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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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).

What’s a Journey without Yarn?

First stop … Ithaca.

I arrived in Ithaca a day before the MBA program to get acclimated. The agenda foretold of long hours ahead and I wanted to see the campus. I ventured down the hilly terrain from the campus to Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian-friendly area with restaurants and shops. My destination – Homespun Boutique.

Homespun Boutique - Ithaca, NY

I read that Homespun Boutique had been around for over 30 years. Besides yarn and fibers, it also carries fabrics. I arrived early and wandered in and out of the shops. When I returned to the yarn store, it was still rather dark inside. I peeked through the door and that’s when I noticed the “we’re closed today” handwritten note taped to the inside of the glass. Noooooooooo! : (

Homespun Boutique - Giant Needles

Dejected, I walked back up the hill with the sun at my back. At least I got my workout in. I will try again next time. You can find Homespun Boutique virtually on FaceBook and in real life at 314 E. State St., Ithaca, NY 14850, Phone: 607-277-0954.

Next stop … Kingston.

During the week in Kingston, Ontario, there was precious little time for anything but classes and studying. Assignments had to be turned around in 24-48 hours. I usually skipped dinner so that I could work or nap before the long night ahead. On the very last day, after all assignments had been submitted, I had a couple of hours before heading out to the airport. This was my only opportunity.

The hotel arranged a car to take me to my destination. The driver was part of the program staff and, as I came to learn, a knitter herself. An immediate friendship was struck as we made our way to Knit Traders of Kingston. I was there for only 15-20 minutes and made the most of it. The staff was very helpful. They pointed me to locally spun wool but it was a bit too scratchy for me so I picked up sock yarn instead.

Knit Traders - Wall of Yarn

Besides the ubiquitous wall of yarn, there were plenty of fibers and tools for spinning.

Knit Traders - Fibers

Every yarn store should have this sign!

Knit Traders - Touch the Yarn Sign

Knit Traders is located in a nondescript strip center, so you need to look for it. I don’t recall seeing a spot to sit and knit. They didn’t have some of the brands I typically look for, such as Madeline Tosh, but they were getting ready to bring in more local yarns.

Knit Traders - Logo
KnitTraders of Kingston, 725 Gardiners Rd, Kingston, ON, K7M 3Y5, Phone: 613-384-3951.

On the drive to Knit Traders, I learned that there was a truck full of yarn that traveled around Kingston. Yes, a TRUCK – FULL – of – YARN. Think food truck but with yarn on the menu. According to the Purlin’ J’s Roving Yarn website, the truck stops at several locations. You can find it by checking the “Where’s The Truck” section of the website. They even do day trips to fiber festivals! Imagine, riding in a truck full of yarn to a fiber festival.

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A journey without yarn is just a road trip.

Austin Yarn Shops

One of my favorite cities in Texas is none other than Austin. Austin is our state capitol and home to the University of Texas Longhorns. Austin hosts the Austin City Limits music festival (just ACL for the locals) and the South by Southwest (sxsw) music and film extravaganza. For the young – and young at heart – there’s the nightlife on 6th Street. Go antiquing on South Congress (SoCo) and watch the bats come out at dusk from underneath the South Congress Avenue bridge. There is no end to the things that Keep Austin Weird!

A place as groovy as Austin is bound to have some awesome yarn stores. Here are three that are sure to please.

Gauge logo
5406 Parkcrest Drive, Austin, Texas 78731, Tel. 512.371.9300

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At Gauge, I ran into a fellow knitting enthusiast who showed me around the shop. She didn’t even work there! As soon as you walk in, you are greeted by this pompom mobile.

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The shop has all the expected cubbies full of colorful yarn.

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I liked this crocheted cacti!

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Gauge has a nice back room where you can sit and knit. A class was in session so I quietly perused the sock yarn options.

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This display featured hand-dyed yarns from nearby Georgetown, Texas. The colors just popped!

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The next stop was Me & Ewe, a combination yarn and fabric store.

4903 Woodrow Ave., Austin, Texas 78756, Tel. 512.220.9592
4903 Woodrow Ave., Austin, Texas 78756, Tel. 512.220.9592

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Me & Ewe is located in a cute cottage with bright yellow and aqua trim – very Austin. The front room is full of lovely yarn.

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Adjoining the main room is a smaller alcove where you ring up your purchases. Hanging along the entryway were these adorable, handmade Barbie clothes. It turns out that when a customer found out she was having a baby, she began meticulously hand-knitting a closet full of dress-up clothes for her future daughter to play with. Alas, the daughter never quite got into dolls and the wardrobe was mostly unused. It is now lovingly in display at the shop.

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There are two more rooms in the cottage dedicated to fabrics – lots and lots of fabrics. I loved the modern prints.

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The third yarn store is not actually in Austin, but about 40 miles east in Paige, Texas. It is absolutely worth the side-trip.

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130 Gonzales Street, Paige, TX 78659, Tel. 512.253.0100

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Yarnorama is a fiber-enthusiast’s dream. They carry looms and threads for weaving, …

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…wheels and fiber for spinning, …

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…and plenty of yarn for knitting and crocheting.

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There was so much to see and touch, I didn’t even know where to start!

I also stopped in at Hill Country Weavers, one of my fave yarn stores ever. Because I had been many times, I didn’t linger and do not have photos to share, except for this one.

All You Knit is Love - Hill Country Weavers

Need I say more?

Stockholm Yarn Crawl

For our holiday in Stockholm, we found the most adorable apartment through Airbnb. Monica’s apartment had everything we could possibly need – a comfy living room, narrow but incredibly well-organized and stocked kitchen, and a fold-down bed that didn’t take up much space. The lift to the third floor was one of those old-fashioned ones that just fit two people and had a metal accordion door. The apartment was located only one long block from the metro. The SoFo (South of Folkungagatan) neighborhood was very eclectic and bohemian with antique stores and fab pubs nearby. My husband and I wanted to just take up residence in Monica’s apartment forever, but we figured she needed it back eventually.

It’s impossible to visit Sweden and not run across yarn shops. Yet another reason why I ❤️ Sweden. I had a list on the ready for our forays around town. Our first stop was Stick it Up, located in SoFo only a brisk 15 minute walk from Monica’s apartment.

Stick It Up - Exterior

Stick it Up is a small shop with a nice selection of yarn in natural and man-made fibers. The owner was kind and friendly and explained the sources of the various yarns. I narrowed my selection to these 100% wool skeins intended for Lovikka mittens, which the owner explained were traditional in Sweden. Once home, I looked up the history and found a nice summary about the origin of the mittens on the Heart of Lovikka website. I brought home two skeins of a lovely green (not pictured here). Stick it Up is located at Ringvägen 64, 118 61 Stockholm, tel. 08-642 00 13.

Stick It Up - Yarn

Content with my purchases, we headed over to Gamla Stan to explore the old town center. As we meandered through the cobblestone streets, I spotted this in a dark window – yarn!

Makeri 14 - Window Shopping

Alas, as I got closer, the shop was closed. All I could do was cup my hands against the window and look longingly at the baskets full of yarn. The shop was tiny, meant only to walk in, buy and leave. Makeri 14 is located at Köpmangatan 14, 111 31 Stockholm.

Makeri 14 - Exterior

The next yarn shop was located near a statue of St. George slaying the dragon. I easily spotted it because this was hanging outside the door.

Anntorps Väv on Österlånggatan 11

Anntorps Väv was also somewhat small but had a luscious collection of yarn in natural fibers. Just look at these 100% silk beauties in the window! The proprietress spoke a little bit of English and I spoke not a bit of Swedish but we managed to point and understand each other perfectly. The silk is spun for the store and she hand dyes it in these jewel-tones.

Anntorps Väv - Window Shopping

The other reason the shop is small is because this large loom takes up most of the space. When we walked in, the proprietress was weaving on it. In the store were large fluffy blankets she had woven on the loom. Anntorps Väv is located at Österlånggatan 11, 111 31 Stockholm, tel. 0046(0)8 676 00 23. It’s a few doors down from Stockholms Gästabud Bar and Bistro where we had those fabulous Swedish meatballs (pictured in previous post).

Anntorps Väv - Loom

Window shopping in Gamla Stan is heavenly when you spot things like these skeins.

Galleri Yamanashi - Window Shopping

Galleri Yamanashi is located in a largish space in a busy corner with large windows facing the street. The gallery is very nicely laid out inside with plenty of room to look around. Throughout the space, there are examples of tools used in the spinning of yarn.

Galleri Yamanashi at 1 Köpmantorget

Their selection of yarns was nicely curated and presented. There were natural skeins of wool in burlap sacks and dyed skeins in large baskets. A large wall cubby housed skeins in various weights and colors.

Galleri Yamanashi - Yarn Bag
Galleri Yamanashi - Yarn Basket
Galleri Yamanashi - Yarn Cubbies

During my visit, the shop had a special exhibition showcasing entries from the 2015 Wålstedts Textile Art Contest. The contest is a knitting and weaving competition between Sweden and Japan using Wålstedts yarns. To see the other winning entries in both weaving and knitting categories, go to galleri-yamanashi.se.

Wålstedts Textile Art Contest 2015 - 2
Left: Wålstedts Textile Art banner. Right: The chapell Notre-du-Haut by Ayako Murota.
Wålstedts Textile Art Contest 2015 - 1
Top Left: Weaver-Jyuri Nagayo. Top Right: Praying reconstruction and rebirth of eastern Japan by Mieko Sano. Bottom Left: Received Excellence Award, tomato by Weaver-Kaoru Yoneda. Bottom Right: Weaver-Maki Kimimori.

I was curious about Wålstedts yarns. According to the gallery’s website, the Wålstedts spinneri is one of the oldest spinning mills in Sweden dating back to 1934. Their fibers are sourced from Swedish sheep and have been cleaned, spun and dyed by four generations of the Wålstedts family. The following video from the Wålstedts Textilverkstad website depicts gorgeous Swedish country landscapes and the process the family uses to make this beautiful yarn.

There were several bags full of wool fibers from the Wålstedts factory dyed in rich colors around the gallery. Galleri Yamanashi is located at Köpmantorget 1, 111 31 Stockholm.

Galleri Yamanashi - Pink Fleece

Galleri Yamanashi - Blue Fleece

The final yarn shop I visited was Sticka, also located in Gamla Stan. At the entry, I was greeted by this ferocious ceramic bulldog – too cute!

Sticka at 37 Österlånggatan

The interior of Sticka looks more like a clothing shop than a yarn store. Displayed on racks throughout the space were beautiful, airy knitted items for purchase, such as shawls and sweaters. They had a small but nice selection of yarns from various countries but not too many local yarns. Sticka is located at Österlånggatan 37, 111 31 Stockholm, tel. +46 8 23 37 37. For some reason, the website will not display but here is a link to their Facebook page.

That concludes my Swedish yarn crawl. I know there were many more yarn shops that I could not possibly visit during my stay. Good enough reason to return one day!

Frail Silk

On a weekend trip to San Antonio with my son, I managed a detour to Inskein Yarns. Inskein Yarns is located in a strip mall on a busy street. It is very small and does not have a huge selection. Despite its tiny size, there were 7-8 women huddled into a circle taking a knitting class.

They didn’t have any unique yarns but I found this skein of Maharashtra Silk which has 800 yards of 100% pure silk.

Maharashtra Silk 1

I liked the greens and purples and the yarn has a nice feel and sheen. Unfortunately, as I wound the skein into a ball, the yarn continuously fell apart. The single-ply was too frail, as if it had been spun too loosely.

The only thing I can think of to salvage it is to ply it with another fingering weight yarn. Any suggestions?

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.

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).