Striking native textiles from a faraway island near the bottom of the world are finding their way into American homes and hotels thanks to the efforts of a Healdsburg woman whose company is providing new hope for master Chilean weavers and spinners.
Catalina Marin collaborates with the women of Chiloe, a fishing island off the coast of southern Chile, to create luxury blankets, pillows and throw rugs finely made using traditional techniques but with an understated and updated look.
Each piece is completely handcrafted, from shearing to spinning to weaving. The colors are softly muted earth tones — shades of black, gray, cream and brown — created with natural dyes.
“This is my way of showing what my country is. I really think it is a unique country and we have so much to preserve. We do not want to lose the traditions we have,” she said.
When Marin moved to Sonoma County six years ago from Chile after her husband, Rodrigo, landed a job as marketing director for Fetzer, she found herself struggling, not only to adjust to a new country and community, but to find her way. She had two young children, one 2 years old and one only 2 months old.
With a master’s degree in marketing, Marin had a successful career in Chile as marketing director for L’Oreal. When she arrived in the U.S. she wanted to work but wasn’t sure how to apply her skills in a community where most jobs related to the wine industry.
“It was really really tough,” she recalled.
Then one day her sister called, excited about the beautiful weavings she had seen on a visit to Chiloe. As a young woman, Marin had frequently traveled to the remote island near Patagonia, known for its unique wood-shingled churches dating back to the Jesuit missionaries of the 17th century and which have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
The island nonetheless, is poor, with the men working half the year in fishing and the women contributing to the household during the harsh winters by weaving items for tourists.
“I would go there every summer. I would go and camp,” Marin said. “The people are so amazing.”
But when her sister emailed photos of the incredible work she had seen, Marin was hit with an inspiration. “This,” she told herself, “is what I’m supposed to do.”
She got names and contact information from her sister about the women doing artisanal work and began communicating with them. Eventually, she traveled back to the island and began a collaboration that became her company, Treko, which literally means “yarn of wool” in the native dialect.
Each item is made from yarn spun from the island’s Chilota sheep. Because of the rainy climate, the breed has developed wool that is water resistant, flexible and durable.
“People tend to think wool is itchy. Bit it’s all about the quality of the wool. People touch it and think it’s alpaca. But the quality is also in how we process it,” she said.
The wool is cleaned multiple times in scalding hot water to remove the natural oils and odor. It is then spun five times until it’s thin and then tightly woven into unique patterns and textures. Because of the overcast and rainy weather in southern Chile, the women had been drawn to bright colors like purple and yellow, made from chemical dyes. But for Treko, Marin has gotten them to switch to natural dyes derived from bark, leaves, roots, branches, flowers or minerals.