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Friday, January 22, 2016

How did the Henna Caravan girls get started, anyway?

Jessica and Carissa, Festival ~2006
People are always asking us "How did you get started in henna?" My answer: "My sister made me!" It's true, but not many people know how Jessica McQueen first came to henna, and how we started Henna Caravan as a family project.

I've known Jessica my whole life, after all she is my big sister. When I was born, she couldn't wait to play with my hair, share shoes, and go on tons of adventures. Wouldn't you know I always hated people doing my hair and I have weird tiny feet? So options 1 and 2 were right out. But option 3? We have had many adventures together, and Henna Caravan is just one of them.

When I began working with Jessica, I was only 12. My mom, Flavia, told me I had to go help. There wasn't even an "or else", I just had to. I was doing the sisterly duty, keeping her company at weekend festivals, whining when I got bored, and basically being a nuisance. She didn't mind, though. She was discovering how to turn her passion and talent into a business. She was making her living as an artist!

Jessica at Cajun Festival, 2010

Jessica studied painting at the prestigious California College of Arts in Oakland, Ca. She immersed herself in the vibrant cross-cultural melting pot that is the Bay Area, and through her studies learned about myriad forms of beauty and traditional arts. Henna was one of these arts. At the time, information on henna in the western world was very limited. The internet was shiny and new and slow. The books on henna were nonexistent. The only way to learn was to talk face to face with the people who knew.

Jessica McQueen, 1999
And so my big sister started her quest to find out everything about henna. She would talk to shop owners in Little India, who shared their henna powder, much of it sifted for hair use. Pakistani immigrants would clasp her hand and say how she reminded them of their family members who were still back in the old country. North African women would nod and drop a bit of family knowledge - "You use lemon sugar on top, right?".

Jessica McQueen, 1999
With all these different people, learning about henna was like a treasure hunt. Recipes back then were like Grandma's secret marinara sauce; you never quite got the whole picture. But it was fun to piece all the puzzles together, and Jessica soon became nearly obsessed with henna as an art, a women's craft, and a beauty practice.

Ask her now and she'll gladly say how ugly and messy her first designs were. I only wish I had a picture to show you all of those very first attempts. We could all smile together and remember our early goes at swirls and humps and fills, all a bit sideways and wibbly, but filled with joy. In my opinion, Jessica always made something beautiful and elegant, right from the very start.

Henna was just starting to make headway into western consciousness at this time- mid/late 90s. Those early festivals, Jessica would take a book and a chair and sit all day, giving henna to 5 or 10 customers, answering questions for a lot more. Then Madonna and Gwen Stefani and a half dozen other pop stars were sporting hennaed hands and anklets, and suddenly every teenage girl worth her crop top and platform flip flops needed henna!

Filming "David Tutera" ~ 2011 

This was where my mom and I came in. The festivals went from slow, to steady, to frenetic. People waited in line for an hour for a little anklet or an arm band. My mom and I would talk to customers. We'd explain to anybody who would listen what henna is. We would show them designs and help put on lemon-sugar sealant. One day,  the line was particularly long, so my sister threw me a bottle and said "Get to work sister!"

And that, more or less, is the story of how Henna Caravan got started. Mom, Jess, and me! There's nothing better than getting to spend every day hanging out with your best friends, sharing art around the world, and playing in glitter. We're very lucky ladies.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Mixing henna during Winter

This past month has been unbearably cold in the Henna Caravan office. We have radiators going all day to keep our toes and noses warm. How cold is it, you ask? We won't tell you. Our midwest and east coast friends will make fun of us for being wimps. Suffice it to say that the adhesive has come home for a sleepover until the warm weather returns.

You may not know this, but adhesive isn't the only thing here that dislikes the cold. Henna is not a fan either, and mixing paste when the weather gets chilly can be frustrating and confounding if you don't account for the few degree difference.

Why does heat this matter? Here's a quick visual of what henna molecules do in different temperatures. (totally scientific examples, we swear!)

When henna is warm, its Joan dancing at the holiday party!

When henna is cold, it has this face.

So, what is the best way to mix henna when the birds fly south for the winter? Our advice is pretty simple- keep it cozy.

You need:

incandescent light source
digital thermometer

When its in the 20s and 30s outside, your home temperatures are a little less predictable. You may keep your heat or radiator on low overnight but blast it in the morning and evening. You may like it to be a bit more roasty toasty with the temperature set up near 75, but there's a draft through that old door. Its important that your henna have a steady, warm temperature to sit at.

Here's a few tricks to help find a nice place for your henna bowl to sit no matter what the weather is doing outside.

  1. Stove Light - we make a tower of bowls and canned goods to make sure our henna has a steady temp during chilly nights. 
  2. Oven Light - a cool oven with the light on will make just enough warmth for your henna to process consistently even if your house is very cold. 
  3. Gooseneck Lamp - this kind of lamp can be positioned easily, and as long as you have an incandescent bulb it will provide a steady source of heat to keep your henna from becoming too cold.
  4. Next to your electronics or appliances - many people have a cozy spot on top of or near their refrigerator or other appliances that stay on all the time. 

These places all give off a bit of steady heat. That will ensure the molecules in your henna are doing their business, and not just sitting around.

Places that are NOT good to warm your henna, even though they seem like a good idea the first time your try.

  1. Oven on "warm"- that's about 200 degrees and will cook your henna!
  2. Microwave- don't nuke your henna!
  3. In a double boiler- it will cook your henna!
  4. By a window- the window will by much cooler than any other part of your house, and the temperature will fluctuate more as the sun comes and goes.
  5. Your Car - in the summer your car gets way too hot, in the winter it gets way too cold. brrrr!
So, snow bunnies, what other challenges can winter weather bring?