Black and (the new) blue

Several months have passed since our last post. Kim and I kept dyeing, but it was a death that kept us from writing. Just couldn’t muster the words.

Our friend Claudia Cornew, textile artist and human extraordinaire, died in August in Mexico City. Vivacious, generous, creative and smart as hell, she died of breast cancer in her early 50s. Last February, we had spent five magical days with Claudia and her family at their home in Polanco, DFE. The day we worked in her studio was one we’ll remember forever. Our final glimpse of Claudia was after attending the cochineal show at the Belles Artes; she was flipping her long elegant leg over a bike rental to cycle home.


Kim and Claudia near the San Angel market in Mexico City. Claudia holds a purse she made.

In Claudia’s honor, we dyed. And we cried. For every great vat we got, we hailed Claudia. Here’s a glimpse of some new ideas: Kim dyeing white leather sandals and my wool cake.

We’ve continued to have great success with “Lyle” our lye vat. A reminder of that recipe (doubled, as is our habit):

2 T organic indigo powder, combined with 
2 t washing powder, dissolved in hot (not boiling) water.
Add to a 5 gal. bucket of water, then stir in:
2 oz. sodium hydrosulfite (aka Rit color remover)
1/4 t sodium hydroxide (lye)
Wait 30–35 minutes: don’t rush the vat (open wine now)

This summer, leather and vegan leather (pleather) consumed our attention, like this jacket we dip-dyed for the indigo-loving Brooklynite Angela.

Indigo brought another new friend into our lives: Denise. We met at Stout’s Lodge, where I admired her Superior stone rock jewelry. Turns out that wasn’t all we had in common. She joined us for a dye day and brought along an impressive array of books and utensils, based on her earlier experiments and trip to Japan:


If our adventures in indigo dyeing have taught us anything, it’s that great friendships form over the dye pot.

Secret sauce: time to add the sticky

Shh, don’t tell Kim that I’m sharing the recipe of our secret sauce.

Come closer, so I can whisper it in your ear: KARO syrup.


Yep, cheap, nasty Karo syrup has made an appearance in our bio-vat. Searching for a substitute acid for henna, we hypothesized that corn syrup might do the trick to feed our hungry indigo. So in place of henna or white powdered fructose, we added a solution of Karo, rounding out the 1-2-3 vat with indigo (1), pickling lime (2) and “sacred syrup” (3).

This is still in the testing phase, and we’ve never seen anyone else admit to using it. Nevertheless, our results yesterday weren’t too bad. (No saying whether our vat will develop Type 2 diabetes, though.) At least it’s locally sourced!


We also experimented with cochineal—the season’s first attempt. I used a mortar and pestle to grind the desiccated insects into a powder. Then we mixed 50 gr of the bugs with tartaric acid, which Kim’s man just happened to have a bottle of (thanks, Dan!). We mixed the paste with water and started dipping.

Unlike indigo, cochineal requires a mordant. Also unlike indigo, cochineal doesn’t mind some slopping around. Introducing oxygen into the vat isn’t a problem. Kim had wonderful success with a few wool skeins (samples above, rinsed in vinegar). And we’re leaving a buff-colored pleather coat in the vat for the next two weeks, in hopes it takes on a deep russet.

On my bus ride home, I ran into sisters with identical flossy cotton-candy hair. When I showed them pictures of our cochineal vat and told them the color came from insects, they said: “For real?”


Tale of 2 pots: Henna & lye face off

Yesterday, in 96 degree heat, Kim and I cooked up two indigo pots—one using henna and Michel Garcia’s 1, 2, 3 recipe and the other using a traditional lye-based recipe. It was a face-off.

What follows is a step-by-step pictorial explanation of the henna vat: “Hannah,” in the white bucket. The 1, 2, 3, means 1: 50g indigo, 2: 100g lime, 3: 150g henna/fructose. (Here’s another good resource, courtesy of Seattle-based Botanical Colors.)


Now, here’s Lyle (orange bucket). It uses indigo (approx. 25g), lye (1/8 t) and sodium hydroxide (Rit color remover, 1oz). The recipe comes from Jim N. Liles’s book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing.

While Hannah simmered, we hopped onto Botanical Colors to buy more henna and lime. An hour or so later, we were hot and flummoxed: Hannah was giving us nothing—no indigo blossom, no color imparted on the fabric, no signs of frothy goodness! We swizzled it, we heated it, we prayed to the indigo gods over it. Still nada.

Guzzling down kombucha, we put palms to forehead and said, “Doh!” We asked ourselves: Why are we cajoling Hannah when she’s so damned stubborn and, when she obliges, gives us such dingy blues? So we canceled our order and got mixed up with Lyle. Here’s a comparison of our results.

I’ll take better comparison shots in the future. But what we saw was a strong, clear blue from Lyle and a dingy gray that didn’t even stay from Hannah.

In the dyeing community, everyone exalts Garcia. We’ve spent two years trying to achieve results from his method. Of course we’d prefer to use a less toxic solution. Of course we want to maintain and nurture our vat over time. Who wouldn’t?

But we love the bright blue that Lyle reliably gives us—at half the indigo intake Hannah requires. So we stuck her in the sun and hope to have better results next week. If anyone wants to show us the error of our ways, send us a note or meet us at the Kingfield market.

Next up, Dyers on the dark side: How pleather plays with indigo (see top-most image).

Sanctuary in a swirling chaotic sea

This winter I took a three-week trip to Ethiopia. Man, am I still processing my experience. I went to the north to the countryside near Lalibela; spent time in the capital, Addis Ababa; and in the South Omo Valley, along the borders of Kenya and South Sudan and home to a number of remarkable tribal people.

A picture, just to whet your appetite, of Daasanach girls dancing. If you read on, you’ll discover how the love of fabric—one scarf in particular—has woven together three women on opposite sides of the globe.


OK, let’s be frank: Addis is a tough, merciless place. Thankfully, I made friends who made my visit memorable: Mihiret (aka Mercy the Miraculous), Lydia, Sophia and Monte. They, and the fair-trade weaving center called Sabahar, became my personal sanctuary.

Founded by a Canadian woman, Sabahar is an incredible resource that draws talent from Ethiopia’s tribal weavers—specifically, the Dorze people—to make beautiful, sustainably woven goods in designs that certainly grabbed my eye.

Below is one Dorze settlement I visited in the south. Even the houses appear to be woven.

In Sabahar’s spinning room, a sociable group of women were twisting cotton and silk into hearty threads. The silk is interesting; the worms feed on a local leaf, not the usual mulberry, which don’t thrive in Ethiopia’s climate. The silk fibers are often dyed using natural dyestuffs because they will be more likely to be hand washed. The cottons and linens use chemical dyes, but they are reclaimed somehow before entering the wastewater. Water is precious here.

The men occupy the weaving room. Clean and bright, it had multiple looms going at once. The weavers were working on an order for a Brooklyn-based design client: Bolé Road Textiles.

I noticed indigo dangling overhead. But the truth is, Chinese import textiles have triumphed everywhere in Ethiopia. Which is depressing. I can’t tell you how many mounds of disposable jelly shoes I saw.

My last day in Addis, Lydia (top), Sophia and I made the pilgrimage to Sabahar. Irresistible!

So here’s the story of The Scarf. When my guide-goddess Mihiret took me to visit the Karo tribe, Bonnie, in yellow beads, wanted the big long ikat scarf I was wearing. Big time. I bought it near Lalibela, where all the local dudes wrapped themselves in similar versions. I wore it for three weeks straight to keep the sun off my face and so I could mop my sweat. On it was “Star of Africa,” but I’m sure it was made in India or China. I didn’t want to engage in a transaction with her, so I shook my head. She didn’t seem to mind.

Later, back in my hotel room, I looked at the scarf and thought, “Why on earth do I need another damned scarf when Bonnie has none?” So I asked Mihiret to give it to her when she saw her next. I cleaned it first, of course, and wrapped hotel soaps in it.

Two weeks later, Mihiret sent me these pictures. Seeing them honestly made my year. She looks gorgeous and it’s where it belongs, in Africa.

mndigo to mexico, part tres: Seeing Red

All hail the Dachtylopius coccus, an insect indigenous to Mexico that gave the world its first taste of reliable red. Before the creation of aniline dyes in 1856, this generous bug was the so-called New World’s second-most export to Spain, after gold. A recent exhibition about its use in textiles and painting at the Belles Artes gave cochineal its due.


Our first attempt to see the show was for naught; families had coiled around the Belles Artes, standing in the sun for hours to glimpse this first-ever, Mexico-produced show.

So we amused ourselves at the Museo Franz Meyer and ended up attending a few days later, joined by our hosts Claudia and Frank Cornew.

The show introduced us to the insect’s use as a dye source in textiles since prehistoric times. It feeds on a particular type of cactus that causes an enzyme reaction yielding, once crushed, a vibrant hue. (There’s still a small industry in cochineal; the topmost photos are from a farm outside Oaxaca.)

Si con grana te quieres vestir, a Oaxaca debes ir.
If you want to wear red, you have to go to Oaxaca.

Next, it was fun to chase the brushstroke pops of carmine across the gilded frames. Big names were there—Delacroix, Velasquez, Turner, even van Gogh. The painters ground the dried insect into pigment for use in their oil paintings. (I liked the look of this juicy-fat Jesus, a realistic depiction of a baby if I ever saw one.)


A few years ago, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, I ran into this fellow: William Henry Perkin. The British chemist was using coal tar to synthesize quinine when he accidentally yielded purple mauveine, or Tyrian purple, more commonly called mauve. (His eureka color matched my hair at the time.) Thus began the death of natural dyes—cochineal, indigo, woad and the like—in favor of those that could more reliably and affordably be produced in the lab.

It had me thinking about how often I see shades of red—ochre to coral, beet to bugambilia, fuchsia to crimson—in Oaxaca and D.F., some Natural Red #4, some not. It’s even used in food and cosmetics, as a recent Wired article attests. Here’s a scattershot of images celebrating the color of love, blood and fire—the yin to indigo’s yang—to get us through this gray winter.

Heck, why not a few more. We can never have too much Mexican rojo, no?

And one final one, taken at the Museo de Textiles in Oaxaca City. It’s an installation by Christina Kim, the brilliant designer behind the clothing line Dosa. Wave the gray away!



mndigo to mexico, part dos: Dyed and gone to heaven

Textile artists in Mexico and parts thereabouts have a quantifiable advantage over Minnesotans: about 6 months. For half the year, Kim and I work in Kim’s backyard; during the other half, winter chases us indoors to knit and drink wine. But on our recent jaunt to Mexico City, our host Claudia opened up her glorious third-story studio for us to get our hands wet.

Naturally, she had an indigo vat on the stove, so our day consisted of felting and dyeing. I immediately spied a wool purse of Claudia’s own design with thoughts of an indigo dip. She obliged.

Claudia also taught us the secret to felting bangles, so we tossed some of those in the pot, too. Claudia’s assistant, Kevin, felted a luscious turquoise shawl.

Our workday wrapped up with a lovely meal—margaritas, ceviche, duck tacos, tortilla soup— and a ride in Claudia’s Bug, while the bag and bangles dried in the sun.

Parting shot: Still-life with indigo bag, while waiting for the Minneapolis bus this week.IMG_1782

Next up: Seeing red: The cochineal show at Belles Artes.

mndigo to Mexico, part uno

A few weeks ago, Mexico City called. The exhibition “Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art” at the Belles Artes was too good to resist, as was a too-good-to-be-true airfare. So Kim and I hopped a flight. (This is the first of three posts: the next feature a day in the dyeing studio and the exhibition itself.)

IMG_1566Naturally, the person next to Kim was also a knitter, so their row clicked away the whole flight.

In Polanco, we had the buena fortuna to stay with the family of Claudia Cornew, fiber artist extraordinaire whom we met a year ago at the International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca City. She and her husband, Frank, and their whipsmart daughters made us feel extraordinarily welcome.

On Saturday, we joined Claudia for a trip to the San Angel market, where some of Mexico City’s top designers and craftspeople have booths. I always appreciate the indigenous textile fashions of Carla Fernandez, so finding her shop there was a treat, and we also met a new brand, 1/8 Takamura, that captured our eye—and a few pesos. (We later visited Carmen Rion’s shop in Condesa, another design standout.)

After the market, our next stop was MUAC, the contemporary art museum on the university campus. Brilliant shows by Russian provocateurs Chto Delat and local artist Yoshua Okun reinforced the power of art to skewer. Plus, MUOC’s shop had a gorgeous shibori poncho by none other than Carla Fernandez. (No need to buy; we know how to dye that!) A complete museum recap of our visit: the Museo Jumex, with a show called “Learning To Read with John Baldessari,” and the Museo Franz Meyer and Belles Artes.

After tortilla soup at MUAC, we raced to Coyoacan to catch Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. Alas, even an hour before close, the line snaked down the block. We had each been before, so the tragedy wasn’t as grave as the self-portrait of us against its exterior blue wall shows. And just like that, we had a marvelous evening in the wildly vibrant zocalo of one of the funkiest neighborhoods of D.F. Mole, mescal, guys playing ancient concertinas, a man with two chihuahuas, plus a sighting of the indigenous hairless Xoloitzcuintli—Kahlo’s favorite breed—made everything all right.


Next installment: “Dyed and Gone to Heaven,” a day in Claudia’s fiber studio.