Botanical Dyes and Motifs in the Textiles of Lago Atitlán

This past April, my husband and I enjoyed a long weekend along the banks of Lago Atitlán in Guatemala. Getting there from Guatemala City was a 5-hour, bumpy and circuitous ride up the mountains. When we arrived, it was almost dark, and the fog obscured a full view, but what I could see was beautiful. The lake seemed to go on forever.

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(Source)

Lago Atitlán was once called “the most beautiful lake in the world” by German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Lago Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America at 1,049 feet (320 meters) deep and is approximately 12 kilometers long. It is surrounded by villages whose inhabitants are Tz’utujil, an ethnic group of the Maya civilization.

The vegetation is lush and abundant with fruit trees and flowering greenery. Coffee beans grow along the mountainsides and locals work at harvesting them for exporting.

They say that this mountain top resembles the face of a Maya ancestor.

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The villages each have their own personalities. We stayed at San Pedro La Laguna which draws backpackers from all over the world. The streets along the banks of the river are dotted with bars and hostels catering to youthful travelers. We stayed in a one-bedroom apartment in the home of an English teacher, a short walk from restaurants and coffee bars but far enough away from the noise. My goal was to visit San Juan La Laguna, a neighboring village known for its cooperatives of women weavers. For 10 quetzales, we took a dusty 10-minute tuk-tuk ride to get there. Our first stop was at the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico. According to their brochure:

We are a multigenerational collective of 48 women weavers from San Juan La Laguna. We work together to support each other and our families through the sales of our traditionally crafted textiles since 1971.

We met Cristina, a member of the cooperative, who explained the spinning and dying process. The textiles are woven out of locally grown white and brown cotton.

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The cotton is picked, cleaned and hand spun with a support spindle and bowl, as demonstrated by Cristina.

Cristina then explained each of the natural dyes used to add color. All of the dyes are extracted from flora that grows around Lago Atitlán.

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To obtain shades of red, they crush the seeds from the pods of the achiote tree (scientific name: Bixa orellana). The pulverized seeds are heated in water to produce rich reds.

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I was surprised to learn that the avocado seed produces a dye. The seed is dried and left until it begins to disintegrate. It is then ground and boiled to release a green dye.

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The buds and seed pods of the pericon plant (scientific name: Hypericum perforatum) produce green and yellow colors. The plant is native to Mexico and Guatemala and grows wild in previously cultivated land or near milpas.

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The bark of the ilamo (a type of birch tree) produces red and yellow dyes, from the outer and inner bark, respectively.

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Flor de Muerto (or Mexican Marigold) is used for yellow dyes.

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Sacatinta (scientific name: Justicia tinctorea) produces dyes of various shades, hence its common name (“saca” from the verb “sacar” meaning to remove or take out; “tinta” for dye). According to Cristina, you can get as many as five hues from one pot of sacatinta.

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We watched as the skein of cotton yarn began to turn a deep purple upon oxygenation.

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To remember our visit, we selected this textile dyed with indigo. It is meant to be a wrap although we plan to use it as a decorative element at the end of a bed.

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Cristina explained the motifs on the textile. The milpa (or maize field) is an ancient agricultural method of the Maya. Areas of land are cultivated to grow corn and other crops. After a couple of years of harvest, the ground is left fallow to regenerate itself. Typically, women use the back strap loom to weave while men use a larger foot-pedal loom. The figure of a woman, or ixoq in the Tz’utujil language, is a recurring motif.

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The árbol de ilamo, used so frequently for its dyes, is represented.

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The next motif represents a freshwater crab found in Lago Atitlán, followed by a fish.

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The last motif in this textile is of Tikal, a pre-Columbian city from the Maya civilization.

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To learn more, we brought home this book about the botanical dyes of the region. It is organized in three major sections covering natural dyes from trees, fruits and plants. Each section contains recipes for creating the natural dyes and examples of the colors that each produces.

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You can find the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico on Facebook (@ColoresBotanico).

A Day at the Fiber Festival

My very first spinning lesson was at the Kid’N Ewe And Lamas Too fiber festival a couple of years ago. This past weekend, I revisited this annual festival which is spread out over three large barns at the Kendall County Fairgrounds. There was weaving, spinning, felting, knitting and crocheting everywhere!

I spent hours swooning over fibers from animal and plant sources including camel, yak, buffalo, sheep, goat and silkworm as well as hemp, bamboo, and cotton. Many were hand dyed in stunning colors like these wool batts …

Gorgeous merino, bamboo, and angelina batts from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.orkieslave.etsy.com)
Gorgeous merino, bamboo, and angelina batts from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.yorkieslave.etsy.com)
Luscious browns and golds from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.orkieslave.etsy.com)
Luscious browns and golds from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.yorkieslave.etsy.com)
Glistening waves in a deep blue sea from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.orkieslave.etsy.com)
Glistening waves in a deep blue sea from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.yorkieslave.etsy.com)

… and this hemp fiber in deep tones.

Hand-dyed natural plant fibers from the Fiber Lady. (www.fiberlady.com)
Hand-dyed natural plant fibers from the Fiber Lady. (www.fiberlady.com)

There were countless hand crafted tools throughout including this lovely assortment of spindles and shuttles.

These wooden spindles are from Yarnorama (I think). I didn't pick up a business card. (www.yarnorama.com)
These wooden spindles are from Yarnorama (I think). I didn’t pick up a business card. (www.yarnorama.com)
Turkish and top whorl drop spindles from Heritage Arts. (www.heritageartstexas.com)
Turkish and top whorl drop spindles from Heritage Arts. (www.heritageartstexas.com)
Unique hand painted wooded spindles from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.orkieslave.etsy.com)
Unique hand painted wooded spindles from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.yorkieslave.etsy.com)
Hand crafted glass and wood spindles from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.orkieslave.etsy.com)
Hand crafted glass and wood spindles from Yorkieslave Artworks. (www.yorkieslave.etsy.com)
These wooden shuttles are from Yarnorama (I think). I didn't pick up a business card. (www.yarnorama.com)
These wooden shuttles are from Yarnorama (I think). I didn’t pick up a business card. (www.yarnorama.com)

Behind rows of vendor stalls in one of the barns, several teams were in full swing for the Fiber to Fashion demonstrations. Spinners using spindles and wheels were busily turning fiber into yarn. The yarn was fed to the weaver who meticulously wove it on a loom. The goal was to create a finished product – a 20″ x 72″ shawl – in one day.

One of the Fiber to Fashion teams working on their woven shawl.
One of the Fiber to Fashion teams working on their woven shawl.

The team pictured here held a raffle for their shawl. I bought one ticket for $1 but, alas, did not win. I watched them as they were making the fringe and putting the final touches on the shawl. It was absolutely gorgeous.

The air was cool, the sun was out, the animals were adorable, kindred spirits were plentiful, and there were three barns full of fibery goodness – perfect!

A Place for Weaving

During our trip to Comfort in search of yarn, we discovered another little gem in the quaint historic district. Comfort Crockery is immediately across the street from The Tinsmith’s Wife. The main area is dedicated to original artwork by local and regional artists. The items included pottery, glassware, jewelry and mesquite furniture. But what really drew me in was a sign that read “Loom Room.”

It turns out that Comfort Crockery offers weaving classes and all the tools needed by spinners and weavers alike. They had spindles, spinning wheels, fiber and looms. I chatted with the owner who gave me a preview of wonderful things to come. She led me through a hallway that opened up into a cavernous room that was to become the Loom Room. There were piles of lumber, saw horses and tools scattered throughout. The room was being carefully renovated.

As I soon learned, Comfort Crockery is housed in a historic building designed in the mid-1800’s by architect Alfred Giles of San Antonio. The town itself was settled by German immigrants who were “freethinkers.”

Freethinkers were German intellectuals who advocated reason and democracy over religious and political authoritarianism. Many had participated in the 1848 German revolution and sought freedom in America. They strongly supported secular education and generally did not adhere to any formal religious doctrines. They applied themselves to the crafts of physical labor and divided their time between farming and intellectual pursuits. Freethinkers advocated universal equal rights, and their moral values were dominated by their respect for life. They actively supported such social issues as the abolition of slavery and the rejection of secession. (Source)

So our quaint afternoon in search of yarn became a wonderful mini history lesson. These are some of the things I saw at Comfort Crockery.

Three Days in Bogotá – Día Uno

This was our first visit to Colombia and now I know where all the beautiful people come from. The capitol is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. The vegetation is rich and green and vibrant with colorful flowers. The people are charming and open and beautiful inside and out. Here is a recap of three wonderful days in Bogotá.

Day One

We walked through the cobblestoned streets of the historic La Calendaria district. At its center is Plaza Bolívar anchored at one end by the Cathedral of Bogotá. The Cathedral was built in the early 1800s (source) and has seen better days. But the church and the plaza were still the heart of the city pulsing with people and activity.

Cathedral of Bogotá

The plaza was taken over by pigeons, hundreds of them. People were buying dried kernels of corn from the street vendors and feeding them. For a moment, I had the sensation that I was in the middle of a Hitchcock movie.

Birds at Plaza de Bolívar

And what’s a plaza without llamas!

Llamas at Plaza de Bolívar

Close to Plaza Bolívar is a very small restaurant called “La Puerta Falsa” (The Fake Door) that has been around since 1816 (source). The first thing that draws you in is the window featuring trays full of these.

Dulces de Colombia

The ones on top are cocadas de arequipe con cacahuates y cocadas blancas (coconut with dulce de leche and peanuts and sugared coconut). The goodies at the bottom are called Marquesas. They are filled with fruits such as guanábana and moro (sour sop and mulberries).

Inside the tiny restaurant, we had a typical Colombian meal of tamales and ajiaco. The tamale was filled with a delicious mixture of cornmeal, chicken, chick peas and carrots all wrapped and tied inside large green banana leaves. To accompany it I had a glass of fresh mulberry juice. My husband had the Ajiaco Santafereño, a thick soup of chicken, yellow potatoes and corn. It was accompanied by rice, avocado slices, crema fresca (fresh cream) and capers.

Tamale Santafereño

Ajiaco Santafereńo

It so happens that “La Puerta Falsa” was featured in an episode of Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain. Watch Anthony enjoy a steaming tamale.


Our next stop was el Cerro Monserrate, a mountain in the center of the city. One can hike up or take either a train or cable car. We chose the teleférico (cable car). The cable car took us over the funicular rails below.

Ruta de Funicular

Once up the mountain, from 3,170 meters above sea level, there was this incredible view of Bogotá. The city stretched farther than I could see, possibly due to the smog. According to Colombia’s Official Travel Guide, the city has over 10 million people.

Bogotá from Monserrate Peak

Bell at Monserrate Peak

The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) featured pre-Colombian art hammered out of gold.

Museo de Oro - Gold Funeral Mask

Gold funeral masks…made of the sacred metal…immortalized the chieftains with their symbolic power.

Museo de Oro - Gold Ceremonial Ornaments

During ceremonies, the hanging plates on ornaments twinkled in the light and gave off metallic sounds…

Museo de Oro - Circular Symbol of Time

Time was conceived as being cyclical or like a spiral…

As I turned a corner to the next exhibit room, I saw this.

Museo de Oro - Spinning Exhibit

Museo de Oro - Spindle Whorl 1

The spindle whorls that were used for spinning were fitted to the end of the stick which the cotton thread was rolled around. Fabrics from this region were noted for their fine quality.

Museo de Oro - Spindle Whorl 2

Museo de Oro - Spindle Whorl 3

Museo de Oro - Spindle Whorl 4

Like a metaphor, the weave notion can be seen in the filigree work in earrings…and in other objects… [200 a.C – 1000 d.C]

Museo de Oro - Woven Net

Museo de Oro - Filigree Earring Detail

Cotton and sisal were spun using spindles that were driven by engraved stone whorls…

Museo de Oro - Engraved Stone Whorls

Museo de Oro - Spun Cotton

…and the resulting thread was used for making blankets, caps, bags and nets. [600 d.C – 1600 d.C]

Museo de Oro - Crochet Bag

We ended Day One with a fantastic dinner at Andrés Carne de Res. We went to the city center location; the original is in the suburb of Chia. I can’t tell you more about it because no retelling will do it justice. It’s the sort of place you simply have to experience, like Bogotá.

Spinning Near Yashow Market

As I was walking towards the subway after a morning of haggling at Yashow Market, I saw this – a woman spinning wool!

Spinning at Yachow Market

I asked her if the fiber was 新羊毛 (xīn yáng máo), the Chinese term for wool. She smiled and nodded.

Spinning and Cross-Stitching at Yachow Market

Her companion had a thick yellow thread or yarn on the floor beside her. As she talked, she continued working on what looked like a cross-stitch landscape. I may have to carry my WIP and a little stool with me so I can join these sidewalk sessions. The ladies allowed me to take a few photos. Even the baby peeked into the camera!

Spinning Silk in Thailand

My husband is traveling in Thailand and sent me these photographs. I think he knew I would like them. This first photograph shows a Thai man spinning silk. Look closely and you will see the delicate silk thread being pulled from several silkworm cocoons.

Spinning Silk from Cocoons

They were taken at the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. Jim Thompson, as I soon learned, was an American architect who moved to Bangkok after World War II and subsequently established the Thai Silk Company. Look at all those silkworm cocoons!

Silk Cocoons

I love this photograph of a beautiful Thai girl winding the silk thread.

Winding Yarn

I have high hopes of receiving a hank or two of Thai silk yarn when he returns. (Hint, hint).

Nangellini’s in Philadelphia

As many knitters do, I like to buy yarn from places I visit. More than a postcard, it helps me remember a certain place. When possible, I buy local – fibers from local farms, hand-spun, locally-dyed yarns. In a short Sunday afternoon, I made a beeline to Nangellini’s on the hip and quirky South Street in Philly. These are my souvenirs.

Super Something Hand Spun, by Nancy’s Custom Spinning (that would be Nancy, the owner). Made from strands of Merino and a Merino, Mohair, Silk combo plied together; 90 yards, 146 grams, 5.14 ounces. Nancy has a special bartering arrangement with a local dyer. Nancy spins, the dyer dyes and they each keep half of the fiber.

Nangellini’s Best.Batts.Ever are made from fine fibers including Merino, Mohair and Silk with a little Firestar for that hint of sparkle.

This is Nancy, owner, spinner, knitter and overall cool person. She explained that “Nangellini” was a childhood endearment her father used for her. When I asked if I could snap a photo, she agreed and grabbed that skein of hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn for the occasion. (I almost bought that skein). If I lived in Philly, my needles and I would hang out at Nangellini’s.

My memories of Philadelphia will include Independence Hall where the Constitution of the United States was signed, the Liberty Bell with its famous crack, workshops on leadership at the Wharton School at UPenn, a visit to Gettysburg, and yarn from Nangellini’s.

I dare you to go to a yarn store and not buy anything

I went to the yarn store to pick up some fiber for the ladybug. Mom went with me.

While I was perusing the fiber options, Mom saw a ruffled knit collar on display and decided I should knit it for her. She picked this yarn for it. It is called Sakkie by Plymouth Yarn. It’s a fingering weight sock yarn made in South Africa. Fiber contents: 40% wool, 40% mohair, 20% nylon.

I found this in the sales bin. My aunt, my mother’s little sister, will also soon be having surgery. Once Mom shows her the wash cloths I made for her after her surgery, my aunt will also want some. So I’m preparing. This is Pichasca by Ester Bitran. It’s a sport weight 100% cotton yarn hand-dyed in Chile.

I picked these up because they were on sale and they were pretty and you never know when you’re going to need some yellow and red yarn for something. These are Sulka by Mirasol, a worsted weight yarn made of 60% wool, 20% silk, and 20% alpaca.

This is what I went to the yarn store for in the first place. It’s a hand-dyed silky cashmerino by Frabjous Fibers. The colourway is #8 Cottage Garden and each top is 4 oz.

Go ahead. I dare you.