Tag Archives: Embroidery

Chiapas Textile Museum: Maya Art on Cloth


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Penland School of Crafts in Ocotlan de Morales, Oaxaca

Our Penland School of Crafts group travels through Oaxaca arts and artisan villages this week.  One destination is the regional town of Ocotlan de Morales where we met artist Rodolfo Morales through the murals he painted in the municipal building during the mid-century. These frescoes depict the rich agricultural tradition of the Ocotlan valley and honors the labor of the campesinos — the people who till, plant and harvest.


The Morales home is a treasure trove of 1930’s and 1940’s collectibles and folk art. It includes a traditional tile kitchen with walls adorned in tiny clay cooking vessels. Every room opens to a central, plant-filled patio.PenlandBest91-3

The primary caretaker of the home is nephew Alberto Morales, who greeted us at the front gate and let us inside. He is also the head of the Morales Foundation that keeps the house renovated and open to the public. On our request, he generously opened the private bedroom and studio where his uncle slept and worked.

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With more than an hour to explore the always diverse and culturally delicious Friday Ocotlan market tianguis …

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we went off to San Antonino Castillo Velasco to visit folk art potter Jose Garcia Antonio.  Jose and his family work in red clay sculpture and he is recognized as a Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art.

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Next, a quick stop to the women’s embroidery cooperative.  The quick stop became an hour-long shopping forage through the piles of gorgeous Oaxaca wedding dress style blouses and shirts, preceded by a demonstration about pattern making and stitching techniques. This coop is excellent quality with affordable prices!


Fortified by a delicious lunch at Azucenas Zapotecas at the San Martin Tilcajete crossroads, we backtracked to Santo Tomas Jalieza for a visit with Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art weaving family of Abigail Mendoza.

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A long day, but not too long to return to enjoy a lovely dinner at Casa Crespo. I put together a tasting menu with Oscar Carrizosa made up of  an array of first courses.  It was just perfect.

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator organizes arts workshop study tours for groups of up to ten people. Please contact us for more information.  Norma Hawthorne Shafer has over 30 years experience developing award-winning university programs.


Tuxtepec, Oaxaca: Huipils, Dance of the Pineapple Flower and Guelaguetza

Oaxaca’s July Guelaguetza features some of the most glorious traje — indigenous dress — throughout the state. But few, if any, surpass the beauty from the state of Tuxtepec.

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I am on a textile tour to discover the artistry of some of Oaxaca’s most remote villages. The evening our group arrives in Tuxtepec from Veracruz, we are treated to a fashion parade. Featured are the region’s woven and embroidered garments that we will see over the next several days. It’s like attending a sneak preview!

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They varied from the more simple daily wear of traditional women to those that are more elaborate and reserved for special occasions.

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The presentation is organized by Jose de Jesus Hernandez, known as Chucho. He teaches dance and has a collection of authentic dresses. Chucho explains that fifty-eight years ago there was a movement to return to the roots of the region by the younger generation. That’s why the Flor de Piña dance was created.

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I realize that all the different huipil designs in this one dance at the Guelaguetza is a compilation to express the diverse weaving and embroidery styles of Mazateco and Chinanteco communities that are part of Tuxtepec.

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As our week together comes to a close, we return to Tuxtepec one last time. Dance master Hector Arturo Hernandez meets us at the hotel, teaches us the Flor de Piña dance steps and brings huipils from his collection to show and tell. I would say we were not equal to the task of keeping up with the strenuous foot work of the dance!


More than one hundred and eighty young women audition to represent these Chinanteco and Mazateco villages. Only thirty-six are selected, says Don Hector Arturo, who has been teaching the Danza Flor de Piña for the past thirty-five years.

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He recruits and selects the dancers, and serves as the narrative voice for the Tuxtepec delegation at the Guelaguetza. As soon as I hear him speak, I recognize him. Our models for Don Arturo’s collection are women on the tour.

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In 1958, the governor of Tuxtepec decided that the jarocho music and dance presentation at the Guelaguetza did not fully integrate Tuxtepec with Oaxaca, since jarocho is a part of Veracruz identity. So, the Danza Flor de Piña was choreographed and orchestrated to the poem of native son Felipe Matias Velasco.

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By doing this, the back strap loom weaving and embroidery of these remote Oaxaca villages became a distinguishing feature of the Guelaguetza, something that we all identify with its pageantry and with Oaxaca.

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Those who study Oaxaca culture and communities know that the term guelaguetza is NOT about this annual tourist attraction that is a dance interpretation of the word. It is a way of life, the foundation for maintaining community and mutual support in indigenous pre-Hispanic Mexican villages.

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Note: These finest quality huipiles range in price from 1,500 pesos to over 6,500 pesos. Some take more than three or four months to make. The current exchange rate is about 13 pesos to the dollar. The average wage of an agricultural or hourly wage worker in Mexico is 100 pesos or eight dollars a day. Tourism is Oaxaca’s economic engine.

How To Get There

If you are more inclined to travel independently rather than taking a tour, take a bus or collectivo from town to town, or rent a car and drive from Oaxaca city on Mexico 175 to Tuxtepec. Get a Guia Roji Mapa 20 for the Estado de Oaxaca.


You may want to stop and spend the night in Pueblo Magico Capulalpam de Mendez or continue on until you reach Valle Nacional. There are several lovely hotels in Capulalpam and a few small hostals in Valle Nacional. From there, you can get to the pueblos in the Papaloapan Region that we visited: Valle Nacional, Rancho Grande, San Pedro Soyaltepec and San Lucas Ojitlan, bypassing the entry through Veracruz.

This route will take six to eight hours of driving from Oaxaca to Valle Nacional over winding mountain roads! You might also consider establishing a base in one of the villages if you don’t mind sleeping in a hammock or a basic, no frills room with only cold running water.




San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca: Mezcal on the Mountain

We didn’t start out planning a trip to San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. It just happened as we moved into the day. Friend Sheri Brautigam, textile designer, collector and Living Textiles of Mexico blogger, is visiting me. After a roundabout through the Teotitlan del Valle morning market, we headed out to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit master flying shuttle loom weaver Arturo Hernandez.

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Don Arturo creates fine ikat wool shawls and scarves colored with natural dyes, including cochineal, indigo, wild marigold and zapote negro (wild black persimmon).  Sheri knew him from the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where he exhibited in summer 2014.  I’ve known him for years through my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. So, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves and new rebozos made it into our collections.

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It was only eleven in the morning. I asked Don Arturo if he knew the village of San Juan del Rio, where some of Oaxaca’s finest mezcal is produced and sold under private label. He said, Yes, it’s only about forty-five minutes from here.

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I looked at Sheri, she looked at me. We said, Let’s go. I invited Don Arturo to come with us and he said Yes, once more. A native Zapotec speaker, we were lucky to have him with us. He helped find our way!

About Mezcal: The agave piña or pineapple is dug up out of the ground at maturity (seven to twelves years of field growth) and taken to the distillery, where it is roasted over a wood fired, rock-lined pit.  That’s what gives it a smokey flavor. It’s then crushed to yield the liquid that becomes mezcal. Good mezcal goes through two distillations.

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Years ago, Sheri  worked with a seamstress embroiderer Alma Teresa who lives in San Juan del Rio. Sheri designs gorgeous quechquemitls and Teresa crochets the pieces together. To reconnect with her was another reason to go.  Notice Teresa’s blouse and jacket, with the elaborate crochet trim. Seems like some of the most fun days in Oaxaca start with no particular plan.

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We headed out toward Hierve del Agua but made a left turn onto a winding road that soon became unpaved dirt, rough from recent rains. It took a good hour plus to get there from Mitla.  The road ends at the picturesque village, tucked away in a river valley. Houses are built on hillsides.  Other hillsides are terraced with mezcal palenques and maize crops. The stills are at river level.  They use the water to cool the distillation process. This is not yet a tourist destination.

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This village is known for small production, artesenal mezcal. I was on a hunt for reposado. What I found was an extraordinary reposado at a third the price of what I usually pay in Oaxaca city, plus a wild agave (silvestre) mezcal called Tepeztate from a mezcalero who is akin to a winemaker. He produces mezcal that he sells to some of the top hand-crafted brands.

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Sheri got a taste of just distilled mezcal, warm and just out of the still. At eighty-percent alcohol her engine was roaring after just a sip.  I inhaled and almost fell over. Don Arturo joined us. Being the designated driver, I had to be more careful. The whole thing reminded me of North Carolina moonshine, but the resulting product here is so much more refined it’s not even comparable.

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There are now so many varieties of mezcal, depending on the type of agave used and whether the mezcal is aged and for how long. Añejo can be aged as long as twelve years in oak which takes on characteristics of the wood. Wild agave has a distinctive herbal flavor and aroma. You need to taste to see which you prefer.

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This is a full day trip. We could have stayed longer and visited more mezcaleros. But I think we came home with some of the best produced in the village at a fraction of the retail price. If you go, bring your own liter size glass bottles with tight lids. Some bring gallon jugs to fill up. Plan to leave Oaxaca by nine in the morning. You’ll return around seven at night. Don’t go in the rainy season! You will slide all over the road!

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Who to visit?

  1. Redondo de San Juan del Rio, Rodolfo Juan Juarez, mezcalero. Tel. (951) 546 5260. Reposado and Tepeztate
  2. Perla del Rio Mezcal, Ignacio Juan Antonio, mezcalero, Tel. (951) 546 5056. Espadin joven.
  3. Alma Teresa’s clothing cooperative, a block from the church. She is sending two daughters to university in Oaxaca. Her husband went to the U.S. to work years ago and never came back.



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You can buy a road map of Oaxaca state at the Proveedora, corner Reforma and Independencia, in the Centro Historico. Comes in handy for exploring and having an aventura, like we did.

Coming Up: Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop, Starts Jan. 30, 2015