Category Archives: Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving

Visiting the Oaxaca Wool Mill: Lanera de Ocotlan

In 1996 Englishman Graham Johnson came to Ocotlan de Morelos from Mexico City to open a woolen mill.  The mill was designed to streamline the production process for making yarn and weaving cloth from local churro sheep wool* without sacrificing quality.

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Graham was a tinkerer. He loved machinery, especially the old carding and spinning machines that were being replaced by computerization. He bought these up, shipped them to Oaxaca from the United States and the United Kingdom, and refurbished them. Often, he would find or make the parts to keep them going. Many were 30 and 40 years old already.

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Over time the mill diversified and made luxuriously soft merino bed blankets and throws, fancy yak hair mecate horse reins, cinch chord for saddle belts, colorful wool tassels to decorate saddles, horse blankets and rugs for home decor.

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They kept a supply of all types of wool to work with and blend, continuing to experiment to produce soft and durable products. In addition to merino, the mill cleaned and spun cashmere, mohair, Lincoln and other breeds. They still do.

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Then, Graham died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009, and there was a question about who would keep the business going.

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I remember when I first met Graham on one of my early visits to Oaxaca. It was probably 2005 or 2006. The mill was running at full capacity and you could hear the hum of machinery as you walked down the open corridor separating the rooms where the work was done.  It was impressive then what these old machines and talented local employees could do.

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Now, when I revisited with my friend Scott Roth, who has been working with weavers, wool, dyes, and the hand-loomed rug weaving process for over 40 years, I could see the changes. Scott brought with him replacement parts for some of the machines. Machines that were working ten years ago now need repair. Old belts, bearings, wires, cogs and wheels break, wear out.

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For the past two years, Graham’s 37-year old daughter Rebecca has stepped in and is learning the operation. The mill is 25 years old and Rebecca is determined to keep her father’s dream alive.

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At her side are Rosalba (Rosie) Martinez Garcia, who has been there for 18 years and knows just about everything about the mill.  Helping are Angel Laer Ambocio Perez (above) and Alejandro Maldonado Santiago. They know a thing or two, too, although their tenure is much shorter.

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Rebecca loves textiles. She loves yarn. She wants to supply all types of yarns for knitting and weaving and other fiber arts. There are beautiful rugs and blankets stacked on shelves that were made before her father passed that are for sale.

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Spare parts for anything is essential here in Mexico. Equipment can be old. It can still be good, functional, valued. If one has the necessary parts to keep it going. Graham wasn’t the only tinkerer here. People save, cobble together, recycle, repurpose. Things get jimmied together and continue to work. People here learn how to be resourceful with what they have. It’s something I’ve learned being here.

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As Scott and Rebecca worked out numbers to complete their transaction, I wandered the mill, remembering Graham. A cat ran across the corridor to hide. A young tree struggled to grow up from the crack in the concrete. A rusted yarn holder cast shadows on the adobe wall. I loved being there, another part of the textile heaven that is Oaxaca.

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Where to Find It: Lanera de Ocotlan, 119 Benito Juarez, Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, Tel:  951-294-7062. Email: Rebecca Johnson at  becky_madonna@hotmail.com for an appointment to visit. Directions: Continue straight past the Zocalo and the Mercado Morelos two blocks. The wool mill door will be on your left. It is unmarked.

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Footnote: *Local wool is shorn from churro sheep which were brought to Mexico by the Spaniards with the conquest in 1521. The sheep are raised in the high mountains above Ocotlan in San Baltazar Chichicapam. The mountain range separates the Tlacolula and Ocotlan valleys. The altitude there produces a soft, dense fleece. There are still some, like Yolande Perez Vasquez, who use hand carders and the drop spindle to produce the best yarn, but this is a costly, labor-intensive process that yields a premium yarn that is very dye absorbent. Few weavers are able to pay the price.

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Travel for Texture and Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop

Natalie and her mother Olga traveled north from Guatemala, through Chiapas and came to Oaxaca to take a natural dye workshop with Taller Teñido Natural. We scheduled a two-day program for them to go deep into Oaxaca’s traditions for using natural plant materials, including indigo, fustic and wild marigold plus the cochineal bug to create glorious color.

Natalie is a textile designer from Washington, D.C. and writes the blog Travel for Texture.  Here is her post A Wooly Mexican Rainbow about the workshop experience, as well as her travels through Guatemala and southern Mexico.

And her photos are to dye for! During the two days, Natalie and Olga made 18 different colors and went home with formulas and a palette of sampler yarns.

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Please contact me to schedule your own customized natural dye workshop for one, two or three days when you are in Oaxaca. It’s a great way to experience the local culture. Cost is based on number of people participating!

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Pop-up Expoventa San Felipe Usila Saturday Only

Textile show and sale from San Felipe Usila
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When: 1:30-4:30 pm, Saturday, March 7, 2015

Where:  Las Granadas B&B, Avenida 2 de Abril #9, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

What:  think Danza de la Pina — Dance of the Pineapple– at The Guelaguetza to picture what these garments look like

San Felipe Usila is a remote mountain village near Tuxtepec, about an eight-hour drive from Oaxaca. The women weave extraordinary textiles on back strap looms. I was there last October and met a talented family.

Jorge Isidro is coming with his mother, an accomplished weaver, and bringing excellent quality pieces to show our Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat participants. Because he is making such a long trip, I want to open up the opportunity to you to see and buy the work.

The sales go directly to the weaving families.  Prices are reasonable because you are buying direct.

Please invite your friends and share this post to support fine indigenous Oaxaca textile culture.  Thank you.

Norma H-Shafer

 

Chiapas Textile Museum: Maya Art on Cloth

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The contemporary Maya world spans political boundaries and crosses southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador. Here in Chiapas there is a rich textile tradition that endures as cultural identity and pride. The Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya, The Textile Center of the Maya World, is the place to begin to see the finest examples of woven and embroidered cloth coming from throughout the Maya world.

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No one comes to San Cristobal de Las Casas without buying at least one piece of handwoven cloth! We advise you come here first before you shop. That way, you will be able compare quality and price after seeing the hundreds of fine textiles on display in the museum, and then making a stop at the adjoining Sna Jolobil gallery where deep pockets help.

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We were told that eighty percent of the items for sale in the Santo Domingo Church market are made by machine or imported from China. The market fills the entry area to the textile museum so the temptation is strong to forage first.

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Yesterday, as I wandered this market, I did find a beautiful back strap loomed and embroidered huipil from Cancuc for about $70USD and two incredible Chenalho short blusas, also hand loomed and embroidered, for $18USD each. So, there are still bargains to be found of authentic garments if you know what you are looking for.

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At the textile museum, the group from Penland School of Crafts had a private tour of the collection in English complete with an introductory video in English, too.  We began to identify the designs of the cloth and embroidery with the villages where they are made.  We saw the evolution of garment design with the introduction of Spanish lace and off-the-shoulder style. Many of those on exhibit are Guatemalan pieces since the cultural border is porous.

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The detail work on the cloth is precise. The embroidery is exact. We sat down to a work table to create an embroidery sampler in the style of San Andres Larrainzar to better understand the textile making process.  Needless to say, none of us was good enough to go into business.

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One of us tried his hand at the back strap loom, and he managed to use the sheep bone pick with some ability to push back each weft thread to make a clean straight line.  Then, with some heft and force, he used the shuttle to add to the tight piece of cloth.  It takes three months, working five hours a day, to make a twenty-four inch wide traditional ceremonial sash, which was on the loom today.

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Around the world, machinery and technology is replacing hand work. Mechanization creates precision and lower cost.  What we lose is the beauty and variegation that is transmitted by the soul of the maker. This visit gave us a greater appreciation for indigenous culture, the beauty they create.

We organize small group workshop study tours for up to 10 people. If you and a group of friends or your organization wants a customized learning experience, please contact me.

 

Zinacantan Textile Flowers, San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

They speak Tzotzil here in the Maya highlands of Chiapas, Mexico.  San Lorenzo Zinacantan is a village nestled in a beautiful valley about thirty minutes from San San Cristobal de Las Casas.  It is a popular Sunday tourist destination combined with a visit to the mystical church at San Juan Chamula (which I will write about in another post), just ten minutes apart.

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Zinacantan people yielded to the Spanish during the conquest.  They enjoyed more favors and received fertile land in exchange for their loyalty. Today, the Zinacantan hillside is dotted with greenhouses where flowers grow in abundance to decorate church and home altars, and are a key part of festivals.

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The village replicates these flowers in their embroidery that embellish cloth created on back strap looms.  Over the years we have seen the patterns change from simple red and white striped cloth to sparkly textiles that incorporate synthetic glitzy threads of gold and silver.  Much of the embroidery is now machine stitched, though the designs are guided by expert hands.

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I’ve been coming to San Cristobal de Las Casas for years searching for a chal embroidered by hand to no avail. This time, Patrick, our guide took us to the home of Antonia, one of Zinacantan’s most accomplished weavers and embroiderers.  Among the hundred chals (shawl or tzute) available for purchase, I found a blue one all hand embroidered. Technology is winning out over the made by hand ethos.

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Identity is defined externally by the indigenous garment.  Some say the Spanish imposed this upon local people in order to know where they came from and to keep them in their place. Others say the design of the garment endures because of cultural pride.  The young woman above is from the village of Chenalho.  I can tell because of the design of her beautiful huipil.

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She is the tortilla maker at Antonia’s home, who keeps the fire going, makes us a fresh quesadilla of local cheese, cured chorizo, avocado and homemade salsa to remember the visit. Food is memory, too.

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Nothing is wasted, not even the smoke. It curls up from the comal to cure the meats that hang above it. The corn is criollo, locally grown and ground by hand, pure and wholesome. Here in the shadowy adobe kitchen there is magic.

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It is impossible to take photographs inside the church at Zinacantan. It is forbidden and cameras can be confiscated if you are found to violate this. Can you imagine a church altar spilling over with flowers from ceiling to floor, fresh, with an aroma of lilies, roses, gardenias and lilacs. The swirl of scent is like an infusion of incense, designed perhaps to bring one closer to god.

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I organized this art and archeology study tour for Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.  If you have a small group interested in coming to Oaxaca or Chiapas, please contact me.  I have over 35 years experience organizing award-winning educational programs for some of America’s most respected universities.