Posts by » Natalia

Christmas in Mexico


Feb 3, 2014 Mexico, Photography, Urban 0 Comments

Christmas has always been synonymous with mountains and snow. Every year, I would fly home to spend time with my family in a small town in the Canadian Rockies. This year, things were a little different. My parents sold their house so we came up with an alternative plan for us to come together for the holidays. We headed south to Merida, Mexico, rented a house, and explored much of the Yucatan peninsula. I hadn’t been to this part of Mexico, but my other trips hardly count (spring break in Mazatlan, one day in Tijuana). So this was my first time really exploring Mexico and I had a great time. I can get used to a new tradition of traveling to warm climates with my family for the holidays!

An interesting factoid: the name Yucatan comes from the Mayan for “I do not understand,” which is what the Mayans said when the Spaniards arrived and started speaking to them in Spanish.

Hover over the photos below for a brief caption explaining the image.

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Haciendas are Mexico’s equivalent to American plantations. In the Yucatan, haciendas were built to produce henequen, also known as sisal or green gold. Their heyday was in the early 1900s when henequen was used to make rope, cord, and twine. In the 1940s, after the Yucatan Caste War and the invention of synthetic fibers like nylon, most haciendas were abandoned. Now, some haciendas have been renovated to serve as museums to this once-thriving industry and they often have five star hotels onsite too.

We visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, just outside of Merida. It is the only working hacienda in the Yucatan and they offer tours of the entire process, from growing the agave plant, processing the fibers, to making rope. I love learning about these kinds of things. As an added bonus, the hacienda also had a cenote (freshwater sink hole) so we also got to go swimming! I asked whether this plant is the source of parasisal used in hatmaking, but this particular agave plant does not produce high quality fiber. It is only suitable for rope and twine.

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Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve

The Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve is due west of Merida, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is a major stop for migratory birds, including spectacular flocks of flamingos. The bird watching was great. Beyond the expected flamingos, we also saw cormorants, frigatebirds, and egrets. The waterway is surrounded by mangrove forests, providing breeding grounds and protection for many birds. We also floated through a mangrove tunnel which I’m sure was manmade, but still pretty cool. We stopped at a spring in the mangroves which wasn’t as beautiful as the cenotes since there was so much organic matter, but I still hopped in for a swim. It was nice and warm. The nearby town of Celestun was quaint. We stopped for a late lunch and a walk along the beach where tons of brown pelicans were diving for their own lunch.

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Merida is the capital of the state of the Yucatan and is about a 3-hour drive due west of Cancun. The historic center is quite nice with many squares, restaurants, museums, art galleries, and old colonial buildings. We spent quite a few evenings walking around the main square and surroundings. It was nice to be so close (walking distance) to everything. We also took a bus tour which was in Spanish so I didn’t understand too much, but the view from the top of the double decker bus made it worthwhile.

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Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. About 1.2 million people visit every year.  After visiting much smaller sites where we were the only people, Chichen Itza was a bit jarring with the sheer number of tourists (busloads, mostly from Cancun) and hawkers selling all kinds of souvenirs. The biggest draw at Chichen Itza is El Castillo (the Kukulkan Pyramid). The temple has 365 steps, one for each day of the year. Each of the temple’s four sides has 91 steps, and the top platform makes 365. It was really quite impressive. Unfortunately no one is allowed to walk on any of the ruins now. With thousands of people visiting every day, I can see why. The second biggest draw is the Ball Court whichis the largest known in the Americas at 554 feet long and 231 feet wide. In the game, players tried to hit a 9-pound rubber ball through stone hoops set high on the court walls. It was also impressive in sheer size. Luckily we arrived early in the morning and I was able to get some shots without too many people. We spent most of the day alternating between walking the ruins and hanging out at the café for a refreshing lunch or drink. It was a hot day!

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Izamal is a small city east of Merida known as the Yellow City since most of its buildings are painted yellow. It was designated as a magical town in 2002, a government program to recognize unique and historically significant towns across the country.  The center of the city features a large Franciscan monastery, which is built upon the base of a Mayan pyramid. The city also features a variety of artisans working in all kinds of mediums. We took a horse-drawn carriage for a short tour of the city. I was sold the moment I saw them because the horses were wearing hats! We visited an artisan that makes jewelry from cocoyol seeds and the tips of the henequen plant. That was definitely a highlight. It was Christmas Day so a lot of other places were closed so we just wandered the city and checked out the ruins.

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Dzibilchaltun is a Mayan site only 10 miles north of Merida. The most famous structure is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after seven small dolls found at the site by archaeologists in the 1950s. On the vernal equinox, the sun rises and shines directly through one window of the temple and out the other. The temple is connected to the rest of the site by a raised wide road, built up to allow the water to run off during the rainy season. At the other end of the road, the majority of the city’s ruins are found. We were allowed to climb on these structures so that made for some fun. Dzibilchaltun also has a gorgeous above ground cenote, Cenote Xlakah. We spent some time hanging out there on another beautiful day. The renovated museum housing Mayan artifacts was also impressive making this a really great day trip.

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Campeche is the capital of the same-name state to the southwest of Merida on the Gulf of Mexico coast. It is a typical harbor town from the Spanish colonial period. The historic center has kept its outer walls and fortifications, designed to defend against attacks from the sea. With the state of preservation and its architecture, Campeche was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. The pastel colors of the historic center were truly captivating. I enjoyed wandering around to see all the remains of the fortifications. The main square was extremely lively and I was so sad to leave to catch our bus back to Merida just as a huge band was setting up for an evening concert.

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Alas, all good things must come to an end. I was sad to leave my family behind and I certainly could have used a few more days of sunshine. But the Merida taxi driver made my last morning interesting by flying through the quiet city streets at 90 km/h (~55 mph) to get me to the airport in record time. Luckily I survived to tell the tale!

Hat Camp 2013


Oct 20, 2013 Millinery 4 Comments

Hat Camp was a resounding success and the largest gathering of milliners and hatters that I have attended to date! It was really exciting to be surrounded by so many people that share the same passion. It was held at the end of September near Seattle on Vashon Island at Camp Burton, a quaint retreat center right along the water’s edge. I heard about last year’s Hat Camp in Los Angeles and was really keen to join this year to meet milliners from all over the U.S. and Canada.

Hat Camp began in 2005 as a way for a group of west coast milliners to meet up and share ideas. It has moved up and down the west coast over the years and has grown in size. Over 60 milliners and hatters from the U.S. and Canada participated this year and the networking opportunities were truly the highlight for me.

I arrived in Seattle on Thursday morning, September 26th, picked up my car rental, and headed straight to the ferry. I was pleased to meet my first fellow attendee onboard, Afia. She showed me some of her fun hats and supplies which started to build excitement for the weekend. But it was a very short ferry ride and soon we had already arrived at Vashon and were off to Camp Burton!

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After lunch, Wayne Wichern welcomed us and kicked off the weekend with a group brainstorming session about different topics people were interested in addressing at Hat Camp. There was a rough agenda for the weekend, but there was plenty of time and opportunity to customize according to people’s interests. I really liked this aspect of Hat Camp. It made for a more inviting weekend. There weren’t “teachers” and “students,” rather we were all there to teach and learn from each other.

Hat Camp was largely discussion-based with a few demonstrations throughout the weekend. There was really only one session that was hands on — indigo dyeing, but more on that later. The entire first day was spent in discussion, from fashion trends to business models. It was a good way to ease into the weekend.

Friday was chock full of discussion, demonstrations, presentations, and a materials swap meet. We covered working with feathers, dyeing feathers with cake dyes or koolaid, repairing and altering blocks, attaching petersham with a special binder foot, hatting, and so much more!

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One of my personal highlights was indigo dyeing. Jean Hicks set up an indigo dye pot and gave us an introductory lesson to this plant-based dye. I had never dyed with indigo before. I knew there would be dyeing at Hat Camp so I had brought some vintage Swiss and Italian straw hoods to dye. The hoods were baby pink, a color I don’t care for, so anything would be better! I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we would be working with indigo. Jean shared some sample pieces that she had dyed and gave us an overview of the process. It’s quite a finicky dye as the indigo needs to be reduced (a bit of chemistry going on here!) to dissolve into solution. For the indigo to remain reduced, you must not introduce any oxygen into the dye pot so that means stirring slowly, submerging your material slowly, etc. I saw how this type of dyeing could be a very meditative process. Once the material is removed from the dye pot, it starts to oxidize. Despite being a chemist, it really did feel like magic. Initially the material is a bright lime green and gradually it oxidizes to beautiful indigo blue. It was great fun seeing all the different materials that were dyed. They all take up the dye a little differently and the material’s starting color makes a difference too.

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Saturday was largely more discussion with topics like working with leather or fur and distressing techniques. In the afternoon we had a tour of Bergamot Studio on Vashon. They design fabrics and print the designs on all kinds of fabrics using wide format printers. As a photographer with a very nice printer of my own, this opened my mind to all kinds of new ideas. Imagine taking my own photos, printing them on fabric, and using the fabric to create (hats or otherwise). Genius! And talk about bringing many of my passions together. Stay tuned as I delve deeper into these possibilities.


Unfortunately it was raining most of the time that I was at Hat Camp (surprise!), so I didn’t have any opportunities to take nice photos of the property or Puget Sound. But nature was abundant, including a family of deer that was hanging around all weekend.


As with everyone else, I tip my hat to Wayne Wichern for being the driving force behind this year’s Hat Camp and thanks also to Jean Hicks and Daria Wheatley, the rest of the Hat Camp Steering Committee. All of your hard work does not go unnoticed and I look forward to seeing everyone at the next Hat Camp!


Chateau Dumas


Sep 18, 2013 Millinery 6 Comments

This past July, I was fortunate to attend two weeks of millinery classes at Chateau Dumas in the south of France. The classes were recommended by my good friend Melissa who went to Chateau Dumas last summer and spoke so highly of the experience. I was keen to dedicate two full weeks (not just evenings and weekends) to advancing my millinery skills in such a beautiful location with fantastic people!


The Chateau is located in the French countryside, about one hour north of Toulouse. The lovely Lizzie is the proprietor of Chateau Dumas. She keeps everything running smoothly while still finding time to join us for meals and tea! Located at the top of a hill, the Chateau has panoramic views of the surrounding farmlands. The benches at the front of the Chateau are a great place to take in the warm, golden morning rays and prepare for the day ahead. While in the evening, the terrace is the best place to enjoy sunset, the view, great conversation, dinner, and wine.

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The first week of classes were taught by Dillon Wallwork from London, UK, and focused on vintage Hollywood hats from the 1920s and 1930s. Dillon has decades of millinery experience and many great stories to share. He is a fantastic teacher who made every skill accessible and had the perfect solution for every problem. Dillon started the week with an overview of hats and fashion from this time period so we could think about what we wanted to create. We were also privileged to use vintage blocks from Isabelle Rey who is a sixth generation hat maker at Chapeau Willy in the nearby town of Caussade. More on Chapeau Willy below.

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We spent the entire week engrossed in our projects. It was hard to pull us away! From a flapper-style bandeau to a classic east-west brim with deep crown, I was very happy with the hats I created at Chateau Dumas. Each had it’s own vintage flare. Here are a couple of shots of some of my finished products.

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The second week of classes on millinery trimmings was taught by both Dillon and Bridget Bailey of Bailey Tomlin. Dillon led us through the construction of bows out of all kinds of materials, various types of flowers that can be made from cotton organdie or using heated flower making tools, and feather trimmings. Some samples follow below.

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From there, Bridget took over to cover hand-dyed sinamay feathers and hand-dyed silk flowers. Bridget is also a world-class instructor and also from London, UK. I am so grateful for the opportunity to study with both her and Dillon. Bridget shared her exacting techniques for creating true works of art. She was such fun to learn from. Here are some samples of my end products.

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At the start of each week, there is an outing to the town of Saint-Antonin Noble Val for their weekly market. Saint Antonin is a quaint town in the Aveyron Gorges. I visited Saint Antonin a few times while I was at Chateau Dumas. Here are some shots from town and the view of Saint Antonin from above.

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Chateau Dumas is situated in the center of France’s hat industry. Thus it’s not surprising that the nearby town of Caussade hosts an annual hat festival every July. Caussade is also the location for a long running hat factory, Chapeau Willy. We got a tour of the hat factory which specializes in straw braid hats that are first sewn and then pressed into the final shape between heated metal plates. It was fascinating to watch how they create their hats. I have heard of this method but hadn’t seen it in person. It’s a different process for making hats than what I do, but with an equally rich history. The sheer volume of hat molds, blocks, and millinery materials at Chapeau Willy was both overwhelming and exciting. I bought plenty of goodies to bring home and play with. Here are some shots from the hat factory.

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In between the two weeks of classes, I make a quick jaunt to Toulouse to meet up with my friend Michelle who was travelling around the world. I was so pleased that our schedules aligned so we could meet in France! We spent the weekend as one should when in France: exploring food and flea markets, walking the city, cooling down with refreshing drinks at cafes, and lingering over fantastic food with even better dinner conversations. It was great to refresh and see more of France!

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Another highlight of this trip was an evening excursion to Charlotte and Tom’s. Who is Charlotte you ask? Charlotte is the amazing chef at Chateau Dumas. Charlotte and her team make truly heavenly food. Each meal uses fresh, regional ingredients and was a high point of the day! We were invited to have dinner one evening at Charlotte and Tom’s home near Saint Antonin. Their home is truly amazing. I felt like I was witnessing my dream home realized before my eyes with beautiful grounds teeming in history, color, and beauty. I think the photos speak for themselves.

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All of the above is just a taste of my experiences at Chateau Dumas and in the surrounding area. There was also the cinema night under the stars, the amazing pool, the hat festival, and more! I could be here all day. But I’ll end here with a couple of shots of the fantastic people who  made this trip truly memorable. Á votre santé!

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NYC Flower Factory Tour


Aug 5, 2013 Millinery 0 Comments

On a recent trip to New York City, I was very excited to visit an operating flower factory, Custom Fabric Flowers by M&S Schmalberg. I have been following them on Facebook and love all the new creations that they post. They said they offer tours of their flower factory, so I made an appointment and stopped in to see how the magic is created!

When I arrived, I was greeted by Adam who is the son in this 4th generation, family owned company. The show room was filled with all kinds of examples of the flowers they make, but there would be time for browsing later. We left the show room and headed straight to the area where the flowers are made. It turns out that making flowers in a factory is very similar to making flowers by hand. The individual steps are very similar. The factory has large machinery to help, but it’s still a very labor intensive process. The first step is to stiffen the fabric. It’s stretched on the racks below, sprayed with stiffener and left to dry.


Next, the die is chosen for cutting out the shape of the flower petals. There were literally hundreds of dies! You can see on the top shelf of the photo below that some of the dies have a large post on them. In the past, multiple layers of fabric would be set up, the die placed on top, and a hammer would be used to cut out the shape.


Thanks to modern machinery, hammers are no longer necessary. The left shot below is of one of two machines that they have for cutting out the shapes. The process is still the same: layer the fabrics, place the die, then swing the arm over both and the arm presses down to cut out the shapes. The photo on the right shows an employee cutting out some flowers.


The factory also has a dye room and I got to see that too. As you can see in the photo below on the left, the petals have been cut out at this stage and the edges are being dyed. The fabric could have been dyed first too. For example, I picked up some lovely velvet flowers that had been tie-dyed in rich blues and greens. These are definitely one of my great finds.


From here, the flowers need to be shaped. There are equally as many molds (photo on the left) to choose from, each with a top and bottom, or male and female part, to shape the flowers. Historically, a manually operated machine was used, shown below on the right. The tabletop is heated (so the whole thing was radiating heat), the bottom of the mold was placed on the table underneath the big wheel, the top of the mold was placed in the shaft, and the wheel was turned to create the pressure needed to form the shape. As you can imagine, this was also very labor intensive and not an enjoyable job since you are working over the equivalent of a hot stove all day. Today, this is used to keep the molds warm while the workers shape other flowers.


To shape the flowers, they now use a heated hydraulic press, but it is the same process. The bottom of the mold goes in the middle of the plate, the top of the mold with the shaft goes in the top of the machine. One flower petal is placed on the bottom part of the mold. With the push of a button, the top comes down, holds for a few seconds to shape the petal, and then it releases. The worker places the shaped petal in his ever-growing collection of shaped petals!


From here, the flower is assembled. A number of ladies were taking wire and stamens as needed, gluing the petals to the wire, and letting them dry. You can see the individual petals on the table and the completed flowers hanging from the line above.


After the tour, I met Warren, the father in this family owned business. I got to look through all the flowers that they had in stock (hundreds!) and pick some out to take home with me. Warren told me the stories about the flowers I chose (many hand dyed, some based on Dior flowers, etc). He also shared a treasure chest full of flower making tools from a company that went out of business. So many interesting tools!


If you are in New York City, I highly recommend stopping by Custom Fabric Flowers and checking it out! They are located at 242 West 36th Street, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10018.