Tag Archives: artisans

Mexico Art Show Brings Oaxaca Artisans to Lake Chapala, Jalisco–Party Time

The 18th annual Feria Maestros del Arte happened last weekend at Lake Chapala, Jalisco, about 40-minutes from Guadalajara. I had never been before and I decided it was time! Plus, it gave me a chance to spend some time with friends Chris and Ben, who moved to Ajijic from North Carolina last year.

Estela Montaño with natural dyed wool pillow cover

I knew that Oaxaca would be well-represented among the 87 artisans participating. I was especially eager to see Teotitlan del Valle weaving friends Estella Montaño and Family, and mother-son team Maria de Lourdes Lazo Sosa and Isaac Armando Lazo.

Maria de Lourdes and son Isaac from Teotitlan del Valle

And, there was another good friend, flying shuttle loom weaver Alfredo Hernandez Orozco with his son Yaolt, who make extraordinary cotton cloth home goods and clothing. Their workshop is in El Tule.

Yaolt and his dad, Alfredo, accomplished fly shuttle loom weavers

There were other Oaxaca artisans whose work I know and respect: alebrijes makers, ceramic artists and sculptors, basket weavers, and some very fine clothing weavers from remote areas of the Oaxaca coast and Mixe regions. Many of these are included on our Oaxaca Discovery Tour coming up at the end of January 2020 (yes, a few spaces are available).

Fine, back-strap loomed cotton blusa, San Juan Cotzocon
Women who make red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola
Zeny Fuentes and Family, San Martin Tilcajete
Hand-woven palm necklace by Monica Diaz Martinez

An added bonus of going to the Fair was participating in events hosted by Los Amigos del Arte Popular. This is a non-profit group that supports Mexican folk art. They are appreciators and collectors, and do a lot to underwrite this Feria and provide scholarships for artisans to travel here.

Sally, Chris, Mariann, Norma, Ellen

I also had a chance to connect with friends Mariann who moved to Ajijic from Philadelphia, friend Ellen who comes to Oaxaca every winter, her sister Sally, and locals Elizabeth and Greg who live in Chapala. I also bumped into David and Barbara from San Diego, too.

Meat lovers’ paradise, ribs at Gosha’s, Ajijic, Jalisco
Lake Chapala from the Fair grounds

Unlike the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe that covers the world, this Fair reunites those of us with Mexico-LOVE. While I’m most happy living in Oaxaca, coming to the shores of Lake Chapala is a refreshing change of pace and a great party all the way around. I had to come home to rest!

A collector’s niche
Otomi embroidered wall hanging adds drama to bedroom
Papier-maché Virgin from developmentally challenged Chapala school for women
(R) Michoacan potter Guadalupe Garcia Rios in traditional Purepecha dress

Japan Textile Study Tour: November 2020

Japan Textile Study Tour, November 6 – 19, 2020, 12 nights, 13 days, start in Kyoto and end in Tokyo — 6 spaces open

We take you on a textile adventure of a lifetime to the land of the Rising Sun. Japanese style elevates textiles to a fine art form. We go deep into the culture of hand-weaving and indigo dyeing, high fashion and simple garment construction, venturing into old mercantile shops, contemporary design studios and temple markets to discover how cloth defines a people. Along the way, we discover historical sites, eat traditional foods that have ceremonial significance, visit museums and immerse ourselves into a modern Japan that is underpinned with ancient tradition.

Geisha life on the streets of Gion, Kyoto

Japan is an amalgam of ancient craft wisdom that is translated into art as a metaphor for life – from pottery to textiles to knife-making to humble and refined cuisine to garden landscape. We visit craftsmen who were provisioners to emperors. Throughout our travels, we touch on the philosophy that girds the culture – aesthetic sensibility, wabi-sabi (perfection in imperfection), and iki (simplicity, originality, sophistication, spontaneity, refinement).

Vintage indigo stamped cloth, Kyoto antique textile shop
Bolts of beautiful cloth, Nuno Works, Tokyo

You will travel with Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC director, writer, producer and photographer. Our co-leader is Nathan Somers, textile artist, collector, indigo dyer and historian. You will visit many sites Norma and Nathan know from personal and professional experience.

Vintage indigo textile samples

This is a hands-on, slow-savor, deep cultural immersion travel experience for up to 10 active textile lovers.

Handmade, hand-hammered kitchen knives, Tsukiji market

Our itinerary concentrates on the textile culture of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, and Tokyo, once known as Edo, where day-glow neon and phantasmagorical skyscrapers cast a futuristic glow over the old Tokugawa Shogunate. 

Vintage Boro patchwork textiles using sashiko stitching

In Kyoto and Tokyo, we will navigate the city and reach our local destinations using outstanding public transportation – faster and more reliable than private services. Bus and Metro service is punctual, frequent, safe and reliable. This gives us an opportunity to travel with the locals and familiarize ourselves with neighborhoods and the ease of travel in Japan. We have engaged locals to help us navigate and translate this fascinating culture.

Indigo dye vats where the plant ferments

Who goes on the Textile Study Tour to Japan? Artists, makers, educators, life-long learners, writers, textile lovers, historians, photographers and those wanting to learn more about Japan, weaving and natural dyeing there.   

Preliminary Itinerary

F-11/6:   Depart your home city and travel to Kyoto, Japan           

Sa-11/7:    Arrive Kyoto in late afternoon. If you are up to it, join us in the hotel lobby to meet up for an optional group dinner (cost is OYO)

Su-11/8:    Meet at 1 PM for a Welcome Lunch, stroll the Imperial Palace, visit a traditional miso shop and confectionary maker (B, L)

In Gion, Kyoto, naturally dyed silk, linen and cotton — persimmon and cochineal
Satoshi holding court at his Tokyo izakaya

M-11/9:     After breakfast, we will set out to explore the Nishiki Market, meandering the famed fish and food stalls, have lunch, then stroll Teramachi Street where we will visit vintage textile galleries, then transition to the Geisha neighborhood of Gion for more! (B, L) Dinner OYO

Street food at a temple market, Kyoto
Time and space for meditative moments

Tu-11/10:   Shibori Workshop and Shibori Museum. Hands-on session to make your own shibori-designed textile with indigo dye. (B, L)

W-11/11:  Our focus today is on the old weaving center of Kyoto with a visit to Nishijin Textile Center and several shops that dye and make indigo garments.  Afternoon OYO (B, L)

Arashiyama river scene, Kyoto
In the Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Th-11/12:  It’s important to have choices! Take the day to create your own itinerary or come with us to visit Arashiyama where we will stroll the famed Bamboo Forest. You have the option to take a rickshaw ride and meander sacred temples in this more rural Kyoto neighborhood, with optional and traditional keiseki multi-course lunch  (B)

Norma’s boro and sashiko project — in progress

 F-11/13:  Travel to Kawaguchi Lake and stay overnight in guest house/lodge. (B, D)

Geisha in training at the Bamboo Forest

 Sa-11/14:   Visit the workshop studio of an indigo dyer in a small Japanese mountain village for a demonstration, to see her collection and shop. Take afternoon train to Tokyo. Check into our hotel. (B, L)

Buddhist monk stamps a Goshuin with a calligraphy message
Silk, hemp, linen and cotton shawls with natural dyes

 Su-11/15:   Attend two major Temple Markets — Takahata Market and Oedo International Forum — where you will find old kimono, pieces of vintage cloth including silks, natural dyes and hand-weaving, vintage collectibles such as ceramics, carved wood, figurines, jewelry, art and much more. (B)

Temple altar with prayers and incense

 M-11/16:    We set you loose in Ginza — high fashion center of Japan — for Department Store Shopping and to explore the Basement Food Courts. Department stores feature unparalleled designer boutiques and food treasures. If you prefer, you might like to go to Nuno Works in Roppongi and peek into the upmarket world of Akasaka boutiques. (B)

Bolt of vintage indigo-dyed cotton cloth, once intended to become a kimono

 Tu-11/17:       Tsukijii Market Meander. We love markets and the most famed in Japan is Tokyo’s Tsukiji  Market where we will get to early in the morning to take in splendid company of super-fresh oysters the size of fists, sushi and sashimi bites, sake sips, and crispy tempura rolls. Then we are off to Nippori Fabric Town to shop for yardage, with a stop at Kata-Kata or Gallery Kawano  (B, L)

 W-11/18:    After breakfast, Yu Design Studio show and sale. They are a new, innovative design studio working in hand-woven cotton, silk and hemp with indigo dyes. Then, set out on your own to chart your own course. You might like to visit the Imperial Palace, the National Museum or retrace steps to go back for a treasure that passed you by. We will meet again for our grand finale dinner to say our goodbyes. Dinner (B, D)

Th-11/19    Tour ends and participants depart (B)

*Travel Note: You can arrive to Osaka Kansai International Airport which is 40 minutes from Kyoto and depart from Tokyo Narita Airport.  You might also find more favorable airfares flying to/from Tokyo. Check www.skyscanner.com for schedules and airfares. If you fly to Tokyo, you will take the Shinkansen bullet train (2 hours, 15 minutes) to Kyoto to meet up with the group on November 6. Rail tickets can be purchased in advance online. We will send more detailed information to the group after our travel cohort is formed. You can choose to arrive earlier or stay later at your own expense.

Yep, I ate the whole thing — but not in one gulp!

Your Guides are Norma Schafer and Nathan Somers

Norma Schafer is director of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, writer, blogger, photographer and food aficionado. Her love of indigo has taken her to Mexico, India and Japan to explore the culture of weaving and natural dyes. On this return visit to Japan, she takes you to her favorite textile haunts to meet makers and collectors.

Vintage peasant coat, indigo with sashiko stitching, sourced in Kyoto

Nathan Somers is an educator, textile artist and vintage Japanese fabric collector who lives in Durham, NC. Nathan teaches indigo resist throughout the southeast United States, and making guest presentations at spinning an weavers’ guilds. His primary area of study is Japanese textile traditions.

Nathan Somers with a textile from his collection, found at a temple market

In 2016, Nathan was the subject of a Japanese television show that came to Durham to film his collection. The producers then tansported him to the Island of Amami Oshima, Japan, to study with an indigo dyer. 

How did it all begin for Nathan?

In 2007, Nathan found himself rummaging through a box of Japanese textile scraps at a Portland, Oregon, antique sale. The fabric, with its hand spun threads, uneven selvedges, complex patterns, and deep indigo inspired him, but at the time he didn’t understand the techniques that had been used to make the textiles.

Hand-spun, hand-woven Japanese cloth, textural beauty

Nathan began to study all he could about how these fabrics were produced and what their designs were meant to convey. Nathan’s textile collection comes from Japan’s temple and shrine markets and through contacts with dealers. The collection spans the late Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. He focuses on Tsutsugami (freehand paste resist), Katazome (stencil paste resist), Sashiko (mending or reinforcing stitch), Zanshi (waste thread fabrics) and Boro, (repeatedly mended and patched textiles). These textiles heavily inspired Nathan’s own work, which focuses on the Katazome stencil paste resist technique.

Fresh grilled octopus — skewered for eating while strolling

            In the years since first finding that box of fabric scraps, Nathan has researched traditional Japanese fabrics to best understand their production and design. He has traveled to China and Japan to deepen his knowledge about dyeing and weaving. Nathan experiments extensively, grows cotton in his home garden that he weaves and dyes, and also works with foraged fibers like Kudzu, wisteria and hemp – all essential parts of fabric production in Old Japan. 

            Nathan is an outstanding resource to guide us on this textile adventure, explaining dyeing, weaving and design processes as we travel, helping us to identify cloth origins, quality and value.

What is included?

  • A total of 12 nights accommodation
  • 12  breakfasts, 6 lunches and 2 dinners as outlined in the itinerary
  • Hands-on indigo dye workshop
  • Textile fabric shopping – vintage and new
  • Natural dye, weaving and stitching demonstrations
  • Market and gallery tours that encompass textiles, food, culture
  • Visits to cultural and historic sites
  • Shinkansen Bullet Train tickets or luxury van transportation from Kyoto to Tokyo
  • Intra-city metro and bus tickets
  • Entry fees to museums and galleries as part of the itinerary
  • Comprehensive pre-trip planning guide
  • Knowledgeable tour leaders – Norma and Nathan
Shark skin wasabi grater, of course

What Nathan says:

            I am so excited to have this opportunity to co-lead this tour.  Japan is an amazing country and regardless of where you travel you have a strong connection to the past and to the Japanese concepts of mottainai (make the best of what you have) and wabi sabi (beauty through imperfection). I am excited to share with others my love and appreciation of Japan and its traditional textiles. The beauty and simplicity of the fabric is plain to see, but by learning about the complex way in which they are made offers a greater appreciation for the intricacies and aesthetics of this textile tradition.

You can see Nathan’s work on Instagram: @nsomersnc  and on his website: www.nathansomerstextiles.com

What is NOT included:

  • Round-trip international airfare from your home country to Japan
  • Gratuities, taxes
  • Travel insurance
  • Meals not included in the itinerary
  • Local transport you may take OYO, such as taxis
  • Personal supplies and incidentals
  • Alcoholic beverages at group meals
  • Airport transfers (transport from airport to/from hotels)

Check Skyscanner.com for best schedules and fares.

We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Cost • $6,495 per person double room with private bath (sleeps 2) in top-rated accommodations • add $985 for a single supplement

Hand-woven ikat with indigo dye

Reservations and Cancellations.  A $750 non-refundable deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in four equal payments – on December 22, 2019; March 22, May 22, August 22, 2020.  We accept payment using online e-commerce only.  If for any reason, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC cancels the tour, a full-refund will be made.

We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. If you cancel on or before August 22, 2020, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date (less the $750 non-refundable deposit). After August 22, 2020, there are no refunds.

If you register after December 22, 2019, you will owe $750 plus 1/4 of the balance due. If you register after March 22, you will owe the non-refundable $750 fee plus 1/2 of the balance due. If you register after May 22, you will owe the non-refundable $750 plus ¾ of the balance due. If you register after August 22, you will owe 100% of the balance due (if there are openings).

Old Japan is still very much present and alive

How to Register: Send an email to norma.schafer@icloud.com

Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room (single supplement). We will send you an e-commerce invoice for $750 by email that is due on receipt.

Who Should Attend: Artists, makers, educators, life-long learners, writers, photographers, textile lovers, historians and those wanting to learn more about Japanese art, textiles, culture and history.   If you love First World Exotic Travel and the inspiration of the best of Asia influences, this trip is for you.

Selection of sake at a Tsukiji market tasting stand

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health insurance that includes $50,000+ of emergency medical evacuation insurance. Proof of insurance must be sent at least 45 days before departure.

In addition, we will send you by email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We ask that you return this to us by email 45 days before departure. Unforeseen circumstances happen!

Chef’s choice — this array of dinner selection is not unusual

Reservations and Cancellations.  We accept online e-commerce payments only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Fitness Level – Moderate Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy:  Tour participants must be able to walk two miles, board buses and trains, carry their own luggage unaided, and navigate uneven surfaces including stairs. We may walk more on some days. We recommend you bring a walking stick if you need something to lean on! If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the study tour for you.

Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.

On a rickshaw ride through the Bamboo Forest

Oaxaca Artisans in Santa Fe, New Mexico 2019 IFAM

Thursday parade features Mexican delegation with Teotitlan weaver Isaac Vasquez

The 2019 International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has come to an end. The three-day extravaganza is a chaotic mix of tribal, ethnic, indigenous creativity from around the world. It brings together many talented artisans who have no other paths to reach international markets.

Santa Fe is a destination for many reasons. This is where friends from all over the country converge to volunteer, too. A group of us planned a reunion around being here. We coordinated our volunteer time. We stayed at the same, small, old Route 66 motel that has been in service since the 1950’s. I imagine my dad may have stayed there as he pulled a trailer with all our family household belongings behind our 1953 Plymouth station wagon on the journey west from Detroit to resettle in Los Angeles.

Don Jose Garcia Antonio is blind, feels his way to sculpt Oaxaca life

The market officially begins on Friday night with a special opening night preview at $250 per person admission. I always volunteer, so I get to watch the passing parade of Texas and Oklahoma oil and gas heiresses and collectors dressed in their finest attire. It’s a cocktail party that goes from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. The ticket gives one first pick. I volunteered with Santa Fe de Laguna, Patzcuaro, potter Nicolas Fabian Fermin, and I packed up lots of beautiful pots that night.

Weaver Pedro Mendoza, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, at Banamex Foundation booth

The frenzy continued on Saturday morning when the Early Birders got in at 7:30 a.m. After the late night on Friday of bubble-wrapping ceramics, I just couldn’t get going to get there before 10 a.m. when the event opened to general admission. With hundreds of artisans and thousands of people, it was a crush to get through the aisles to see all that was offered at this huge bazaar.

Yesenia Yadira Salgado Tellez, Oaxaca filigree silversmith

That didn’t give me much time to cover more than a fraction of the aisles, since I was meeting friends Jennifer and Mark Brinitzer, Ann Brinitzer and Katie and Don Laughland for an early lunch in the cafe. The women came with me on our 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour (a few places open for 2020) and we became fast friends.

Remigio Mestas is noted conservator of finest Oaxaca textiles, at Banamex Foundation

It was thrilling and heartfelt to see so many artisans I know from Oaxaca represented at this outstanding exposition. It takes years of making highest quality work to gain this level of recognition, plus it takes entrepreneurship and some luck to gain entry to this juried show.

Amada Sanchez, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, master weaver and dyer

It’s very expensive for artisans to participate, too. They must cover their own shipping, travel, lodging and food expenses and they give 20% of their sales to the IFAM organization for the opportunity to sell.

Weaver Porfirio Gutierrez Contreras and dye-master sister Juana, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
Client wears fuschine-dyed huipil, Dreamweavers Cooperative, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca

If they are part of a cooperative with many makers, the profits must be divided. As with the case of Dreamweavers Cooperative from Pinotepa de Don Luis, there were three representatives at the Folk Art Market — Amada, Teofila and Patrice. Patrice did a fundraiser and collected over $4,000 USD to cover some of the expenses. And, they had excellent sales. However, the net gets divided among 30 weavers and dyers, so each person might earn only a few hundred dollars.

Selvedge Magazine Latin Issue co-editor Marcella Echeverria, Mexico City

For individual artisans and families, the profits are much better but ONLY IF there are sales. If it is a slow year, there is an opportunity to sell at a discount (the artisan names the percentage) on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the show. Brisk sales one year does not guarantee success for the next. The risk is entirely on the shoulders of the artisan.

Odilon Merino Morales shows an exquisite hand-woven San Pedro Amuzgo, Oaxaca huipil,

Odilon Merino Morales from San Pedro Amuzgo on the Costa Chica of Oaxaca, Mexico, consigns what he doesn’t sell with Sheri Brautigam who runs the online Etsy shop, Living Textiles of Mexico. If you didn’t get to the show and want one of these incredible textiles, please contact Sheri. She also has pieces from Pinotepa de Don Luis’ Dreamweavers Cooperative.

Master weaver Isaac Vasquez, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The benefit of doing this is that the artisans do not need to pay the return shipping for unsold goods and it leaves the beautiful pieces in the USA for better access to those of you who missed the show and want to make a purchase.

Patrice Perillie, Amada Sanchez and Norma Schafer in our huipiles

I volunteered on Saturday afternoon from noon to 6:00 p.m. with the Dreamweavers Cooperative. I know these women well since I lead study tours to their remote village on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica.

The IFAM show is a destination and an adventure. Since I know many of the artisans, it is a special and heart-throbbing experience to meet them outside their humble homes and villages in the world of commerce. For some, this is their first visit to the USA. Their first flight on an airplane. Their first success at getting a visa to enter the USA and overcome the fears of border crossing and disrespect.

Hand-woven native green Oaxaca cotton, purple snail dye, indigo, cochineal

This is the moment to applaud what Oaxaca artisans have accomplished. There are so many more talented people whose work goes unrecognized and unrewarded. For those of us who love Mexico and appreciate the talent, history, culture and art, the process of bringing accomplished artisans to the world marketplace is an on-going effort.

Thanks to all who support and applaud what they do.

My pal Winn, volunteer extraordinaire, writing up a sales slip

In the vast New Mexico landscape, one can disappear, rediscover Georgia O’Keefe, experience Nuevo Mexico, land of enchantment, understand the history and artisanry of nearby Native Americans who live along the Rio Grand River. It is hot, dry, high desert with the kind of beauty that brings the romance of the Old West into one’s spirit.

View from Abiquiu, New Mexico

Look at the rain over purple hills, fields of sage and lavender, the dry withered look of dehydration — plants and people, wrinkles in the earth and on weathered faces. I imagine what it would be like to be an indigenous person here, too. I know the Oaxaca story well. There are many similarities — both experienced the Conquest, the attempt at culture annihilation, and the resurgence of identity amidst the face of adversity and hardship.

Again, let’s applaud the talent of our First Peoples.

Santo Domingo jewelry maker Warren Nieto

Mexico in Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico—International Folk Art Market

Tonight the famed Santa Fe International Folk Art Market opens on Museum Hill to the thrill of all of us who embrace the work created by indigenous people as an expression of self, culture and community. It will continue through the weekend.

On Thursday afternoon, skirting a dramatic downpour of rain, the IFAM officially began with the Parade of Nations around the Santa Fe Plaza. Outstanding artisans from Mexico represented the best of the entire country and her dedication to craft preservation and culture.

From Oaxaca, Isaac Vasquez, and behind Don Jose Garcia and Teresita Mendoza Reyna Sanchez, ceramic sculptors from San Antonio Castillo Velasco

It takes a village. It takes the ingenuity, dedication, years of creative work without the promise of recognition. It takes collectors and appreciators who reward talent by purchasing amazing pieces. It takes the support of NGOs and individuals who give time, energy and resources to step in to help artisans, most of whom speak no English, or may speak some Spanish, and who prefer to communicate in their indigenous language, which is probably their first language.

The International Folk Art Market brings people together from all around the world to celebrate native craft and creativity. It offers a forum to appreciate, understand and applaud.

From Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, Dreamweavers Cooperative—Txinda Purple Snail Dyes

The parade around the plaza brought tears to my eyes for many reasons. This joining, this coming together in celebration is a marvel. I recognized so many faces from the artisans I know in Oaxaca and Mexico. We waved. We embraced. The crowd responded.

The Market is juried and space is limited. Many talented people from Mexico apply and are not accepted. Space is limited. Most wouldn’t even dream of coming this far because it requires about $2,000 US dollars to fund the travel and expenses for one person. There is an application fee and artisans pay a percentage of sales to the organization, too. And, then, of course, there is the huge obstacle of getting a Visitor Visa to enter the USA.

From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Porfirio Gutierrez and sister Juana Gutierrez

So this is a special group in many ways.

To be here is to have pride in Mexico, what her people do and create, the tenacity required to get this far, the savvy to be able to translate creative work into an application, the perseverance to risk ridicule and jealousy by peers who wish they could have achieved.

From Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, Nicolas Fabian Fermin and Maria del Rosario Lucas, potters

There are joys for all us derived from being in a community of like people from around the world.

Bienvenidos. Welcome to Santa Fe.

A Day in Xochistlan de Vicente Suarez, Puebla with Merry Foss and Friends

Xochitl is the Nahuatl word for flower and Tlan de Totonaco is the literal meaning for beautiful place. Xochistlan is the beautiful place between the flowers. (You can tell if a word has a Nahuatl origin if it ends in tl.)

Ducks parade across the embroidered bodice of this blouse made by Radegundis

Ducks parade across the embroidered bodice of this blouse made by Radegundis

Here in the Sierra Norte of Puebla state, a lush landscape of rugged mountains, tall grasses, bamboo, canna lilies, orchids, bromeliad varieties, fruit trees and daisies cling to stony hillsides. Waterfalls flow like abundant rivers. The region is a puzzle of caves. Humidity seeps into everything.

Xochistlan is nestled at the base of a steep valley in the Sierra Norte, Puebla State

Xochistlan is nestled at the base of a steep valley in the Sierra Norte, Puebla State

We spent the day with Merry Elizabeth Foss who took us to Xochistlan, the village she stumbled upon seven years ago in search of artisan women who work in fine beading.

The corn crib. The chicken got away before the shot.

The corn crib. The chicken got away before the shot.

When she met the women of Xochistlan, she knew this was the place for her. She started a cooperative, created patterns to fit American women (yes, we are mostly taller and broader), and invested in relationships that have provided friendship and mutual support.

Radegundis with me and Merry. Yes, I bought this blouse!

Radegundis with me and Merry. Yes, I bought this blouse!

It’s not surprising that the embroidered and beaded images here mimic the landscape, filled with birds, barnyard animals, flowers of every variety, trailing vines, in subdued and rainbow colors.

Bedroom and sewing room combo. Nothing more needed!

Bedroom and sewing room combo. Nothing more needed!

Xochistlan is not easy to get to. It’s about an hour outside of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla. First you take the winding mountain road along the spine, looking down and beyond at villages tucked into the valleys below.

A 30 year old blouse with exquisite embroidery, still fine after all these years.

A 30 year old blouse with exquisite embroidery, still fine after all these years.

Then, you divert and start descending on a road that was likely once a switch back donkey trail. You have to know where you are going! Turn right, continue straight, now turn left, straight again, Merry instructs the taxi driver.

Ducks, chickens and cat wander underfoot, peck at the corncrib.

Ducks, chickens and cat wander underfoot, peck at the corncrib.

We pull into the driveway of a humble home, filled with family, love, joy and beautiful beaded blouses. Radegundis Casilda Teresa greets us with a huge smile, warm hugs and invitation to come in for atole enriched with Mexican chocolate and milk.

Making it last! Sipping atole with a spoon.

Making it last! Sipping atole with a spoon.

She runs out with a bag of whole kernels, telling us to take a seat, she’s going to the molina (mill) to grind the corn.

Hot, delicious atole with chocolate, a favorite drink.

Hot, delicious atole with chocolate, a favorite drink, made in clay over a wood fire.

We meet her husband and grandchildren, sit down by the cooking fire to sip the delicious hot drink, sing and play games, watch the ducks and chickens peck at dried corn.

Playing a singing game with the grandchildren!

Playing a singing game with the grandchildren!

After lunch at Comedor Betty where we had perhaps the best chicken mole in the state of Puebla (Betty won a prize last year), we stopped to visit Martha and her family.

Sewing the beaded panels to the blouse fabric.

Sewing the beaded panels to the blouse fabric.

They sew the beaded panels to the cotton cloth that makes up the entire blouse. Martha, her husband and daughter are master tailors who are very particular about their finish work.

Martha shows us a fine finished blouse, ready for the expoventa the next day.

Martha shows us a fine finished blouse, ready for the expoventa the next day.

Merry also helped the cooperative open a retail shop to sell beads and fabric to other artisans in the village, and created a plan to help market the blouses in the USA.  Merry honors and recognizes the work of each woman by asking her to embroider her name on the inside of each blouse. Personalized. Meaningful.

Poster in Betty's comedor recognizing her cooking talents.

Poster in Doña Betty’s comedor recognizing her cooking talents.

Merry wholesales these finely beaded blouses, known as the China Poblana style, to upscale shops in the United States whose customers appreciate fine Mexican textiles.

Barbara and Rade with finely embroidered V-neck blouse.

Barbara and Rade with finely embroidered V-neck blouse.

Radegundis and Merry Foss, dear friends

Radegundis and Merry Foss, dear friends.

The Altar Room. Most rural homes in Mexico have one.

The Altar Room. Most rural homes in Mexico have one.

I’ve discovered that sometimes the most wonderful experiences are those when you can meet talented people where they live and work. In Mexico, there is extraordinary talent hidden in often isolated, rural villages.

La Abuela Radegundis. Grandmother love.

La Abuela Radegundis. Grandmother love.

One has to be willing to be open, explore and appreciate people for who they are, what they do, and how they live. I’m grateful to Merry for introducing us to her friends and for helping bring their talent to the world.

Brightly colored beaded bodice in Radegundis' sewing room.

Brightly colored beaded bodice in Radegundis’ sewing room.

The tradition of beadwork came to Mexico from Europe with the Spanish conquest. Most were trade beads from Venice and Africa, used for ballast on the Spanish galleons that landed in the port of Veracruz. The beads were traded for food and raw materials. Women learned to embellish their garments and the these fantastic blouses were born!

A bodice strip of black and white daisies before the dressmaking begins.

A bodice strip of black and white daisies before the dressmaking begins.