When Simple Becomes Extraordinary

  Shipibo Fabric
  Shipibo fabric with elaborate kené designs.
A mahogany dyebath has given
the cloth its rich brown color.

Most of us weave for the joy of it. Planning a project, choosing the yarns, and sitting down at the loom are all pleasures, in many cases stolen moments.  

We may think of weavers who make cloth for practical use—the clothes on their backs, the bags to carry food, ritual garments for religious ceremonies—as purely function-oriented. If you’re weaving yardage to make a shelter or keep your children warm, surely your first priority is to create as much cloth as possible in the least time.


Yet all around the world, traditional weavers and clothworkers have devised intricate embellishments for the most basic textiles. With mud and tree bark paints, elaborate resist dyes, or delicate supplementary wefts, weavers devote huge efforts and remarkable creativity to embellishing plain cloth.


Weavers of the small Mexican town of Pinotepa de Don Luis create clothing with simple weave structures and looms, sometimes with pick-up patterns in the weaving, sometimes with embroidery on the garment. One of the most important colors of yarn is dyed with Purpura pansa, a knobbed shellfish that lives on the rocky Pacific coast five hours away from the village. As they have for hundreds of years, men travel to the coast and milk the shellfish by hand to extract the rare purple color. Too expensive for everyday use, traditional pozahuanco skirts still use shellfish-dyed purple yarns in their distinctive warps.


The fabric that is distinctive to the Shipibo people of the upper Amazon basin begins as plain white cotton cloth, which was historically handspun and handwoven on a backstrap loom. The Shipibo create detailed geometric designs called kené patterns, with forms that resemble mazes or elaborate architectural drawings. Using a small piece of bamboo, women paint on the fabric using a dye made from boiled mahogany bark in unique designs, then use a mud paste fixative to set the designs.


brocade gauze of Coban  
A shawl woven in the unique brocade gauze
of Coban includes a design dyed with
logwood purple. Photo by Joe Coca.

In the Guatemalan highlands, the once common use of natural dyes had all but disappeared when Olga Reiche developed a passion for the technique. For twenty years, she has been learning how to dye cotton naturally and passing that knowledge on to weavers and other craftspeople. Olga has developed relationships with women’s cooperatives all over the country to market hand-dyed and handwoven traditional textiles, including an unusual gauze technique with brocade inlay. Once on the brink of disappearing, the scarves woven by women of Cobán have found an international audience.


Colorways explores all kinds of ways for making beautiful cloth. Whether colored with natural dyes (such as earth pigments and mushrooms), patterned with distinctive resist methods, or painted, textiles can be stunningly colorful no matter how simple the weave structure. Download the Spring 2012 issue of Colorways and find new ways to color your cloth.

Anne Merrow

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