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).

Garn on Gotland

Visiting an island with such a rich history and with its very own breed of sheep, yarn was unquestionably on the itinerary. Everywhere we walked in the old town of Visby, there were statues of sheep in recognition of the role that sheep have played in the island’s history. Farmers kept sheep and used their fleece to make clothing to keep warm during the snow-covered winters.

Sheep Statue on Visby

Nothing was wasted. The curly fleece could be found on bags, pillows, clothing, seat cushions and phone cases.

Kvinnfolki - Wool Items

One place to get all sorts of sheepish goodies was at Kvinnfolki. The items at Kvinnfolki are the handiwork of a women’s collective. They make everything by hand in their homes or studios, such as casting pottery and spinning their own yarn. They are located on Donners Plats, Visby’s town square.

Kvinnfolki - Yarn and Cuffs Display

These sheep pelts were oh-so-soft to touch and so warm! They even smelled sheepish. And see those fluffy slippers to the left? I brought Mom a pair. She says she puts them on as soon as she gets home every day and loves how they keep her feet warm and cozy.

Kvinnfolki - Sheep Pelt

Before moving on to the next shop, we required sustenance. At an adorable little place called Ett Rum För Resande Café (Room for Traveler’s Café), I had the Gotland island specialty – saffranspannkaka, a saffron pancake with red berries and cream. Paired with a cappuccino to warm up my bones, it was the perfect afternoon snack. The chef/owner of the tiny café was so down to earth. Customers of all ages would come in and catch up on the latest news. He must know everyone in town! We spent a while talking with him – he prepares and cooks everything himself using fresh ingredients. He always had some very cool music on and he made a killer pasta dish when we returned the next day for lunch.

Ett Rum For Resande Cafe - Saffron Dessert

Right across the cobblestone street from the café is an antiques store named Akantus. The middle and back rooms of Akantus are filled with wonderful antiques that included furniture, glassware, pottery, paintings and other decorative items.

Akantus - Antiques

In the front room, they stock all sorts of whimsical pretty things, like these mice in their cigar box bed – complete with knitted blanket!

Akantus - Mice in Cigar Box

Further down the street, there are no less than three yarn shops next to each other. One of them was closed for the season but fear not because the other two were open for business. The first stop was at Design & Hantverk Gotland which features yarn and many other hand crafted items from local artisans such as ceramics and glassware. The owners themselves design and make items in pewter, iron and wood.

Design & Hantverk Gotland - Storefront

Of course, my attention went straight to the beautiful yarn displays.

Design & Hantverk Gotland - Yarn Display 1

The owner told me that she hand knit all of these socks! They were thick and colorful and showcased the sock yarn in her shop.

Design & Hantverk Gotland - Knitted Socks

Immediately across the street was Yllet.

Yllet - Storefront

The owner, Frida, is a lovely young woman who inherited her love of yarn from her mother. Her mother used to export yarn spun from Gotland sheep. Now Frida is at the helm. She sources the fleece locally on the island and has it spun in Finland. She explained that the fleece of the Gotland sheep is very fine, more similar to mohair than wool. She found a spinnery in Finland with the right equipment for spinning the long, delicate fleece. She personally selects the dyes and sells the yarn under her own Yllet label. She is living the life I imagine!!

Yllet - Yarn Display 1

In addition to fabulous yarn for hand knitting, she has the yarn machine-knit into sweaters and other clothing. Local women assemble the machine-knit pieces. My husband liked a simple sweater with clean lines but they did not have his size available in the dark gray color he preferred. Frida made a phone call and a local seamstress assembled the sweater in his size and color of choice. It was ready the following day.

Yllet - Yarn Display 2

Toward the end of our stay, I decided to photograph my purchases in Gotland rather than waiting until I got home. Across the street from our hotel were the Botanical Gardens. Even in the Fall, the gardens were lush and verdant.

Botanical Gardens - Gazebo
Gazebo built in 1863.

The gardens had their own particular history.

In 1814 a few young men gathered to bathe in the sea, drink punch and socialize. They decided to form the Society of the Bathing Friends (DBW). After a short time they wanted to combine pleasure with usefulness… (Sign posted by the Friends of the Botanic Garden)

Among its contributions, the Society established a school for poor boys in 1815, a savings bank in 1830, and the Botanic Garden in 1855.

Botanical Gardens - Dáhlia
Dáhlia – Happy Single Wink
Crócus - Oxonian.
Crócus – Oxonian.
Rósa - Leonardo da vinci.
Rósa – Leonardo da vinci.

Botanical Gardens - White Dáhlia

What better place than the botanical gardens for a photo shoot? I took my yarn lovelies to the gardens and arranged them in various poses for the camera. We had so much fun!

Botanical Gardens - Yllet Yarn Close-up

I call this one, “yarn among the leaves.”

Botanical Gardens - Yllet Yarn

Walking around the gardens scouting good places for the photo shoot, there was this lovely sheep statue next to a fallen tree.

Botanical Gardens - Sheep

Also on the grounds are the ruins of S:t Olaf’s Kyrka.

St. Olof's Church - West Tower

In its day, St. Olof’s Church was among the biggest and most sumptuous churches in Visby. It dates from the early years of the 13th century. The church was named after the canonised king of Norway, Olof Haraldsson.

This church was a basilica, i.e. had a tall nave and lower north and south aisles. Parts of the west tower are all that now remains. The walls of the church were demolished after the Middle Ages and the stone was used for buildings in Visby.

Behind the church, the sun was filtering in through the trees.

Botanical Gardens - Undyed Wool 2

Botanical Gardens - Undyed Wool 1

I call this series, “yarn among the ruins.” (LOL)

Botanical Gardens - Angora Yarn

Just a few meters outside the medieval wall surrounding the gardens was the icy Baltic Sea. Even though the air was cool, the sun was shining on a magnificent day.

Ducks

To Spain or Bust

Another knit hat is off the needles. Simple pattern with reliable results. This hat is intended for a gentleman my husband met on his trip to Spain last year.

Another Beanie

On his walk along the Way of St. James, he stopped for the night in León in northern Spain. There, he befriended the owner of the Taller de Grabado y Estampa. He spent a few hours talking with the owner and artisan, José Holguera, in his engraving and stamping studio. My husband came home with these beautiful limited edition lithographs of the Catedral de León and a pilgrim’s staff imprinted by Holguera on his lithographic press.

Holguera Lithograph Catedral de León

Holguera Lithograph Staff

Over the holidays, an envelope stamped with Correos España arrived. It contained a beautiful lithograph of a modernist starry night.

Holguera Lithograph Star

As a token of appreciation, my husband wanted to send his friend a gift – so he asked me if I would hand knit a hat. The hat needed to be special, even in its simplicity. I went through my stash and selected the yarn I brought back from my trip to Colombia. It is 100% hand-spun wool in natural, undyed hues.

Natural undyed wool 1

I used the darker brown. The photo of the finished hat was taken under different outdoor lighting conditions so the richness of the brown does not come through as in this photograph.

Natural undyed wool 2

I was concerned it would be a bit scratchy but it is soft and warm. I doubled the yarn as I knitted to make it especially cushiony. It seems fitting somehow – 100% undyed, hand-spun wool from Bogotá, Colombia, hand-knit in Texas, for a friend in León, Spain.

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.

Yarn Terrors

Horrors! I had a knitter’s worst nightmare – while awake!

I recently switched phones and despite backing up my data, the yarn inventory on my Vogue knitting app did not carry over. I’m certain it was user error because most of my other data transferred.

I didn’t mind though. It was a perfect excuse to take out the yarn stash and air it out. I do that from time to time. It reminds me of the beautiful skeins I’ve picked up here and there and sparks project ideas.

Yarn Stash May 2014 2

To my horror, as I was halfway through taking it out of its bin, out flew a moth! Noooooooooo! You can imagine the waves of panic that shot through me. I chased the culprit around the room and away from my yarn. I then turned to my stash and immediately examined every single skein, ball and hank for damage. Alas, there were several casualties.

The next couple of days were devoted to separating the damaged skeins from the rest. I threw out three skeins that seemed to have gotten the worst of it. Thankfully, the damage seemed contained to a corner of one bin.

I was surprised to find the cursed critters in my stash. I periodically inspect and reorganize my stash (yes, I am a bit OCD about it) and keep a pile of cedar balls in each basket. But it was not enough.

Yarn Stash with Cedar Balls

After taking photos and entering my stash inventory into the app, I began storing the yarn inside plastic bags. I bought some lavender-scented moth balls wrapped in light paper and put one inside each bag, like little lethal sentinels guarding my treasures. I know those fibers are better off with circulating air but I was in defensive mode. I figured I could wash out the moth ball smell later. Better that than having to toss away yarn. My stash is a few skeins smaller but otherwise intact.

Yarn Stash May 2014 1

Now I really have to knit it down rather than risk losing any more of it. Yarn protection suggestions  are welcome.

La Casa Rosada

You didn’t think I would pass up an opportunity to visit a yarn store, did you? Besides the beauty of gold, emeralds, textiles, art and salt mines, there was yarn.

Case Rosada - Inside

When I entered La Casa Rosada (The Pink House) I thought I was in the yarn candy store of my dreams. The proprietress opened the shop for me and let me ogle and touch to my heart’s content. I had the place all to myself.

Casa Rosada - Lana Motín y Algodón Orgánico

I found out about this jewel from an online search and from Classy Crochet’s blog. The shop is located in what looks like a residential street. It’s easy to spot, just look for the bright pink facade.

Casa Rosada - Lanas en color

La Casa Rosada sells yarns made from natural fibers including cumare (a native palm tree), yute (jute, a vegetable fiber), cabuya ripiw (a natural fiber from the leaves of the fique plant, similar to hemp), pita (fiber from agave plants), bamboo, and strips of leather.

Casa Rosada - Cabuya ripiw en fique

They carry wool and cotton in many weights, both dyed and in natural hues. Those large rolls are woven out of sisal and the barely visible sign below reads “fibra de plátano” on a basket filled with yarn spun out of banana leaf fibers.

Casa Rosada - Lanas sin color y Rollos de sisal

Casa Rosada - Lanas y Bambú

They spin their own yarn at La Casa Rosada, so all you see are natural homespun fibers turned into gigantic skeins of yarn. The diameters range from 2, 3, 4, and 8 millimeters up to 3 centimeters for bulkier yarn.

Casa Rosada - Lana para hilar 1 Casa Rosada - Lana para hilar 2

Casa Rosada - Lana moton

They hand weave tapestries and hammocks. I was tempted to get one, they were so impressive, but somehow didn’t think it would fit in my carry-on.

Casa Rosada - Tapiz 1Casa Rosada - Tapiz en fique y cueros

Prices are based on weight. They have a large scale on the floor where they plopped my selections. The rate was roughly $1.500 Colombian pesos per kilogram. The scale read 1.20 kilograms for a total of $175.000 pesos (about $89 USD). Given the massive quantities of beautiful, natural, hand spun yarn, I thought it was a fair price.

I would go to La Casa Rosada again in a heartbeat. Next time, I’m bringing an empty suitcase.

La Casa Rosada - Business Card

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.