dyes better.

4. Not that I’m close to worrying about this … But what happens when I don’t have space to continue. There’s the narrow rod at the very top, the thick rod and the rod with the heddle strings. All the rods and heddles take space plus the sword too. 

  • Good questions, again, on how to “finish” the panel. The loom you’re working on was developed as a “practice loom” with the idea of it turning into a wall-hanging as-is with all the tools attached. That would be my recommendation for your very first loom, but of course whenever you feel finished, you can also release the rope going around both ends of the warp, on the warp bars — and this would allow you to take off the panel. While it is possible on a backstrap loom to have a clean four-selvage weave, I don’t recommend this for your first work because it’s super detailed and incredibly laborious. 
  • If/when you’d like another loom, we’d be happy to make you one, perhaps with a longer warp so that you can make a functional item (Scarf? Table runner?). We could make space for fringes on the ends of the warp. If you feel ready, it would also be possible then to incorporate brocade designs into your next weaving. We produced professional videos to help with that process in high-def.

Do you have other questions? Join the supportive Backstrap Weavers group on Facebook; we’re there to help each other!

How to take care of wool rugs from Momostenango

Got yourself a beautiful handwoven wool rug, and now wondering how to best take care of it? I’ll be happy to share the three simple steps that have worked for me over the years:

1. Shake the rug outside often

Get those loose wool fibers and any accumulated dust/dirt off by shaking the rug outside as often as possible. It feels good to see all the stuff come off the rug in the air! In my case, it’s usually more dog hair than anything… I shake all the rugs whenever I vacuum or sweep the house (a couple of times a week).

2. Let the rug take in the sun

Hang outside in the garden, balcony, anywhere the rug can take in some sunshine. Wool naturally has dust mite-repelling properties, but I figure adding some sunshine always helps, since I like to keep animals around. I was also told in the Netherlands that wool can be taken outside on a sunny winter day for self-cleaning. It’s generally understood that wool should be washed as little as possible, so make sure to do these first two steps often to avoid Step 3.

3. Machine-wash in gentle cycle

Because I’m pretty messy, I DO end up needing to wash my wool rugs once in a while. And it has not been a problem for me at all. Keep in mind that the more movement, the more likely for the rug to felt and shrink, and the same goes for temperature – the higher the water temperature, the more felting. I only use cold water because I don’t want my rugs to shrink.

If you have an already-felted rug, note that those are more durable than the non-felted type. This is because the fibers have interlocked, making it very hard for holes to form (and harder for them to expand, the way non-felted items might unravel). Felted rugs can handle rougher treatment (even during washing) than non-felted ones.

I learned that some washing machines have a setting specifically for wool. This works fine! Make sure to use gentle detergent and line-dry outside. Definitely don’t dry in a dryer unless you REALLY want your rug to shrink 😆

That’s really all I do for my wool rugs that I use all the time both inside and outside at home. I even have a few pieces my dog has used since puppyhood (that’s 7 years ago!) that are still intact and working well.

Here’s to many years of wool rug-using!

XOXO,

Mari

<see traditional wool rugs on our Artisan Direct page>

<find our naturally-dyed versions in our Home section>

What do these figures represent?

We’re often asked about the meaning behind brocade patterns found in Guatemala, woven row by row on backstrap looms, probably most noted on traditional huipiles. Some figures and patterns are specific to regions or towns, and others such as geometric figures seem to appear in many areas. Specific techniques used (Yes, there are many variations to brocade!) and color choices may differ, but certain repetitive patterns like diamonds, crosses, and zigzags are widely used.

But just because a figure might be “common” doesn’t mean it’s simple to decipher the symbolism behind them. Beliefs are often regional, and interpretations of similar figures can vary so much depending on who you ask. And just like other cultural aspects, these beliefs have probably shifted over time, adapting, mixing, evolving.

In this post, we’ll focus on just some (eight, to be exact) of the more prevalent traditional brocade figures currently found and used in San Juan Cotzal. These explanations were prepared by the cooperative of weavers from the same town that we work with, the ones whose work we feature here on our Artisan Direct page. Translation from Spanish to English is done by me (Mari) and I’ll also note the name of each figure in Ixil as the weavers have written them.

Can you spot some of the same figures in the beautiful huipil? (Pssst it’s available for sale by the same weavers! Find it here.)

  • 1. The Money Bird
“Tzichin – The Money Bird // This bird symbolizes the luck in having money, and having this figure is said to attract financial fortune wherever we go.”
  • 2. The Glass
“Ukab’al – The Glass // The cup or glass symbolizes home life and time spent with family; the warmth of a home. The glass is used to serve water, and represents good health and nutrition.”
  • 3. The Volcanoes
“Mam Munte – The Volcanoes // This figure stands for all volcanoes and mountains in the world, all much bigger than we are.”
  • 4. Family
“Ku Tzuk Ku B’aal – Family // This figure features a father, mother, and in the middle, a child. It represents humans, their unity and how parents take care of their children. Wearing this figure brings luck to the one’s family. “
  • 5. The Four Corners of the Earth
“Kaa Paq’ Il Txava’ – The Four Corners of the Earth // Represents Earth, where we live. Also known as the four cardinal points.”
  • 6. The Deer
“Mazat – The Deer // Because of the strength of this animal, it represents fathers as protectors of families.”
  • 7. The Corn Field Bird
“Toxokopil K’om – The Corn Field Bird // This figure shows the bird that feeds on corn, the greens of nature. It symbolizes life itself.”
  • 8. The Traveling Bird
“Xaol – The Traveling Bird // This Traveling Bird existed in years past. It would travel to the other side of the mountain, and when it rained, they all went up to the heavens. They would sing every afternoon from the clouds. This is the figure that represents human beings, and it protects people who travel to other towns, even countries.”

The cooperative of weavers from San Juan Cotzal, all proudly wearing handwoven huipiles that likely feature many of the above traditional brocade figures. Find their creations for sale here.

Pre-loved huipiles

If you know Guatemalan textiles at all, I’m sure you are familiar with brocade-rich traditional huipiles, with each region or even town featuring different patterns and styles. This is usually what comes to mind when people think “Guatemalan textiles.”

Cooperative of weaves in San Juan Cotzal, each wearing a traditional brocade-filled huipil (blouse)

That’s with good reason, because traditional huipiles are so beautiful. They are also very personal, as weavers have been known to incorporate their hopes, dreams, even prayers into the panels on backstrap looms. And when it comes to the sale of such labor-intensive weavings dear to hearts, there are some ethical concerns. In rural areas, weavers often resort to selling their handwovens to textile vender middlemen who have a reputation for bargaining down to the lowest price possible, knowing that rural weavers generally do not have direct access to markets and taking advantage of such a situation.

The color red represents strength in Cotzal.

And there’s another challenging factor: how to fairly price used handwovens. When brand new, handwoven huipil pricing can be made by considering material and labor costs. But once the garment is worn, how does that affect the retail value of the piece? As with most used things, there is devaluation to consider. There may be stains, even holes; overall general wear and tear that come with use. And then, when does something go from “used” to “vintage”? And when labeled as “vintage” does that imply higher value, as in a rare antique or an item that is museum-quality? How old does a piece need to be in order to be classified as “vintage”?

These are some questions I personally have, and clearly I don’t have the answers. As a general rule as Kakaw Designs over the years, we have tried our best to stay away from the repurposing of traditional huipiles, unless we are able to source directly from weavers or find pieces that are very worn — in the sense that when a garment is almost falling apart, we feel better about cutting certain parts and using them for other purposes. But in general, cutting brocaded textiles is not something we take lightly. But maybe that’s a topic for another post.

As far as traditional textiles go, I also think it’s true that weavers have the right to sell pieces they have created. Like anything we own. I don’t see why or how this right to sell one’s own belongings should be taken away. What is important, though, is making sure that the weavers are compensated well, even for worn garments, and honoring the cultural heritage of these artworks.

This week, we listed 8 huipiles being sold by weavers themselves from our partner cooperative at San Juan Cotzal. I like to refer to these artworks as “pre-loved.” They have all been worn, are in good condition, and show excellent brocade backstrap weaving skills of each weaver. They are full of traditional motifs from the town like birds, corn, and deer. And most importantly, because the weavers are all part of the cooperative, they have learned how to price their pre-loved garments fairly. I agree with how they have valued their work, and believe that clients should feel confident that the weavers are receiving good compensation for their work, even with the challenges of including general use devaluation.

The pandemic last year allowed us to make some really important pivots. Opening up our Artisan Direct page was one of them – started out of need for rural artisan groups to reach markets when everything got shut down in a very literal sense, including local markets, stores, transport, and tourism. Now, Guatemala is open, but the benefits are only very slowly trickling down to rural communities like Cotzal. We will keep our Artisan Direct efforts going for as long as it feels “right” — for us and for them.

You can find these pieces and more from Cotzal on their section on our website.

Backstrap loom kits 101

Weaving is a wonderful activity that can be practiced easily from home on a simple backstrap loom. But for those of you who didn’t grow up with weaving, it might still look and feel intimidating.

Don’t worry! I put together these simple videos to show you exactly what to expect in your backstrap weaving kit, and how to get started.

  1. This video shows how to unwrap your bundle and attach the loom in your home, and get into the right position to start weaving (4:40min):

2. In the second video, I show step-by-step how to get started with the simplest of weaves, the plain weave. I tried to explain also the basics of weaving in this video (7:10min):

These two should help you get started. Looking for more? Check our Experiences section for Zoom classes with master weaver Doña Lidia. Learn about the basics of textile traditions in Guatemala and weave together with experienced and patient teacher, Doña Lidia in English, from the comfort of your home.

Consider joining our small community of backstrap weavers on Facebook, a space for helping and learning from each other.

You can also look at the “Weaving” category on this blog for more posts related to the topic.

Happy weaving!

XOXO,

Mari

Guatemalan Weaving Vocabulary

As we get more and more involved with online weaving classes, we thought that a short list of common vocab might be helpful. The following is meant to be a simple introduction, and explained by me (Mari) in the context of weaving in Guatemala only. Please keep in mind that there are so many different textile traditions around the world, and many of these techniques in a different context are applied in a different way. But here’s something to get you started, with pictures:

Backstrap weaving, Doña Lidia in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Photo by Aiko Kobayashi.

Backstrap weaving: a pre-colombian simple loom technology that consists basically of sticks and yarn. On one end, the loom is attached to a pole, tree, or anything stable, and on the other, to the weaver, around the waist with a belt. It can be rolled up and moved easily. This is the technique used in Guatemala for traditional huipiles (blouses worn by women) and more garments. Predominantly practiced in Guatemala by women. Similar looms are found in many parts of the world.

Doña Lidia demonstrates simple brocade patterns during an online class: mosquitos, pepenado lines, and semillas. Photo by Lisa Jennings.

Brocade weave: technique used to create patterns in the weaving. In Guatemala, the type of brocade is supplementary weft brocade. Many additional threads are introduced into the weft during weaving, row by row. Some people describe this process as “embroidering while weaving.”

A wooden footloom or pedal loom in Momostenango, used for weaving wool rugs in this town.

Footloom weaving: using a larger wood-based loom that was brought by the Spanish to Guatemala. Also called “pedal loom” or “treadle loom.” This type of loom allows for much wider and longer textiles to be woven. In Guatemala, the weaving on such a loom is performed predominantly by men. It is possible to incorporate techniques such as ikat and brocade on this type of loom, as well as tapestry weave.

Irma from Lake Atitlán shows her ikat-dyeing project. This is the warp to be woven on a backstrap loom. In this case, she started with already dyed-yellow thread. This will be dyed again after the knotting is complete, so the parts under the knots will remain yellow while the rest will be dyed with the second color.
Here is an example of an ikat pattern from dyeing the warp, visible on the loom. During the knotting and the dyeing processes it can be difficult to decipher what the design will look like when finished.

Ikat: a resist-dye technique applied to thread before the weaving process. Knots are placed in calculated positions in order for the thread to reveal patterns when the knots are opened after dyeing. In Guatemala, ikat is referred to as “jaspe” and the technique is practiced for both warp and weft threads independently, and in both backstrap and footloom forms.

Picbil on the loom, taken during a Textile Travel visit, Cobán area.

Picbil: a light-weave with supplementary weft for gentle brocade, regional from around Cobán. Traditionally, this weave is for blouses, using only white on white.

All three panels used for this picbil piece have four clean selvages, which can be noted here by the absence of fringing. Cobán.

Selvages / Selvedges: the finished edges of a fabric that do not fray. Footloom-woven textiles usually have two clean selvages, but not the starting and ending points of the panel, because these parts are cut off the loom. Backstrap-woven textiles may have four clean selvedges, but making a textile like this requires the knowledge, skill, and patience. Not all backstrap-woven panels have four selvages; they may have two, three, or four. Traditionally, Maya textiles are used to their fullest extent by not cutting the panels, thus keeping the structure intact an utilizing the selvages.

All the floral and zigzag patterns above are created on the loom with the incorporation of supplementary weft threads. Master weaver Doña Lidia from San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

Supplementary weft: the additional threads used to create designs for brocade figures. This allows for extra color to be incorporated into the textile.

This ikat warp is being put on the loom after the dyeing process. Lake Atitlán.
The warp on a pedal loom in Momostenango.

Warp: the vertically-arranged yarn/thread that is necessary in all types of looms.

Doña Lidia inserts additional weft into the textile (blue) along with the normal weft (bright pink, wrapped around the shuttle.

Weft: the yarn/thread that is inserted into the warp to create a structurally-sound weave. In Guatemala, the use of additional weft threads create colorful brocade designs.

Mysa: Abigail’s indigo exploration in Guatemala

When the pandemic hit Guatemala this March, we started selling cloth masks that one of our partner artisans was making. Abigail reached out to me during this time, interested in a few colorful masks for her own use, as wearing a mask had become mandatory rather quickly in the country. We met up on the side of a small street in Santa Ana, Antigua, me walking Berry and she walking to meet us. We ended up taking for over an hour there, on the sidewalk, masked and keeping our distance. This is how our friendship began.

Somehow, this collaboration is different from any other we’ve worked on before, simply because we didn’t have a business agenda. What began as a quarantine creative activity for four friends, dyeing together in Abigail’s indigo vat babies, was meant for us. Not for anyone else, but just for us, friends figuring out how to live in a pandemic world with strict regulations. We took refuge in this small but meaning way.

And now, we’re ready to share a little bit of this joy with you in the form of these indigo-dipped earrings made with handspun local organic cotton. For this, we have our supporters to thank, who have encouraged us even from afar on our social media accounts to do something with the indigo fun. Muchas gracias.

I hope you enjoy getting to know Abigail and her craft in this little Q and A we put together for you.

XOXO, Mari

The Indigo Gang: Mari, Emily, Abigail, and Evelyn (left to right). Oh yeah, and Chorizo.

1. What’s the story behind your brand name, Mysa?

Mysa is a Swedish word that refers to a state of comfort or contentedness with something. One online resource gave a definition I particularly like: “To smile (with only slight movement of the mouth), particularly as a sign of contentedness or comfort.” I imagine in Swedish the definition is a bit more stoic than my interpretation. But I like the idea of a small, knowing smile because you’re remaining playful in the face of challenge, and finding joy within life’s responsibilities. Perhaps you are carrying around a morsel of glee in your pocket while wading through some grim practicalities. It is there, with that morsel in your pocket, that you find contentedness. It’s a bit sneaky and very beautiful. That’s Mysa.  

Abigail at her home studio

2. Were you always interested in natural dyes? How did you get started?

Actually, no, I can’t say I have been interested in natural dyes for very long. Living in Oaxaca, Mexico I learned about cochineal, which is a captivating dye, but I hadn’t ever thought about working with it. My indigo journey started about one year ago in the textile museum in Oaxaca. An exhibition on indigo detailed the plants used to make the dye and showcased indigo textiles from all around the world. The most interesting part for me was a video they showed of men in Niltepec, Oaxaca oxygenating a large tank of water that was turning more and more blue—they were making indigo! The men pushed the water over and over for hours with broom-like tools, and the water would sloosh against the concrete wall of the tank. The repetition of the sound and the movement of the water fascinated me. I wanted to see it in person. I wanted to be in that tank and feel my arms tire as I moved with the water, watching it change color. 

Working with indigo

3. Do you also work with other dyes, or focus specifically on indigo? Why?

The process of getting indigo dye from a plant is fascinating, as is dyeing with indigo. Oxygen, either removing it or adding it, is key to work with this particular natural dye. So, you’re working with air, water, and earth (a plant), and there is something very rooting about that. 

Too, indigo is a storyteller, and working with indigo is a practice. Each time I visit with my vats I give them all my attention, and then I ruminate on what they’ve taught me. If I started working with other natural dyes, I think I would feel pulled in different directions, and what was once interesting would become frustrating due to my own impatience for things to “work.” For me, the most important thing in my indigo practice is that I feel joy in it. So I keep it simple, and that keeps me engaged. Indigo still has many stories left to tell me, and really, I’m all ears. 

4. What has it been like to start up your indigo exploration during the pandemic in Guatemala?

I feel very fortunate that I was able to take advantage of a time of lockdowns, curfews, and limited human interaction to focus on a craft. Indigo gave me purpose when I was without work, in a different country, and unsure of where I was headed. I was able to take the time and space to start my work with indigo and get it wedged into my life enough that now—as uncertainty continues, but life moves on—I carry my craft with me. 

Indigo exploration recipes on the wall

5. What are you working on these days? Can you share a little bit about your projects?

My main and on-going project for myself is dyeing threads. I focus on threads because I love the idea of my threads being woven into people’s ideas. I think I enjoy being the source of some secret, behind-the-scenes magic, and helping someone create something beautiful (like our earring collab!) is utterly gleeful.  

In addition, I’m leaving myself space to respond to others’ interest in indigo which has put me in a kind of exploration-facilitation role. I’m involved in two projects now. One I see as helping a local brand find out if working with her own indigo vat is a good fit for her. Everyone loves the magic of indigo, but that beautiful blue comes with costs, both financial and energy, so it’s not a right fit for everyone. I’ll also be co-teaching with a fellow indigo enthusiast (both a teacher and a life-long learner herself) a group of dyers who have limited access to indigo resources. This is a fun challenge for me—learning how to start and maintain vats using locally accessible materials. I hope both of these ventures lead to better understanding how local (Guatemalan) artisans might more easily pick up the lost practice of indigo.