Category Archives: Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving

Let the Guelaguetza Begin: Oaxaca Celebrates Indigenous Roots

The Guelaguetza folkloric dance and traje extravaganza in the auditorium that sits atop the Cerro del Fortin in Oaxaca, Mexico is derived from an ancient indigenous custom of mutual exchange and support. The last two Mondays in July festivities draw people from throughout the world. It is one of Oaxaca’s most important tourist attractions.

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Cultural, social and political commentary about Guelaguetza

There will be an artisan fair on the Alcala near the Santo Domingo Church throughout the next weeks until August 2, 2015. Be sure to find San Juan Colorado weaver Juana Reyes Garcia who works in natural dyes. She sold out at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. She will use those proceeds to put a floor into her children’s bedroom.

I’m still in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and will miss the first Monday on the hill. But I’ll be back in Oaxaca in time to capture the second Monday.  Meanwhile, tonight is a celebration here for the success of ceramic artist Macrina Mateo and cooperative Innovando la Tradicion. I’m certain there will be lots of Oaxaca traje represented here, too.

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Color Culture: Oaxaca at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market

Oaxaca and Mexico is well-represented at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, a knock-your-socks-off bazaar of many of the world’s best artisans.

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Interspersed among the over 150 exhibitors are some of Oaxaca’s best artisans, too. Selection to participate is very competitive. Preference seems to be given to collectives and cooperatives that further the economic, cultural and social development of at-risk folk art.

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Here are the groups from Oaxaca who came this year. We are proud of their accomplishments. They did very well and the income from sales are significant in sustaining and developing their personal lives, culture and craft.

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  • Macrina Mateo, Silvia Garcia Mateo, Silvia Medina Hernandez from San Marcos Tlapazola, Tlacolula, who are part of the ceramics cooperative Innovando la Tradicion
  • Flor de Xochistlahuaca weaving cooperative represented by Margarita Garcia de Jesus and Antonia Brigida Guerrero Santa Ana, working in natural dyes and indigenous cotton
  • Jose Garcia Antonio and family from San Antonino Castillo Velasquez, Ocotlan, who make life-size primitive clay figures
  • Odilon Merino Morales brings Amuzgos textiles hand-woven on the backstrap loom, many using natural dyes, all with expressive designs

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Last Thursday I went to a discussion about color at Collected Works Bookstore given by textile design instructor Barbara Arlen. She talked about the psychology of color, how we choose it for fashion, home decor, mood, political importance, emotional well-being and comfort, and what we think looks good on us.

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I’m moving toward indigo, the deep, intense blue derived from a plant, compressed, dried, ground and then made into a dye bath. This is a change for me and at the folk art market I was in search of indigo from Mexico, India, Africa. This seems to be the hot color this year, although it fits into the cool zone. Wear it with hot red beads.

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Here in Santa Fe, like in Mexico, colors tend to be hot as a reflection of the environment. What works here doesn’t make it in New York or Detroit. Barbara talks about how New Yorkers prefer black and gray, the color of business, solemnity, seriousness and sophistication.

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I am in New Mexico, the land of carefree fun, heat and brilliance with a deep Native American tradition of color. Red, coral, orange, turquoise, lime green, deep blue, pure gold, primary colors prevail here. Red, the color of passion, excitement, and yes, even sex, is predominant. Purple, the color of royalty, which came from the rare caracol purpura seashell.

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Barbara Arlen says that color has to do with craftsmanship, faux vs. real, as in clothing, handbags and yes, even food. Slow food vs. fast food, the difference between flash cooked goodness where food is still close to its original fresh goodness and commercial food with chemical additives that give off a gray or brown or overcooked look.

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Her discussion was an excellent introduction to folk art market shopping, where your bank account could be decimated within minutes. She asked us to pay attention to color hues, values and intensity.

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She asked us to stretch to try a different color than we are used to wearing. Barbara recommended that we look at Style.Com and Vogue UK to keep up with current textile and fashion colors.

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Always, she says, choose what makes you feel good. So, I did! And my friends Sheri and Sara did, too.

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El Rebozo Made in Mexico Exhibit, Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City

Getting to see this exhibit El Rebozo Made in Mexico before it closes Sunday, August 30, 2015, has been a priority for me since I first heard about the planning for it several years ago from British fashion designer-textile artist Hilary Simon. I scheduled this Mexico City stopover of two days before returning to the U.S. just for this purpose.

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The rebozo, or shawl, is a symbol of Mexico’s cultural identity. Textile regions throughout the country have designed and woven these rebozos according to local custom. Some are woven on a back strap loom, others on a pedal loom by women and men who learned at the feet of their parents and grandparents.

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Some are finished off with elaborate macrame hand-tied fringes that can be as longs as twelve or eighteen inches. Some are plain weave and others are Mexican ikat or jaspe from the Tenancingo in the State of Mexico or Santa Maria del Rio in the State of San Luis Potosi. The one above is hand embroidered from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

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Fibers vary, too. There is silk, a mix of silk and cotton, rayon or artecel that is called “seda” (silk) here in Mexico, plus wool. The type of material, gauge of the thread and density of weave depends on the climate in each location.

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In pre-Columbian times, indigenous people cultivated coyuchi or wild cotton that is a beautiful caramel color, using it to weave garments, including rebozos. In the mountains above Oaxaca in a village called San Pedro Cajonos, they cultivate a wild silk the color of straw from a local worm, spinning it with a drop spindle. Below is the red silk rebozo dyed with cochineal by Moises Martinez, part of Lila Downs‘ collection.

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Local dyes were derived from indigo, wild marigold, nuts, mosses, tree bark. They used the caracol purpura snail found along the southern coast of Oaxaca to dye purple and the miniscule cochineal beetle, a parasite that lives on the prickly pear cactus paddle, for an intense, color-fast red.  Feathers dyed red with cochineal were often woven into the fibers for embellishments.

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All these techniques and materials are still used today and are part of the exhibition.

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The State of Oaxaca is well-represented in this exhibit. Many of the rebozos on display are part of the personal collections of Oaxaqueños and its institutions: Remigio Mestas Revilla, Mauricio Cervantes, Lila Downs, Trine Ellitsgaaard, Maddalena Forcella and The Museo Textil de Oaxaca.

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A black scented burial rebozo (above) woven in Tenancingo, part of Maurico Cervantes’ collection, displays an ancient Mexican tradition that is at risk of extinction because it is so labor intensive to make. Western fashion is dominating the tastes driven by a young, hip population.

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It is a completely manual process that takes months to complete. When you think of the rarity of the raw materials and the time commitment involved to complete a piece, it is no wonder that many command prices of up to $2,000 USD each.

Rebozo Franz Mayer 53-16 Rebozo Franz Mayer 53-18                 No Mexican exhibition would be complete without a reference to beloved Frida Kahlo. Above, left, is a photograph of a rebozo from her personal collection taken at Casa Azul by Pablo Aguinaco. To the right is a photographic portrait from 1951, just three years before her death at age 47.

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Other iconic images in the exhibition are this Diego Rivera painting, Vendadora de Flores, painted in 1934 (above), and this compelling photograph (below) by Pedro Valtiera taken in Oaxaca, 1974.

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I wanted to see the best of the best in preparation for a textile trip I’m taking to Tenancingo in September to the rebozo fair. Going to the exhibit is part of my continuing education to know even more about Mexico’s textile culture and the importance of garment for cultural identity and continuity.

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In addition to the textiles, the exhibit integrates old and new photographs, paintings, mixed media art work, memorabilia and related folk art.

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Above left is the felted wool and silk rebozo with cochineal stripe by Maddalena Forcella, titled Rebozo de Sangre, made in 2014. Above right is a handmade paper rebozo designed and constructed by Oaxaca textile artist Trine Ellitsgaard.

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Photographer Tom Feher, who lives in Oaxaca with his wife Jo-Ann during the winter months, is represented with photos he took of the Miramar, Oaxaca women’s cooperative (above) for his book, Weaving Cultures, Weaving Lives: A Circle of Women. Oaxaca photographers Antonio Turok and Mari Seder also have pieces in the show.

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I loved Hilary Simon‘s Mi Altar Mexicano (above) and a series of watercolors (below) that Christopher Corr painted in 2000, all capturing the rebozo and the women who wear them.

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Rebozos have so many uses. They carry babies and bundles. They are wrapped like a crown to balance a basket filled with fruit or tamales or flowers. They are folded and put atop the head for sun protection. They protect shoulders from the evening chill. They cover the breast as baby takes nourishment. They are the embodiment of Mexican life.

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El Rebozo Made in Mexico is at the Franz Mayer Museum, Hidalgo 45, Cuauhtemoc, Centrol Historico in Mexico City. Tel: 55 5518 2266. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Monday. Hours can change, so call ahead to make sure they are open when you can be there.

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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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