Category Archives: Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving

Rebozo Weaving Technology in Mexico: How to Make an Ikat Shawl

On our textile study tour to Tenancingo de Degollado, Estado de Mexico (State of Mexico) we met ikat rebozo weavers, called reboceros, who use up to 6,400 cotton warp threads on a back strap loom.

Evaristo Borboa, grand master of Mexican folk art, weaves on a back strap loom

About 3,000 to 5,000 cotton warp threads are used on the fixed frame pedal floor loom.

Rebozo weaver Gabriel Perez at his floor loom

The technology is simple. The fabric created is complex.

The floor loom is faster.  Weavers can produce a rebozo in about a week using this loom. It takes three months or more to make a rebozo on the back strap loom.

Weaver Jesus Zarate defies imagination with his ikat butterfly design

Because fewer warp threads are used on the floor loom, the cotton threads can be thicker and the finished cloth might be coarser.

A weaver’s took kit

As you might imagine, the cost for a rebozo made on a back strap loom is much more than one woven on a pedal loom. Except for the rebozos woven by Jesus Zarate! What do rebozos cost? From 400 to 16,000 pesos.

Bits and pieces of supplies that might be needed for dyeing

Would you work six months to earn $800 USD?

The pattern can be more blurred and not as detailed as those created on the back strap loom. Except for the rebozos woven by Jesus Zarate!

Fermin Escobar marks stiff bundles of thread with ink to make a pattern

There are fourteen different steps required to make an ikat rebozo. The most difficult and time-consuming part is the preparation of the threads before they are dressed on the loom.

Threads are soaked in starch to dry and stiffen before marking.

Ikat pattern markers are coated with ink, rolled along stiffened cords.

The weavers we met all repeated that the actual weaving is the simplest part of the process.

Weavers throw hardwood bobbins between the warp sheds to make the weft

Dipping the yarn into the starch to stiffen it

A better view of the pattern marked on the stiff cotton cords

Separating the cords so they dry evenly

Each mark must be hand tied to create the dye resist

Once the cords are marked in ink with the pattern, each mark is hand tied. The cloth will then be dipped in the dye bath. It is then washed and dried. The knots are cut and the pattern emerges on the warp thread, ready to be threaded on the loom.

Mexicans innovate and cobble together materials to keep things running

For rebozos with multiple colors, they can be hand-dipped in the dye pot or the part that is already colored will be tied off so it does not absorb the new color.

Over 4,000 warp threads pass through the hettles of these looms

The loom might be considered low technology, but it is a complex system for making cloth. Today, industrial cloth is made totally by machine. We are interested in the hand-made process.

Bobbin making system — a bicycle wheel

Making ikat for a rebozo on the pedal loom

One of Evaristo’s beautiful blue ikat shawls in blue, finely detailed

The enpuntadora hand ties each knot to create fringe, the finishing touch

Knotting the rebozo can take equally as long as weaving it — three months or more, depending on intricacy. We know one enpuntadora who takes a year to tie a complex fringe.

The fringe must equal or exceed the beauty of the shawl

Ikat Rebozo Fashion Show: Tenancingo de Degollado, Mexico

The rebozo is to Mexico what the sari is to India — integral to cultural identity. Worn by women, the rebozo or shawl has its Mexican origins in the Spanish conquest. Many historians and cultural anthropologists believe the rebozo was adapted from the Philippines, which adapted it from China’s silk shawls.

Lanita with 90-year old Evaristo Borboa, and his new graphic design.

Last year, after our rebozo textile study tour to Tenancingo de Degollado, Estado de Mexico, I wrote at length about the history of the rebozo.

Camelia Ramos shows Elizabeth how to wrap a rebozo

We just finished an intensive nine-day study tour through the rebozo capital of Mexico, Tenancingo de Degollado. Here, beautiful ikat cotton shawls and scarves are woven on pedal and back strap looms.

Patti with rebocero Gabriel Perez and his work

We also took a day trip to visit Violante Ulrich at the Spratling Ranch in Taxco de Alarcon, Guerrero. I’ll write more about that later.

Cookie loves this blue beauty.

Meanwhile, our group of fourteen enjoyed meeting the rebozo weavers, visiting the Sunday rebozo market, watching women hand-knot the fringe of the rebozo into a web of lace.

This is Linda’s butterfly rebozo woven by Jesus Zarate

The fringe, called the punta, is equally as important as the woven cloth. Fine, tightly knotted, long puntas of eight inches or more can make an average rebozo into something magnificent!

Sandi and Janet learn to tie fringes with empuntadora Fidelina, while Cheri looks on

We visited eight different rebozo weavers during our time in Tenancingo de Degollado. Each has a different weaving style. Only two we visited are working on back strap looms, a dying art form.

Sandi with rebocero Luis Rodriguez who works in shibori

The back strap loom is able to hold over 6,000 warp threads, so the ikat design on the fabric is much more detailed and the material is denser because it uses a finer cotton thread. It can take three months or more to weave a rebozo using this method.

Christine wears a fine rebozo woven by Jesus Zarate on the back strap loom

An ikat rebozo woven on the pedal loom is much less expensive and can be completed after about a week on the loom.

Sandi loves purple and this rebozo by Gabriel Perez is a stunner

That does not take into account the preparation time, which includes counting the threads to form cords, washing them in a paste to harden the cords, marking the cords with a design, then tying the cords, dying them, and then threading the loom. All tallied, it’s a 14-step process.

Cynthia found this lovely one in Malinalco

We found some great spots for lunch, like Don Chano’s and El Meson, and some nights we were so tired from visiting rebozo weavers that we opted for pizza and a mezcal or soft drink on the terrace.

Rebozo shopping at the workshop studio of Adofo Garcia

At the end of the trip we were going to offer up confessions of how many each of us bought. We never got around to it, but I heard that one of us went home with eleven rebozos.

Susanne studies the details of this rebozo as she decides whether it’s for her

Ikat rebozo weaving in Mexico is a dying art. In the 1960’s there were over 250 rebozo weavers in Tenancingo. Now there are fewer than thirty. With the strength of the U.S. dollar in Mexico now, it was easy to justify an extra purchase to give one of these beautiful textiles as a gift.

Cheri with rebozo woven by Gabriel Perez. He showed us how to wear them.

Most importantly, each of us felt we were supporting artisans whose hand-work is special and valuable. Without tourism, we risk losing Mexican artisans to an industrial economy where the labor of creating beauty, one article at a time, will fade into non-existence.

Janet, our translator, shows us how to wear yellow!

Thanks to everyone who participated this year. It’s likely I won’t be offering this study tour again until 2019 or later. Stay tuned for new 2018 textile study tours with destinations to Oaxaca and Michoacan and/or Chiapas.

 

 

 

India Journal: Ajrakh Block Prints and Indigo

On the second day after I landed in New Delhi, I went to visit the Sanskriti Museum of Textiles near the Qutub Minar 15th century historic site on the south side of town.

Block printed cotton I collected over weeks in India, mostly indigo

It’s a small, private collection hidden away behind gates on the expansive grounds of an estate that is now an educational center. I was able to combine this stop with one at nearby Nature Bazaar for textile shopping.  You could visit these three destinations in a day!

Assortment of wood blocks, all made by hand, another artisan craft

The Sanskriti Museum of Textiles is important because it explains the process to make ajrakh block printing that ultimately colors the cloth in layers of complexity and depth.  Usually, it is blue and red, combining indigo and madder root. 

Guide Kuldip Gadhvi, wears natural dyed indigo and madder turban cloth

It’s Muslim origins come from the Sindh (Pakistan) and Gujarat, Kutch, India. These areas, now politically distinct, share ancient common artistic, cultural, historical and religious roots.

Turmeric, madder, indigo dye cloth, Abduljabbar Mohammed Khatri studio, Dhamadka

Paste of red clay is first used to set the pattern on cotton

Peopled by nomadic herders who traveled on camels in search of grazing lands, the block printed cloth was traditionally used for men’s turbans and wrap-around pants. These block prints are among the most treasured in the world.

Indigo and madder botanical drawing, Sanskriti Museum

The Sanskriti Museum tells the block printing story by showing the stages on cloth panels. You first start by washing the cotton, then you use a mud past to apply the first pattern with a hand carved wood block. A few steps of the multi-step process are below.

   

After each step, the cloth is washed and then laid out on the ground to dry.

Mud paste for first printing

India is the world’s largest producer of cotton. Some of it, like the finest organic muslin, has the hand of silk, is diaphanous and soft, drapes beautifully.

Applying the first series of designs to cotton, Abduljabbar Mohammed Khatri workshop

Block printing, a close-up of the handwork. Each piece of cloth is imperfect, unique

In India, they use turmeric for yellow. In Mexico, it is wild marigold.

Here you can see the next layer of block print being applied.

A new town, Ajrakhpur, devoted only to block printing, was recently established by Abduljabbar Mohamed Khatri. The dominant figure living and working here is his son Sufiyan, who goes regularly to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe. Of course, there are other unknown talents to discover here.

Sufiyan Ismail Khatri, son of the master, at his home workshop in Ajrakhpur

I became so overwhelmed by the choice of textiles that I couldn’t focus and only bought one small indigo block printed wool/silk scarf, that is now in the possession of my sister. Fortunately, I managed to concentrate enough to take a few photos!

Washing the cloth after each stage of printing — labor intensive process!

Master Abduljabbar Mohammed Khatri calling card and cloth example

Second step after washing the cotton, printing the design with red clay.

When I was in Ahmedabad, my first priority was to get to the famous block printing shop of the Gamthiwala family, just across the Nehru Bridge in the new city a short distance from House of MG.  They have a smaller shop in the old city, much more romantic, where the selection isn’t as extensive.

Several of these are from Gamthiwala Fab block print textiles, Ahmedabad

In the photo above, the block print on the left (red and blue) is from Khavda, Kutch and is an original Sindh design from Pakistan. From the top right, indigo print from Gamthiwala Fab; indigo and turmeric dyed block print from Rajisthan; next indigo block print, Gamthiwala Fab; next, block print indigo and madder scarf from Fab India made in Gujarat; next, indigo and madder block print from Rajasthan; next from Gamthiwala, an indigo, madder and iron (ferrous oxide) block print; block print dress bought at Fab India.

Having a smoke with friends at the Little Rann of Kutch

And, just so you know that I was having fun, this is a betel leaf cigarette. Do you believe I didn’t inhale? Caught in the act at the Little Rann of Kutch, Dasada, Gujarat. Thanks, Jumed.

Life size terracotta horses Tamil Nadu at Sanskriti Museum, New Delhi

Tamil Nadu is the India state source for indigo. It is in the south, tropical and perfect for production. It is also the place where terracotta figures were discovered. When I saw them, they reminded me of the soldiers unearthed in Xian, China, that I saw in the early 1990’s, though on a much smaller scale.

Tomorrow, I leave Southern California for Oaxaca, where life resumes not as usual either! I am almost recovered from jet lag. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Fascinating that garbanzo beans are used as dye for ajrakh, called gram

Stack of mud printed cloth waiting for next steps

Block printer, Gujarat, India

India Journal: Textiles and My Family in Delhi

This is a tribute to family, dispersal and reconnection.

It was a remarkable afternoon at my cousin Sharon Lowen‘s apartment in New Delhi, India. The city has been her home for the last 43 years. My 99-1/2 year-old Aunt Ethel lives with her youngest daughter Sharon who is her primary caregiver. It was a remarkable feeling of reconnection, as if I was seeing my mother alive once more. In my cousin’s face I recognize my mother, sister, uncles.

Sharon Lowen shows incredible brocade sari with gold threads

Sharon went to India 43 years ago on a Fulbright scholarship to do post-graduate study. She fell in love with the culture and the people, settled in, became a renowned performer of Odissi classical dance, and teacher at the American Embassy School.

Cousin Sharon with her mom and my aunt Ethel, with photo of my mom Dorothy

I’ve only seen Sharon a few times over the years. She came to a Smithsonian Institution program while I was living in Washington, D.C., and later we visited in North Carolina when she participated in the American Dance Festival.

Our mom, Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, 2/14/16-11/15/15

One key reason I spent a week in Delhi was to reconnect with them and I intended to make at least two visits during this time. But extreme jet lag and the onset of a head cold (perhaps a reaction to dust and pollution), altered the plan.

Family portrait on Sharon’s wall: our mothers, uncle and grandparents

I didn’t want to infect my aunt, who is becoming more frail as she approaches a century of life, so I cancelled our second visit.

My mom was the oldest of four children and my aunt was born fourteen months later. Their Eastern European immigrant parents worked hard to raise their family in a small Pennsylvania town not far from the Ohio border. My tailor grandfather sewed suits, dresses and fur coats. Our family has a love of cloth, fine stitches and those who create them.

Sharon shows fine Rabari Toran.

Spending the afternoon with family was emotionally satisfying on many levels. Our experiences are different, yet we share genetic code. Life is a mystery and disperses us, brings us together for a moment, sends us on our way again.

Sharon treated me to a preview of her Indian textile collection, many vintage pieces amassed over the last forty years: embroideries, double ikat, weaving, gold brocades and tribal mirror work. Most were gifts presented at dance performances she gave traveling throughout India and the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

India Journal: Fill in the Blanks, Stencil Art

Remember when you were a child and got a set of crayons and coloring book? The book was printed with figures and designs. It was your job fill in the color between the lines.

Stenciled design on cloth gives embroiderer stitch guide

Be careful, a parent or teacher would say. Be neat. Don’t go outside the lines. There were no blank pages on which to scribble or be creative. You got a gold star for staying inside the lines, filling in all the shapes.

Young Ahir woman honing her craft

Soon, you may have been bored and gone on to do something else. Perhaps the color intensity lessened as you hastily went on to the next page. Maybe, you went outside the lines on purpose to make your own mark.

Working on a pre-printed pattern. Is there freedom for color choice?

Yesterday we went to visit India textile expert Judy Frater at the NGO she runs in Adipur, about an hour east of Bhuj near the Gulf of Kutch and the Arabian Sea. Before starting Somaiya Kala Vidya in 2014, Judy was the founding director of Kala Raksha, another NGO dedicated to textile promotion and development.

New Ahir embroidery that will become pillow or handbag

Today she works with indigenous artisans to provide education and training programs designed for cultural sustainability, market development, and indigenous identity.

Ahir women in embroidery circle, all working on stenciled patterns

With Judy during my visit and with Salim Wazir the following day, I talked about the questions we discuss in Mexico that India shares. I suspect that these are pressing questions among artisans throughout the world.

Old embroidered Ahir textile with fine detail

  1. How do you create a sustainable craft enterprise without compromising an artisan’s innate creativity and urge for innovation?
  2. When a designer comes in to work with local artisans, employing his or her own drawings and hires the local artisan to execute them, how does this have an impact on craft preservation and design ownership?
  3. If NGO’s create cooperatives that then produce cookie cutter patterns printed on cloth that the embroiderers then fills in with silk threads in pre-selected colors, is this craft development or exploitation?
  4. If something is produced for the tourist market and not for personal or community use, what impact will this have for design sustainability?
  5. What compromises can be made to make sure that people work for fair wages, without being piece workers doing routine jobs for work they don’t own?
  6. Is paid work the only important consideration or does originality and integrity of communal design hold more value?
  7. How will textile craft survive and who will decide its future?

Workshop participant making panel for tourist market

What other questions would you ask?

How would you answer these questions? I’m interested in hearing from you!

Old mirrored embroidery on silk bandhani, imperfectly beautiful

Mexico and India are both sources for great textile artistry.  Weavers in Mexico have made cloth on back strap, flying shuttle and pedal looms for centuries and longer. In India, artisans have been weaving cloth, dyeing it with natural colors and embellishing it with embroidery since Mughal conquerors and spice trade adventurers moved from central Asia and the Levant.

She is beginning to fill in the blanks.

As tourist preferences drive the crafts market, most non-governmental agencies direct people to make things that will sell. Production uniformity is important to outside markets as collectors demand high-quality, perfect workmanship, and sophisticated design (in their point-of-view).

Whimsical embroidered blouse belonging to Wandh herding community

The whimsy of asymmetry and uneven stitches seems to be losing ground in the commercial marketplace. Only foreigners are interested in tribal textiles.

Rabari women in another workshop also follow a designer provided pattern.

If a boutique owner or retail client orders 100 handbags, he or she may expect that while color may vary, design will be consistent.  If there is deviation or variation, something may not sell and then the risk is that the worker and the organization will no longer receive orders and then go out of business.

Contemporary Rabari needlework

What price will be paid for quality consistency and uniformity? Will the naive, free-form folk art design produced for self-use disappear in favor of making something more polished that will then be sold at a higher price to foreigners?

Vintage Rabari embroidery trim on bandhani tie-dyed shawl

What about making goods for the local market vs. the foreign market? I was told repeatedly that woven goods are now being made with acrylic because it is cheaper to produce and that is what local people will buy.

Whimsical Toran in Ahir village community center

What is the cost and the loss for using cheaper raw materials and industrial mechanization?

I’d love what she’s wearing!

It is difficult to find artisans in India, as well as in Mexico, who are still working in natural dyes because the process is longer and the investment in raw materials is much higher.

Rabari embroidered storage bag, 40 years old

The tourist season in Gujarat, India is about four months long, from November through February, about the same as in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s the dry season, easier to travel. Yet, this is the hottest December that people in Bhuj can remember. There is no global warming, right?

Sheep wool, hand-woven skirt trimmed in embroidery, pure Rabari

And, this year, because of India’s demonitization crisis and no access to cash currency, about 60-70% of international tours cancelled.  This region that depends on tourism is being hard hit. Sound familiar to those of you who visit or live in Mexico?

Rabari woman working on dress trim to be sold in a boutique somewhere

I’ve heard stories about embroidery designs from one tribal group that are co-opted and used by another because it is more popular. I have heard about a village that weaves a piece of cloth which is sent to another village for embroidery embellishment. Neither is credited with for the work.

Rabari women’s hands make quick work; tattoos and cloth, key symbols of identity.

Since cloth is about identity, does this practice contribute to loss of cultural identity? Who is responsible for this loss? How do we put value on what is made by hand? Are we willing to compensate or are we looking for a bargain, at whatever the cost to the maker?

Tools of the trade: cotton or rayon floss, needles, mirrors

I’m writing this blog post from the airport in Seoul, South Korea. It’s 10:50 a.m., December 14 here. I will be back in California, USA by 8:30 a.m. December 14. Go figure! The international news is daunting, and the prospects of a new presidency are depressing as cabinet appointees are named. I’m still apologizing, especially to the terrific Muslim people I have met along this Path to and from India.

Old block print, made with madder root, backs vintage textile.