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.

Dong indigo gets the limelight

Today’s New York Times features an eye-popping, jaw-dropping article, “Chinese Village Keeps Alive a Tradition of Indigo Dyeing.”  The timing is sweet, because the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibition “Miao Clothing and Jewelry from China” just opened, offering a firsthand look at these Miao masterpieces.


Yang Xiukui, 55, prepared fabric to be coated in an extract from cowhide to help give it a glossy sheen. Credit: Bryan Denton for The New York Times

How I envy the article’s author, Amy Qin, and what I would give for a similar chance to immerse Kim and me among those textile artists of the Dali village.

One thing I loved is how the Dong explain away an uncooperative vat, blaming bad-vat feng shui or women’s woes: periods or pregnancy. The glossy surface comes from treating the dyed fabric with cowhide extract—I had heard pig’s blood—and hours of banging away on it with a cudgel.

About this time last year, Todd and I went to China—Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu—where my eyes feasted on silks (while he discovered some unorthodox Santas).


The closest I came to Dong indigo was at Beijing’s mega market, Panjiayuan, where our friend, Max Deng, led me to these Miao women.


The Times article claims, ““You can’t buy this type of handmade cloth at the market.” On that, I beg to differ: I bought three gleaming rolls, and they’re precious to me for their raw beauty, their story and their possibility.

Dyed in the wool + cotton

Our last Dye Day of the season consisted of dyeing skeins of wool and cotton. Which means we have all winter to knit. (Read to the end of the post for a celebrity surprise!)

Kim, you might know, has a room devoted to her stash. I myself have a few vintage suitcases stuffed with it.

Some we did in straight-up indigo; others, we dyed with sumak and tansy, then overdyed in indigo.

One innovation was to create our own ikat pattern, formed by dyeing before knitting or weaving. To do that, we dunked about a third of each skein, then left the other two-thirds natural. Kim has made a few stunning pieces that use the improvisational pattern. Below is a taste, along with a pic of Gary Cooper, who makes knitting look classy.