Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Earlier this year I was traveling through Mexico and Central America looking for the right community to make Ceiba Tree toys, using traditional techniques such as hand weaving and of course tapping into thousand year traditions in natural dyeing still thriving in some places. One such place is Teotitlan del Valle, nestled in between the mountains in Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. Almost everyone in the town knows about natural dyeing and weaves beautiful woolen rugs by hand from raw wool. Looms can be seen in almost every doorway, and huge skeins of beautifully coloured wool, all dyed with plants hang from walls and ceilings. The towns people are adamant to keep their traditions, speaking their native Mazatec language, refusing the lure of chemical dyes and adopting many environentaly friendly practices such as recycling, saying no to plastic bags and big corporate fast food chains in their community.
Here, in Teotitlan, I undertook a short course in the local natural dyeing practices, also learning about the preparation and spinning of the wool. The dye plants (and insects) used were as follows:
Cochineal - a beetle that lives inside the nopal cactus, that once dried is ground to produce a marrone, red, pink palette
Pomegranate - the dried fruits make a limey yellow growing. towards a black depending on the age of the fruit.
Axiote - a red seed also cooked as food that gives a vibrant orange (with some luck!)
Marigold - The dried flowers can produce pale greeny yellow to a warm light orange.
Huisache - A seed pod from a very spiky tree that grows in abundance in the valley, it makes brown to black, but needs to be fermented to produce the darker hues.
Moss - both moss from the pine trees in the mountains and the soft green moss from rocks can be used the latter making green and the tree moss giving yellow.
Indigo - A magical dyeing plant, which needs to be fermented and ground before dyeing, it reacts with oxygen and turns from pale green to deep blue in seconds after a mere dip in the dye pot
Pecan Leaves - The dried leaves give different shades of warm browns
Pecan nut husks - The husks are fermanted in water for ten days and when added to the dye pot make dark brown to black.
Ya - The Maztec name of a local plant. The twigs are used for making browns with a greeny yellow tone.
Tinta Azul - Another local plant, literally meaning ‘blue ink’, the leaves and flowers are pulverated and fermented for one week, to make light to mid blues
Copalillo - the bark of this huge tree is bright red and gives red tones when collected.
Barba de Lion - Meaning ‘main of the lion’ also known as angel hair, (pelo de angel) this thin yellow vine grows at the top of the trees and gives yellow.
The Australian Guild of Toymakers birth their first combined toy exhibition ... Strange Forest , December 2009
Featuring new, specially sculpted and shaped works by the amalgamated crafting efforts of a trio of talented toy-making artists, who have come together in breaking out of the
dungeon calm of a regular, long-standing craft-centric night to display the creatures of their imaginings for the discerning toy-lover.
This exhibition is the brainchild of the combined efforts of such toymakers as Professor Zipling - maker of the infamous ‘zipling’ dolls which have travelled across continents; Ceiba Tree, who is herself outward bound to Mexico; and ‘I Make My Own Friends’ whose work has won admiration across the world and can be found locally at Brunswick art gallery 696.
You can follow the Australian Guild of Toymakers on
The Ceiba tree is the sacred tree of life for the Mayans, and is indigenous to Central America. Like an eco-system in itself it harbors a host of plant and animal life and towers above the forest, growing up to 100 metres tall.
The filling for the toys, kapok, is collected sustainably from the seed pods of the Ceiba tree. It is naturally anti-bacterial, dust mite and water resistant and is considered especially appropriate for those with sensitive skin and allergies.
Ceiba Tree fabrics are specially selected, one lovely soft fabric is
organic hemp combined with cotton fleece, while another is hand woven cotton from traditional communities in Guatemala. The colours for the toys are made entirely from plant and vegetable materials selected and collected by hand. The dyes and tannins are boiled to create colourfast dyes, in an array of subtle and individual hues. The ladies in the volcanic mountains around the sacred lake Atitlan collect the plants from the mountain top, and grow the cotton themselvs, they not only spin the cotton, and dye the thread, but also hand weave the fabric on traditional backstrap looms. When I went to visit them earlier this year, only one town around the lake was still practicing the natural dyes, so it is wonderful to support these women and their amazing knowledge in their traditional methods.
After that the fabric goes to Guatemala City and is screen printed with all the toy patterns and markings with water based ink.
Then off to an inspiring Fair Trade Womens association UPAVIM (an acranim meaning together for a better life). It began with a group of women who have
transformed the desperate living conditions of their community on the outskirts of Guatemala City by forming an organisation over 30 years ago which is now providing Fair Trade employment making handcrafts, health care, education, nutritional food, and above all hope for their own community's future.