Jess Schreibstein, aka @thekitchenwitch, took a trip recently that I wanted desperately to see and hear more about, so while I’m (knock wood) on the road today, she’s here to tell us all about it. Thanks so much, Jess!
The sun rises early in mid-May in Oaxaca. Around five in the morning, daylight crests the blue Sierra Juárez mountains and roosters begin crowing. I get up slowly, throw on a cotton dress and scarf, and join my host, Josefina, in the kitchen where she prepares coffee, eggs with avocado, sliced papaya with lime. It’s nine o’clock by the time I make my way down the cobblestone main road to the home of Federico Chavez Sosa, a third-generation master weaver who teaches me to weave rugs in the traditional Zapotec style in the small village of Teotitlán del Valle.
I had wanted to visit Oaxaca, and Teotitlán in particular, for years. It’s a fiber Mecca, with cascades of naturally-dyed skeins of churro wool baking in the sun, intricately patterned geometric rugs hanging from every shop doorway, and embroidery of fantastical animals adorning huipiles. But it wasn’t until last fall, when one of my closest friends, a Mexican, called me up to say that she was getting married in Oaxaca and that I was in the wedding so I better be there, that I finally bit the bullet and bought my plane ticket.
I arrived in Oaxaca City, a stunning old colonial town where all of the buildings are painted in pinks, tangerine orange, rust and aqua. The streets are a churning river of markets, hawkers, vendors selling icy sweet nieve and fresh tortillas with quesillo and roasted grasshoppers, teenagers texting, women in floral dresses with long black plaits down their backs. Teotitlán is a thirty minute drive east of the city and is everything the city is not – quiet but for the church bells and farm animals, brown adobe and brick walled houses overgrown with cacti, men and women greeting you with a Buenos días or Buenas tardes on the main road.
For four days, I visited Federico’s sunlit home and worked on my tapete, or rug. The middle of the bottom floor is an open courtyard reserved for carding, spinning, and dyeing yarn, a common feature in most homes in Teotitlán. For yarn, I was free to choose my colors from the dozens of skeins hanging from hooks on the wall in brilliant reds (cochineal), indigo blue (from the fermenting indigo vats), lemon and mustard yellow (marigold flowers), and sage green (Spanish moss). Each one was dyed by Federico and his family, who are all talented weavers and dyers in their own right. I was given my own treadle loom, a beast of a structure brought over by the Spanish in the early 1500s that for many replaced the simple but limited backstrap tension loom used by the Zapotec Indian people in Oaxaca. I stood bent over my work all day, shifting my feet on pedals to change the warp and throw the shuttle through the threads. It felt like skiing.
On the last day, Federico taught me how to “make the colors,” or dye yarn with plant and animal dyes. Out from the closets came bags filled with dried marigold, which he had gathered in the nearby mountains and smelled like anise. He showed me mango skins that his son had added to the bubbling indigo dye vats for acidity. And then, he revealed a glass jar filled with what looked like small, silver beads. It was cochinilla, the cochineal insect, carefully cultivated on cactus pads and dried, to be later ground into a fine powder that produces the richest natural red and purple dyes the world has ever known. He ground a small amount in a coffee grinder and added it to a big, boiling pot of wool. An hour later, we pulled the skein out of the dye vat, the color of royalty. The color of bougainvillea. The color of Oaxaca.
I arranged my workshop with Federico through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, an incredible resource for those interested in intensive weaving and dyeing workshops and cooking classes in Oaxaca. Norma Hawthorne connects interested travelers to local teachers and arranges lodging during your stay. More information is available at oaxacaculture.com.
All photos © Jess Schreibstein