Monday, 1 September 2014

Down on the cochineal farm

I'm becoming quite obsessed with cochineal. For those who have no idea what that is – no worries, neither did I a few months ago (beyond it being a red food colouring). It's an insect, as well as being the name of the dye colour they produce. The insect feeds off a certain cactus and releases carminic acid to deter predators.
While the dye on its own produces a rich blue-red, when mixed with an acid or alkali it can produce one third of the colour spectrum – from golden yellow to the deepest purples.

Oaxaca is the centre of cochineal production in Mexico and was once responsible for the second highest grossing export for the country behind silver. In fact, during colonial times, the Spanish forced a monopoly on cochineal production. If you were caught smuggling it the penalty was death.

While farming cochineal lessened dramatically following the introduction of synthetic dyes, the move to sustainability, and issues with allergies to synthetic food colouring has seen a resurgence in its production. So, given we are in the cradle of cochineal and are all interested in its use as a textile dye, we took ourselves off to a cochineal farm to see how it all works.
The tour of the farm was completely in Spanish, so I've filled any gaps with Wikipedia. That little cylindrical basket in the photo above is called a zapotec basket, and it's used in the controlled method of cochineal farming. The big leaf shapes are removed from the cactus and brought into a greenhouse (for want of a better term) because they need to be kept at a certain temperature. The baskets contain the fertile females, who leave to feed off the host cacti, waiting to be fertilised.
The white you can see all over the cacti is the new baby cochineals that can be harvested when they are 90 days old. They need to be manually brushed from the leaves and then dried and processed – it's pretty labour intensive. To use it as a dye you need to crush the dried cochineal and mix it with water as well as a mordant to fix the dye.
It takes an enormous number of insects to produce a kilo of dye, somewhere in the order of 80,000–100,000. It's been very hard for us to buy plain-spun yarn or cotton that is dyed with natural substances, it seems most weavers dye it themselves or buy synthetic-dyed materials. It's a bit of a shame as it means we can't use natural-dyed thread while we're here.

Below is the cochineal farmer's dye recipe chart. It's important to keep records like this if you want to achieve consistent colour each time.
Last, but not least, this is the rug I bought on a tour we did. I will write about the tour next, as it was a really wonderful experience, but I wanted to show the rug here as it's completely dyed with cochineal – amazing isn't it?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Finally on the loom!

Woo hoo! Today we finally started weaving. Eufrocina is our tutor and thankfully she's very patient with us. These are our little backstrap looms – they're very portable, as you can see. You basically unroll them and strap one end to a pole or a tree and tie the other end around your back. I was way too busy concentrating today, but I'll make sure I get a photo of us in action sometime soon.
We first did a few rows of plain weaving before we started a simple geometric pattern. The pattern we chose is a motif that's based on the lifecycle of maize. Mia and I thought we'd be better starting with the same pattern, that way when Eufrocina isn't there we can help each other along. Here's the first colour being added in. It's all in cotton and the colour is just embroidery floss.
Here's the second colour being added in. This type of weaving isn't really like the backstrap weaving the Navarro family were doing. If you go back to that post you can see that their warp is a number of different colours, the weft is a single colour and they make all the patterns by passing the weft under and over certain warp threads.
I obviously don't have the slightest idea about why you would choose one type of weaving over another, or what patterns you can do with one form over another, but I'm sure I'll learn! At the end of three hours, this is what I had managed...
As well as a very numb bum.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Oaxaca Textile Museum

The most fabulous textile resource exists for us here in the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. It's only a small museum, but it has a large collection – some 7,000 pieces – mostly from Oaxaca, but also from around the world, and a great reference library for research.
There are two exhibitions on there at the moment, one I've written about on Instagram and the other is 'A Cotton Thread – A Path to Freedom'.  This exhibition tells the story of a Zapotec community in San Sebastián Río Hondo that was losing its livelihood. The village is located in the southern mountains of Oaxaca and weavers there had previously made their living through the sale of handmade woven woollen products. Wool is not native to Mexico and was introduced by the Spanish during colonisation. Due to the loss of pastures over the years, farming sheep is no longer viable, and with that has gone the supply of wool.
Mark Brown, who is a long time resident of San Sebastián Río Hondo, as well as having spent years in India, thought that introducing the khādī movement to the community might enable them to return to self-sufficiency. This movement was developed by Ghandi, and encouraged Indians to resurrect old traditions by learning to spin the cotton they had grown and weave it themselves rather than ship it to Britain where it was processed, returned to India as cloth and sold at much higher prices.

Mark began with one family and a couple of spinning wheels (known as charkhas) and the women brought their knowledge of spinning wool to the task of spinning cotton.
Now there are more than 45 families involved in the enterprise and the quality of the cotton has increased exponentially over the last few years. The fabric is woven on both backstrap and treadle looms and a number of the pieces are embroidered. Much of the cotton in this exhibition is the organic Prehispanic coyuchi cotton which the villagers are acquiring through exchange with another community on the coast of Oaxaca. It has a beautiful natural colour.

The work is being so well received that the community is really working together to figure out how to manage their next steps and the museum is also talking with them about how they can transfer this sustainable success story to other communities.

Everything about this exhibition was beautiful and I just love hearing stories like this, of communities coming back to life through a tradition that is sustainable and was theirs all along.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Watching the master weavers in action

To get prepare us for weaving ourselves next week, we visited a family in Santo Tomas Jalieza who are masters in the art of the backstrap loom. The mother, Crispina, and her three daughters – Mariana, Margarita and Inés. Not to be left out, their brother Gerado is a painter. Crispina has won many national weaving awards and we were lucky enough to be able to watch her at work.

First Inés showed us how she makes these very fine bracelets. The family always works in cotton, and these are the smallest pieces they do. Inés makes three bracelets in a long row and then cuts them apart and plaits the ends.
The cotton they use is from a local supplier and it's synthetic dyed to get the range of bright colours. Crispina told us she prefers working in the brights and when she does designs in browns or naturals she calls them sad colours. A woman after my own heart!
Today Crispina was making a man's belt to wear with the traditional costume. First she has to thread the loom. She knows all the designs off by heart, so she knows how many threads to wind before she starts.

Once she's thread them all she then attaches two wooden rods through the loops that are currently on her arm. The wooden rods are then attached to a tree. The other end also has a rod passed through it (you can see it two photos below) and this is attached to a strap that is belted around Crispina's back – hence backstrap loom.
Crispina doesn't know in advance which motifs she'll weave – it's whatever takes her fancy at the time. The same goes for the border pattern you can see being worked up either side. Crispina is starting a motif design here so her left hand is counting the number of threads she needs to move to get the particular design.
I asked her if she ever makes mistakes, they all laughed and said of course, especially when the chatting gets carried away, but she's showing me here how easy it is for her to see if something has gone wrong and she can just undo it straight away.
We weren't watching Crispina for very long, but in that time she managed to wrap the cotton, thread the loom, and weave this rooster pattern. She said the whole belt will be finished some time tomorrow. The family weaves everyday and have such a reputation that they don't have to sell at markets, but rather people come to them to buy.
As well as the traditional belts, they also do table runners, placements and bags. I think I'll be lucky if I can just manage a bracelet of stripes!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Roller-coaster ride of emotions

Pre-Oaxaca arrival

Holy moly I'm nervous! It's our last full day in Spain and tomorrow I fly out for Mexico. It's going to take me about a day to get to Oaxaca, but then the residency will begin.

I've been looking at a lot of art in Spain, and normally I'd find it inspiring, or at the very least calming, but it's just freaking me out at the moment! Seeing all these amazing artists and suddenly feeling like I'm not going to be able to come up with an ounce of creativity when I arrive in Mexico, or wondering what on earth I think I'm doing when faced with the brilliance of what I've been looking at!

Oaxaca day one

Fast forward two days and I've made it to Oaxaca. The place we are staying is perfect. We each have our own space in a large shared studio, and while the two of us doing the instructional residency have a little more of a structured program, we still have a lot of time to do our own thing.

Today has been incredibly intimidating for me. Firstly, I'm stupidly jet-lagged, which isn't helping, but it's also clear I'm the least professional of the group. Mia, the NZ woman doing the instructional weaving with me, is more a mid-career artist which makes me feel very out of my depth.
My room for the next six weeks.

Oaxaca day two

After a very long sleep and a good talking to myself, I'm not going to focus on what anyone else is doing, or compare myself to the others. I'm here to develop my practice and project, and that's what I'm going to do!

Our first week is mostly for research – easing us into the program. Tonight we had a meeting with a local textile collector who showed us some amazing pieces and talked us through the type of loom we'll be working on, the different motifs used and what he looks for when collecting.

Tomorrow we have a personal tour of the Oaxaca Textile Museum and then later in the week we're visiting a number of villages where the residents specialise in various forms of weaving and embroidery.

Then next week, we're on the looms ourselves – I think this whole thing is going to work out just fine!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Barcelona creativa!

Hola from Barcelona! I'm still pinching myself that I'm finally here. Barcelona is such a vibrant, creative place, with art, architecture, colour and patterns everywhere, so I thought I'd share some of my impressions.


While the temperature in Barcelona hasn’t been that high, the humidity can make it very uncomfortable and the days that are airless are intense. Getting up high for a little bit each day – on a hill outside town for a jazz concert in Gaudi’s Torre Bellesguard, or on a rooftop at his Casa Botlló – where the air is cooler and you can feel a breeze, definitely makes it bearable. In general I’m loving the heat after the winter at home. I can just feel the stress of the last few months melting away.
Barcelona rooftops from Casa Botlló.


Barcelona is a city where the very old is living alongside the strikingly new. The gothic quarter was filled with contemporary public art, the majority of the buildings in L’Eixample are ornately styled Art Nouveau masterpieces – a period of architecture I’ve not been exposed to much before, but I loved it – and street art sits alongside massive restoration projects in many of the city’s suburbs.
Public art in front of Basilica de la Mercé, Barri Gòtic.
Street art in Vila de Graciá.


The light here is dazzling, and the skies are the deepest of blues. I’m making the most of each day with endless walking. It’s light until 9.30pm so there are plenty of hours to be out exploring. I think I was born for the Spanish lifestyle of work that starts at 10am, a rest in the middle of the day until the worst of the heat is over, and then some more work before an evening meal when it finally falls dark.
Gaudi was ahead of his time in designing for optimum airflow and light – Casa Bottló.


Coming from a country whose built environment is a mere 200 years old, I’m always fascinated wandering a city with a history older than I can fathom. The house at Torre Bellesguard was built in the 1500s and the land has been used for habitation for much longer. Can you imagine living in a house that has been occupied for 500 years?
Guadi's Torre Bellesguard at dusk.


Even the pavement stones in Barcelona have their own special pattern – a simple four-petalled flower. There is pattern everywhere – the Art Nouveau houses painted pastel shades and covered with intricate, stylised flowers and leaves, the wrought ironwork on the balconies in the gothic quarter with a different pattern for each building, the mosaic tiles of Gaudi and even new building works with their simple geometric shapes.

We are now on a train heading for Bilbao after a few days in Logroño – what a surprising little gem of a place that was. I do have some textile loveliness to show you from Barcelona, but that can wait until my next post.

I’m also trying to keep the pics from my Instragram feed quite different to the ones here (so I don’t bore the people who are following both!), so if you want to see a few more of the Barcelona images you can check them out here.

Hasta luego!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

An end, and a beginning

It's been a long two years, but it’s finally here.

Back in 2011, after 7 years in my job, I started to get a growing sense that it was time to move on. A great project opportunity; uncertainty about how I would resign, given I was also a shareholder; and the time needed to decide what I might do next, meant the year came and went with my job unchanged.
My workplace for much of the last ten years. Photo by Bob Peters.
At the beginning of 2012 a couple of things happened that strengthened my resolve to leave. Unfortunately, about two month’s later, we were told the company was being sold and those of us who were shareholders would need to stay put to realise the value of the firm.

Things got worse from there, as we found we’d not only have to stay until the sale, but we’d be locked into a two-year contract with limited access to leave. Being a relatively minor shareholder, I didn’t have a lot of say in the matter.

The next six months were hard, really hard. On the whole I’d loved my time at the original company, we'd had a strong set of values that we lived by, we were treated as adults and given autonomy over our work, and I was given opportunities that I found exciting and challenging. The new company was a global entity that gave me none of these things.
Our lovely studio and two of my favourite team mates. Photo by Mel Koutchavlis.
After grieving the loss of the original company, I decided the only way to get through the two years was to take matters into my own hands.

“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”  – Victor Frankl

I had often thought about doing a particular textiles course in Melbourne and I also knew that of our three company offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, the Melbourne one was least affected by the sale. So, I applied for a transfer, and got it. It didn’t hurt that my managing director has been extremely supportive of me through all this, and that one of my closest friends was running the Melbourne operation.

The move was good. It gave me a place to hide out and regroup, and while last year meant a lot of frustration and uncertainty, these last six months have been full-on, as everything I applied for came to fruition, along with a major work project and a house move.
The camaraderie was part of what made the original company so special. Photo by Mel Koutchavlis.
And now, yesterday, Saturday, marked the end of the two years. Our final share payment is in the bank, and tomorrow I will hand in my resignation. It’s a bittersweet moment. The original workplace was quite easily the best job I’ve ever had, I grew so much in my career and met some wonderfully inspiring people, as well as making some lifelong friends. And part of me is terrified at the step I’m taking – quitting my job and heading off overseas for an artist’s residency. Even this week I’ve had someone say to me “You’re so brave. I wish I had the courage to do that”. And in that moment I have a clutch of fear in my stomach and wonder what on earth I am doing.

In the end though, I know have an opportunity that many dream of, but few get – and despite the trepidation, I'm so looking forward to this new beginning.