Tag Archives: artesania


Felt making workshop – Bishkek

One of the things I love to do while travelling is trying my hand at any local handcraft I come across. I still wear the silver ring I made in Nicaragua, travel with the scarf I made for myself in El Salvador, and will forever be in awe of the women who make the beautiful and intricate textiles in Guatemala – just to highlight a few. I was therefore very excited to join Bishkek Walks on another of their amazing experiences – this one to make my own felt product.

Felt making was one of the most important traditional skills in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the technique of Ала кийиз (Ala-kiyiz) – literally “Multi-coloured felt” – was used to create clothing, as well as carpets and other everyday items for the yurts of the nomadic Kyrgyz. This is the technique we would be learning.

Our small group met at one of the many amazing coffee shops in central Bishkek, and Gulmira, a felt artist and our teacher, began by showing us some of the different products she’d made recently.

Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop
Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop. Rahat is translating for us though Gulmira did speak some English

Gulmira actually has a degree in fine arts and, although the use of coloured thread and embroidery in felt work was traditionally used by the nomads, she takes it to another level for modern tastes.

Selection of Gulmira's artistic felts
Selection of Gulmira’s artistic felts

I particularly loved this one where she had incorporated the use of material as well for a very 3-dimensional artwork.

Black and white artistic felt by Gulmira
This is a beautiful piece of art

While she showed us the different pieces, Gulmira also talked about the history of carpets and felting in Kyrgyzstan. It is a big job (as we would soon discover), and she painted a lively picture of how the nomadic people would congregate and work together to assist with the preparation of felts (and other items), given the amount of work involved.

Soon enough, it was time for us to try our hand at making our own piece of felt artwork.

Step 1: Felt making workshop

Choose your base colour. Gulmira had bought a large shopping bag full of wool that had been dyed different colours. I decided to go with a maroon base and blue highlights – two of my favourite colours.

Selecting wool for our felts - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Selecting wool for our felts (top) and the colours I chose to work with (bottom)

Don’t worry – I’ll explain later. I, too, was intrigued as to the purpose of the washing up sponge and the soap!

Step 2: Felt making workshop

Lay a thick base for the felt by pulling the wool apart and layering the stretched fibres over the top of each other.

images of laying the base of the felt mat - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira showing me how it’s done (left) and me trying to replicate (right)

I think a video will work better to explain this step.

Step 3: Felt making workshop

Once you have a full, fluffy base-layer down, turn by 90 degrees and add another layer over the top. This could be another block colour, or you could choose to start bringing other colours in.

Step 4: Felt making workshop

Add a final layer where you finish off the design with more intricate patterns if you wish. I decided not to get too fancy for my first attempt

My final wool mat, ready for felting - Felt Workshop - Bishkek
My final wool mat, ready for felting

but Gulmira’s effort was very impressive! The orange-looking things are actually pomegranates – she has a whole collection of artworks based around these fruits. As you can see, the resulting mat of wool can be several centimeters thick!

Gulmira's final wool mat ready for felting - felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira’s final wool mat is a little more intricate than mine

Step 5: Felt making workshop

Lay fine gauze over the wool mat and wet thoroughly with hot water. The idea is to saturate the wool and compress it into a thin layer while retaining the design.

So this is what the washing up sponge was for…

Step 6: Felt making workshop

Now the soap came into play. To help speed up the process of matting, we took the soap and rubbed it vigorously into the mat through the gauze. Again this helped compress the wool fibres and aid in their transformation into a self-supporting felt.

Soaping and compressing the wool mat to make felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
… and this was the reason for the soap

I have to admit, I couldn’t seem to make mine mat together very well and Gulmira was brilliant at helping me finally get it to work. I suspect my layering of the fibres was not as good as it should have been (I didn’t have enough fibres laid), but we got there in the end.

Step 7: Felt making workshop

The next step was to take the saturated felt, roll it up tightly, and squeeze out much of the excess water.

Rolling is a crucial part of felt making

It was then time to roll it from every side to make it start to shrink. After going one round with the gauze still intact, we removed this layer and went again. After another round of rolling from all sides, we then carefully peeled the felt off the backing material and kept rolling – including diagonally now.

rolling the felt to make it shrink - felt workshop - Bishkek
Roll, roll, roll, roll. From every side, from every corner, until it is the size you want it to be and it is properly matted

We were being quite delicate and precious with our felt when we started this step, but eventually Gulmira stepped in and showed us how vigorous and rough we could get with the material. Traditionally, the felt product would be rolled with hands and trodden on for several hours in order to mat the fibres together. We were being far too gentle it seems!

In the end, my geometric design turned out a bit wonky – but that is the nature of Ala-kiyiz.

my finished felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
It’s a little wonky… perhaps I shouldn’t have gone with straight lines on my first try?

I was very impressed by the designs the others had created (most of which turned out less wonky than mine) and Gulmira’s pomegranates looked amazing!

finished felts of all participants - felt workshop - Bishkek
Final felts from Dina, Rahat, Gulmira and Sjannie (clockwise from top left)

She was actually going to take it home and work on it a lot more – rolling it until it had shrunk down to about 1/4 size so she could make earrings out of it!

detail of Gulmira's pomegranate felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
Now I understand the structure! The pomegranates are mirrored so they can be folded over and gathered together into a dual-sided earring! Clever!


In my opinion, the best souvenirs are either the ones you purchase directly from an artisan, or ones that you make yourself under the instruction of an artisan. The Felt Workshop hosted by Bishkek Walks is a wonderful opportunity to create your own felt product using a traditional Kyrgyz technique, and is a wonderful way to experience first hand the challenges involved in creating these impressive everyday items. I can’t imagine making a whole carpet like this!

Felt workshop group with our finished felts - Bishkek
Our finished felts

Time: ~3hrs or a bit longer, depending on the group.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

Backstrap Weaving workshop – Antigua

As soon as you arrive in Guatemala you can’t help but notice all the incredibly beautiful textiles that the country produces.  They are absolutely everywhere, as are the women sellers who wander the main parks and streets (particularly in Antigua) to sell these items for ridiculously low prices.

While I’m sure that some fraction of them are actually mass produced, traditionally they are weaved with a backstrap loom and take an amazingly long time to create – even for an expert.   To get a little taste of what is involved, I decided to do a backstrap weaving working shop in Antigua through Tintos y Arte.

There were 2 of us in the workshop with Angelica as our very patient (and tiny) teacher who started off by explaining the multi-stage preparation of the yarns.

backstrap weaving antigua

Then it was time to sit down at our looms which had already been strung up for us.  Yes, those are individual threads running up and down, and you pass more thread from side to side to create the fabric.  We were going to make 2 bookmarks each as our handiwork.

Let me just say – it is incredibly complicated to do even the most basic weaves!   All those dowls have a purpose, and their position depended on whether you are doing the normal weave (most of mine was normal weave, and I did finally get the hang of it towards the end) or putting in accents (I had a few of these in my finished product and no, never got the hang of them).  In particular, the positions of the two smaller dowls towards the top of the loom had a very big effect on what was happening in the weave.

backstrap weaving antigua

The following image is pretty much what it looked like most of the time, with Angelica and another lady helping us constantly.   And although it’s called a backstrap loom, you actually sit on it -and you have to pull it really tight.

backstrap weaving antigua

backstrap weaving antigua

It took several hours to produce a very small item, using only the most basic of techniques (Angelica finished one of my bookmarks off by twisting the ends).   As you can see from my handiwork, keeping the tension correct in the weave is difficult, and there are actually a few “missed strands” in some of my weaves, where I didn’t quite get all threads sorted correctly before passing the thread through.

backstrap weaving workshop antigua

The workshop was really interesting and I have a whole new appreciation for just how much work goes into making the beautiful textiles in Guatemala.  Given the labour invested in just these two measly and simple bookmarks, I can’t imagine how the ladies can sell their work for so little in the street and in the artesania markets!


Recommendation:  Really worthwhile to get an appreciation for what all those ladies you see walking around do!

Cost: Eeek – can’t remember – I think $20, which also includes free coffee, wine or water

Time: About 3 hours.  We stayed and chatted with the ladies for another 2 hours afterwards!

Artesanía – souvenir making in La Palma

One of the first things I did in La Palma was ask about the availability of workshops where you could learn/experience a little more about the artesanía and artwork the town is famous for.  Turns out, there is only one – at Taller Paty – so I went and had a chat with Estela about what it entailed.

Artesania workshops at Taller Paty - La Palma - El Salvador

She explained that I had two options – I could either paint a wooden box (typical of a lot of the artesanía that is made from pine wood) or paint a Copinol seed – also very typical and one of the big inspirations for Fernando Llort in his artwork.  According to his website:

Walking through the streets of La Palma, Fernando found a kid rubbing a little seed against the ground, and discovered that it had a white surface with a brown frame, “a framed painting” he thought, and he painted it with very small and colourful drawings.

I agree with Fernando – the Copinol seeds are very cool, and I actually used one as the accent seed in my bracelet I made with the Mujeres del Plomo near Matagalpa (in Nicaragua it is called Guapinol).   So I opted to work with the seed – other advantages being that it was small and could be turned into a necklace 🙂

André arrived the next morning and ended up coming with me to do the artesanía workshop.  Estela already had the Copinol seeds cut and drawn with patterns, but she showed us where she works with wood and the seeds out the back of her store.  Inside the large light-brown casing are several of the smaller darker-brown seeds which are cut into thirds to produce the surfaces for the paintings.

Preparing Copinol Seeds - Taller Paty - La Palma

First step in the workshop was to choose the designs we wanted to paint.

Copinol Seeds ready to paint - Taller Paty - La Palma

Then we headed out into Estela’s wonderful courtyard, where she has painted artwork onto the besser-brick shelter and even the trees.   Although we started out at the bench in the garden, we had to quickly retreat into the shelter as the afternoon downpour started.

Taller Paty workshops - La Palma

Turns out that coloured textas are used to “paint” the Copinol seeds, though actual paint is used for the larger designs on the pinewood boxes.  The only “rule” was to avoid the black ink of the design as we coloured in so that it wouldn’t smudge into the colour, but Estela also said that it was traditional to paint the roofs of the houses red.

Finished Copinol seeds painted in the style of Fernando Llort - Taller Paty - La Palma

Finished Copinol seeds for inspiration and textas to “paint”

I ended up making 4 pendants and André 2.  We are both analytically inclined so it took us forever to finish our artwork.  Estela kept coming out and checking on us — I think she was wondering what was taking us so long!  I’m sure she could have knocked out 6 of these things in about 1/10th the amount of time it took us.

Artesanía in La Palma in the style of Francisco Llort - Taller Paty

André is a picture of concentration, I’m checking out what he’s up to.

The final stage was to dip the pendants in varnish to protect the artwork and make sure the seeds don’t start sprouting when worn!  The trick was to ensure that the varnish was evenly distributed over the pendant and there were no drops hanging off the bottom – hence the little squares of newspaper.

Final stage is to varnish the painted seed - Taller Paty - La Palma

Hung around Taller Paty for about 1/2 hour after we’d finished to let the pendants dry a bit and also wait out the storm.  Here are my final products – front and back – before the final varnish.

Finished products - Taller Paty - La Palma


Recommendation:  The workshop is lots of fun and Estela is really lovely.  Its a great way to make your own very typical and authentic artesanía from El Salvador.

Booking:  Ask at the Amigos de las Turistas office and they can point you in the direction of Taller Paty.  Its just down the road past the Casa de Cultura.

Time Required:  Depends on what you decide to do and how slow you are about your artwork.  We were probably there for about 2 hours all up.

Cost:  Each of the Copinol seeds were US$2 or 3 for US$5.   Absolute bargain, and you have something very typical from El Salvador!


Many thanks to André and Estela for some of the images used in this post (I was too busy colouring in!)

La Palma – El Salvador

From Suchitoto I headed further west and north to reach La Palma, right up near the Hondurian border.   This small town is renowned for its artesanía and murals that are all done in a very specific style brought to the town by Fernando Llort (a very famous artist in El Salvador) in the 1970s.

This artistic style is often described as “naive” (ie childlike) with influences of Cubism.  It is geometrical and 2-dimensional and characterised by bold colours.  Its primary themes are of nature, everyday life or religion and it has essentially become the artistic style that is most recognised and synonymous with El Salvador.

La Palma an amazing little town to walk around – as every second building has a mural painted on it.  Here are some of my favourites.

Even the hotel I stayed in – Hotel La Palma – is positively covered in murals, including inside the room!

Hotel La Palma - El Salvador

These days, 3/4 of the population are involved in producing artesanía with this style of artwork – either on pine wood (boxes, crosses) or seeds from the Copinol tree.   And although you can buy it anywhere in El Salvador, much of it is made in this small town.

Añil (indigo ink) workshop – Suchitoto

One of the main forms of artesanía in the Suchitoto region is the production of Añil (indigo ink) dyed clothing and textiles.   There are a few places where you can do an Añil workshop in Suchitoto, but Luis from Sapito Tours introduced me to Irma in the Women’s cooperative as we were walking around the town on our gastronomy tour and I decided to help this wonderful initiative by creating my masterpiece there.

Fortunately, given my love of scarves, the workshop was to make a “bufanda” (ie a scarf) and the first step, obviously, is to choose a design.  Unfortunately, visualisation is not something I’m terribly good at but in the end I chose to do two stripes of diamonds near each of the edges of the scarf, with a different pattern running down the centre.   Irma set about laying down some guides on the scarf and then showed me how to sew the pattern down the edges.

Añil workshop Suchitoto
After about 1/2 hour of us both sewing, it was clear that my design was going to take too long to do (it was towards the end of the day).  I am a terrible at sewing and definitely not fast (in the end Irma sewed 3/4 of the diamond patterns while I managed to sew only 1/4) so I ditched the idea of the different pattern down the middle, which was fine – I wasn’t 100% certain about it anyway.

Once we finally got the sewing done, Irma pulled all the threads to tighten them so the ink would not stain the pattern, and then it was off to actually dye the material.

Añil workshop Suchitoto

I donned long rubber gloves and an apron and set to work swishing my bunched-up scarf under the foam that floated on top of the barrel of dye that had been prepared using 1kg of Añil powder + 50L water + bacteria!

Añil workshop Suchitoto

The bacteria actually turns the dye green, but when the dyed material is exposed to oxygen, it changes to the blue colour we are accustomed to.   For this reason, after swishing my scarf around for a minute or two, we wrung it out thoroughly and hung it up to air for a bit, making sure that all surfaces were exposed.

Añil workshop Suchitoto

In order to achieve the deep blue that I wanted, we had to repeat this process 5 times,  Then we washed the scarf really well in water (probably about 10 minutes worth of washing) to get rid of the excess dye, and then dunked it in white vinegar to “set” the dye.

Añil workshop Suchitoto

Once that was done, Irma removed the threads that we sewed into the scarf and there was revealed the pattern!    Really happy with it actually 🙂   Another one for the collection!

Añil workshop Suchitoto



Recommendation:  Although there are a few options for Añil workshops in Suchitoto, by doing it through the cooperative you help these women earn money to support their families.   They rely on people buying merchandise from their small shop or doing this workshop.

Booking:  The workshop at the cooperative is not advertised well and the Amigos de los Turistas office initially send me to an up-market Añil shop to ask about workshops.   To arrange the workshop, all I did was call into the cooperative and ask to speak to Irma.

Time Required:  Depends on the pattern you choose.  To create this took 2 hours.

Cost:  Cost for 1 person = US$25 which covers the cost of the materials and the workshop itself. There is also an option of making a wider scarf for US$30 but you should let Irma know in advance if you would prefer this option.

Jewelry Making – Finca Esperanza Verde

One of the new activities offered by the Finca Esperanza Verde since I was there last time was the opportunity to do a jewelry making workshop with Las Mujeres del Plomo – a women’s collective in the nearby community of El Plomo.

mujeres del plomo jewelry

Those of you who know me know that I love jewelry, and my souvenir of choice when I travel these days is a piece of hand-crafted jewelry – especially if I can buy it directly from the artisan themselves.    Even better if I can work with the artisan and make it myself, so this was the perfect activity for me!

The jewelry is actually made of seeds gathered from the local area, predominantly by children in the community.  The 4 women in the collective (Maritza, Yorlene, Melba and Gloria) purposefully include children in the endeavour to teach them about the plants in their region, caring for their environment and give them the opportunity to earn a little money.   The kids look for specific seeds but can also bring in other natural things they find that they think are interesting.

seeds for jewelry making

Specific seeds the Mujeres del Plomo ask the children to collect

Martiza worked with me to design (the hardest bit for me) and make a bracelet.

mujeres del plomo

I was limited to the types of seeds that were collected recently (obviously it is a seasonal thing) and really loved the seeds from the Guanacaste tree.  But the trick was to break up the repetitive pattern of Guanacaste seed (dark brown and black with a yellow-ish dividing line) and the Platanillo seeds (small, round, black seeds) with an “accent” seed.  In the end we decided on the deep burgundy seed from the Guapinol tree and set to work.

Given the seeds had already had very fine holes drilled, the first step was to strip the wax from the thread that would hold the whole thing together.  Then it was just a matter of threading the seeds according to the pattern, tying some knots to separate the accent Guapinol seed from the rest, tying some more fancy knots so that I could expand the bracelet to get it on and off, and then finish off with a polish (baby oil) which really bought the bracelet to life.

mujeres del plomo jewelry making workshop

Although it is not the type of jewelry I usually wear, I’m really, really happy with the final product!

jewelry making

And I’m really glad that Vivianne (owner of Finca Esperanza Verde who also joined me for my visit) advised me afterwards to avoid getting it wet — after all, it could sprout!

The full story behind this special group of 4 women is pretty incredible and I encourage you to visit if you are in Nicaragua to learn more, chat with these amazing women and enjoy a fabulous jewelry making experience while you are at it!

mujeres del plomo

Visiting the artisans in the Solentiname Islands

Apart from kayaking around the Solentiname islands, the other thing I was keen to do was visit the artisans who are renowned for their balsa carvings and primitivist paintings.   The main population of artisans is found on the largest island – Isla Marrancón – so we visited the first afternoon we spent in the Archipelago.

To be brutally honest, it was a huge disappointment!  I’m very glad we were also doing the kayaking and this was not the only reason we visited the islands.   For a start – where was everybody?   We saw a fancy hotel and about 4 hostels but I think we were the only tourists on the island (OK – so it wasn’t one of the days that the boat from San Carlos arrived) and there were very few locals to be seen as well.

We walked the circuit of the community and only saw 2 families working at the artesanía.  We ended up spending most of our time with the Peñas Ponce family who had a sign out the front inviting guests in and were working on their front patio.

Jose was turning blocks of balsa wood into crude animal shapes with a machete.  These he would later refine with a sharp knife and sandpaper.

artesan Solentiname

Nicaraguan men certainly know how to handle a machete!


Olga was painting the final animal shapes with the bright acrylic colours this artesanía is renowned for.  These colours are painted over a base so that they remain bright and vibrant.

artesania Solentiname

Caite had spied an unpainted balsa angel figure and decided that she would paint her own while I chatted with the family.

artesania Solentiname

Some of the many finished products that were for sale.  I ended up buying a butterfly (for Zara) and a small toucan that Olga had just finished painting.

artesania Solentiname

Unfortunately, we didn’t find anyone making the primitivist paintings which I really like and which typically depict idealised community life and nature executed in bright colors and intricate detail.  But it turned out that the owner of the Albergue Celentiname was a bit of a painter herself – this is the business card for the Albergue.  Love this style of painting!  Reminds me a little of the Magical Realism of Ecuador.

primitive artwork solentiname

There were also a whole bunch of primitivist paintings in the Art Gallery back on Isla San Fernando.  Unfortunately, couldn’t take pictures of them, and couldn’t really afford to buy one either (there were a few really beautiful ones there going for US$1000!) – and I finally convinced myself after a bit of umming and ahhing that I really didn’t need another piece of unhung artwork…  Even a very small one.

The Art Gallery also had a wonderful display of the brightly coloured balsa-wood animals for sale.  Loved how they had set it out.

artesania Solentiname

artesania Solentiname

Actually, one of the coolest things I saw on Isla Marrancón was the church of Ernesto Cardenal.   Couldn’t actually enter it (the lady who had the keys was in San Carlos), but peeking through the window I loved its simplicity and the painted decorations behind the altar.  Would have loved a closer look!

iglesia solentiname

So if you are planning to visit the Solentiname Islands specifically to visit the artists, maybe ask around about how to get the most out of the experience before arriving.  The artwork is amazing, but it really wasn’t clear to us where everyone was.   Probably we missed something fundamental – so come prepared, or perhaps on the day when the tourist boats arrive?

Jewelry making in Conversation classes

My conversation teacher for the third week at La Mariposa Escuela de Español (we change conversation teachers each week) was Layda.  In our first class, we started talking about interests and I found out she’d recently done a community course on beaded jewelry making.

Given my love of jewelry I asked her more about it and she suggested that in our second class she could show me how to make a pulsera (bracelet) while we were chatting.   More than happily agreed!

We headed to La Mariposa Reserva (a new project of the school) passing by her home to pick up  a few bits and pieces for us to work with.    Found a shady spot with tables and chairs in La Reserva and sat down to work.

jewelry making during conversation class at La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

The bracelet pattern she had me work on was a fairly simple one and formed kind of a flower pattern.  This is Layda starting me off.  The majority of the beads we were using were tiny little things, no more than a couple of millimetres across, and Layda made it all look very easy as she started me off.

jewelry making during conversation class La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

Of course when it came to my turn, it turned out to be not quite so easy…  I wouldn’t get the nylon thread through the hole and the bead would disappear forever, or I would get it threaded but then I would bump the nylon and it would go flying off, never to be seen again.   Felt very clumsy indeed!

jewelry making as part of conversation class at la mariposa escula de espanol

The beads in the yellow lid above were easy, but the microscopic little ones (like the small one between the yellow lid and the green lid in the picture above) were impossible!  Here’s Layda with my almost finished bracelet — all that was left was to put the clasp on.

jewelry making during conversation class at La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

And the finished product!  The clasp was a fish 🙂

jewelry making during conversation class at La Mariposa