Tag Archives: Embroidery

Textile Flower Bouquets of San Lorenzo Zinacantan, Chiapas

Zinacantan is about thirty minutes by taxi from the center of San Cristobal de Las Casas. They grow flowers here. Large greenhouses dominate the landscape like a checkerboard rising from the valley to the hillsides.

Flower growing Zinacantan garden embroidered on cloth

This is a prosperous community that exports this produce throughout Mexico, as far as Mexico City and Merida.

Toddler cradled in an embroidered rebozo carrier with scalloped chal

Local dress reflects this love of flowers. Women’s skirts and chals (shawls), men’s pants and ponchos, and rebozos to cradle babies are densely embroidered with flower motifs.

Machined cross-stitch embroidery. Can you tell the difference?

It used to be that this work was all done by hand. Now, the embroidery machine has taken over the life of the cloth, which is often completely covered in intricate flower motifs so dense you can hardly see the base fabric.

Family shop together on market day

It used to be that the base cloth was woven on a back strap loom. This is now rarely the case. Most is either woven on the treadle loom or by commercial machine.

Bling blouses–machine embroidered bodices on shiny synthetic cloth. Beautiful.

It used to be that the village was identified by its hot pink cloth. Now, we see purples and blues. It’s common to see shiny colored threads in both the woven cloth and the embroidery thread. Fashions change and the Zinacantecas innovate new designs, use new color variations, and new embroidery motifs.

Woman working her needle by hand on the street, a rarity

Far beyond Mexico City, Mexican women love their bling.

Sheri Brautigam and I went early to Zinacantan yesterday on a discovery trip to check out new places to take the next Chiapas Textile Study Tour group. Sunday is Zinacantan market day but you have to get there early. The women with textiles have spread out their wares on the street at 6:00 a.m. and start putting their things away by 10:30 a.m.

New designs this year, short scalloped collar shawl

Our best advice is go there first before Chamula.

My find of the day: hand embroidered chal, front and back

2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Taking reservations now.

Wander the streets off the Zocalo. There are homes and stalls that sell good new and vintage textiles. The old pieces might be ten, fifteen or twenty years old. People stop wearing them because the colors are outdated not because the cloth is worn.

Costume is worn with cultural pride everyday

You can easily spend an hour here.

A rainbow of threads for embroidery machines in the market.

Here you will find hand embroidered cloth woven on back strap looms. This could include cross-stitch (punto de cruz) and French knots, in addition to other traditional needlework. How can you tell? Turn it over and look at the underside.

Meandering the streets we come across handmade leather shoes

The embroidery machine has come to Chiapas and can replicate cross-stitch and everything else. The village women now wear the work made by machine and it’s beautiful, too. Everything is a personal choice!

Market day goes on under the destruction of San Lorenzo Church

The obvious tragedy is the damage to the Church of San Lorenzo during the September 7, 2017, earthquake that rattled Chiapas and the southern Oaxaca coast. The destruction dominates the horizon. The church is closed until further notice by INAH. People say it may be impossible to repair. There is talk in the village about building another church.

Saints in temporary corrugated home. Photo by Carol Estes.

I remember entering the candlelit space in years past where all corners were adorned with flowers, abundant, fragrant. The altar was like a floral arrangement unlike any other I had seen. The aroma made me swoon. Now, the saints have been removed to a corrugated shed. INAH is responsible for all historic churches in Mexico. Few in and around San Cristobal de Las escaped damage. There is years of work to be done. Will Mexico have the will to repair?

September 2017 earthquake toppled houses, too.

Back on the street we find hand-woven and embroidered bags, silky polyester blouses machine embroidered with complementary colors, belt sashes and skirt fabric. Since it’s market day, tarps are also covered with piles of fruits and vegetables, and staples for the home.

1930s wedding, San Lorenzo Zinacantan

The Aztecs ruled this territory before the Spanish. They dominated as far south as Nicaragua. The Zinacantecos had strong links with the Aztecs, and enjoyed a privileged trading relationship. The village served as political/economic center for Aztec control of the region before the Spanish reached Chiapas in 1523. Our friend Patricio tells us that many locals intermarried with Nahuatl speaking Mexica’s.

The Zinacantan feathered wedding dress is a carry over from this past.

Leaving San Cristobal at 9:00 a.m. for Zinacantan

Taxi to get there, 150 pesos from San Cristobal de Las Casas.  Taxi to return, 100 pesos. Get it at the back corner of the church before you enter the market street.

On our hotel street, end of day








It costs about 150 pesos to get there.

Chiapas Textile Study Tour Snapshot: If It’s Sunday, It Must Be Chamula and Zinacantan

San Juan Chamula was our first stop on Sunday, the big market day in the Tzotzil speaking Maya village located about thirty minutes outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas. This also happened to be a day for baptisms.

The Maya church at San Juan Chamula, no longer Catholic

As we arrived at the Chamula church, extended families were emerging. Children of all ages were dressed in white. A Catholic priest comes once a month to perform the rites, but other than this observance there is little resemblance to traditional Catholicism.

Family outside the church poses for post-baptism photo

Chamulans practice a pre-Hispanic mysticism inside the church. No photos are allowed. The space  magical. It is dark inside. Votive candles that sit atop at least twenty wooden tables illuminate the space. On the tile floor fresh pine needles replicate the sacred forest.  There are no pews.

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In the Chamula market, how women transport babies

Areas of needles are swept away. Worshipers light red, green, white and yellow candles and affix them with dripping wax to the floor. The colors represent the four cardinal points. They kneel and pray, singing in ancient Tzotzil.

Women wait for weekly government food stipend

Cynthia and Gail shopping for agave fiber woven bags, called ixtle

Sometimes a Shaman will go with the families, holding a live chicken. The Shaman will hold the fowl by its legs, wings outspread, then wring the chicken’s neck. In this way, the ill that is disturbing a family member will pass to the chicken. Then, the chicken is buried and the ailment will go away.

The cemetery is another spiritual center for Maya families

This stuffed fox may be someone’s spirit animal, used in ritual cleansings

Ancient beliefs run deep here. We tiptoe across the pine needles. The officials watch carefully to make sure we take no photographs. We are respectful and don’t try. Stories of confiscated cameras are rampant.

Post-Baptism celebration in the church courtyard

Ducks and a turkey for sale along a hidden market side street

Out on the church patio, the families who celebrated baptism gather along the periphery for a meal, music and refreshment. Cases of beer sit atop tables. Visitors are here from all over the world. I hear German, French and Dutch.

Vendors sell fresh fruit and vegetables

Beyond the church is the vast market where vendors sell everything from fresh fruit, vegetables and handcrafts.

Chickens for sale along a side alley — food or sacrifice?

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Village mayordomos are distinguished by furry white tunics

After a walkabout, we set out for neighboring San Lorenzo Zinacantan. This is a flower growing village. Once allies of the Aztecs, whose empire extended as far south as Nicaragua, Zinacantan enjoyed special privileges as an embassy. Mayas married with Nahuatl speakers and adopted the Aztec practice of incorporating feathers into wedding dresses.

Zinacantan women doing business in a doorway

After the September 2017 earthquake that destroyed the church roof and bell tower, it seems like tourism has dropped here. We hoped for a more robust market, but only a few vendors line the street surrounding the church. We were able to find textiles in a local shop that deals in new and vintage blouses, dresses and skirts.

Zinacantan embroidered chals, a floral display on cloth, photo by Carol Estes

Visitors from Mexico City model the local costume that they bought

Earthquake destroyed church roof, bell tower, walls crumbled

Hundreds of historic churches in southern Mexico were damaged in the 2017 earthquake. Under the purview of INAH, it’s not likely church repairs will take place any time soon. Fear is that neglect will destroy them.

Saints inside corregated metal make-shift church — oops, no photos!

Now, for a brief fresh-off-the-comal tortillas stop to stave off hunger. We entered a smoke-filled room where a young woman prepared masa, patted it, pressed it and cooked it on the comal. We filled the hot, steaming tortilla with fresh beans, ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds), tangy Chiapas cheese, avocado and smoked sausage.

Another view of the traditional kitchen.

Sausages hang over the smokey area to cure and take on flavor.

Preparing fresh, organic tortillas on the comal

Cynthia and Lanita sit back after our hearty snack

We returned to San Cristobal de Las Casas late in the afternoon where we enjoyed lunch at Tierra Adentro, the Zapatista cafe on Real Guadalupe. Another culturally stimulating day!

Pattern on black fabric for embroidering

On the way out of town, San Lorenzo Zinacantan — waddle and daub, tile


Chiapas Textile Study Tour Snapshot: Saturday Serendipity in Aguacatenango

The idea was to drive to Aguacatenango which is about thirty minutes beyond the pottery village of Amantenango del Valle. We were a good hour or so beyond San Cristobal de Las Casas. Few tourists come in this direction.

The church at Aguacatenango, Venustiano Carranza

The idea was to pull up at the church, park the van, gather under the big tree and wait. Perhaps some of the village women would show up with their beautiful embroidered blouses to sell.

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I did this with our group last year. I hoped the serendipity would repeat. It was fun meeting local women whose skillful sewing resulted in blouses covered in intricate needlework. Within five minutes, perhaps thirty or forty women clustered around us. Word spreads fast in a small pueblo.

A gathering of women embroiderers. Photo by Carol Lynne Estes

This year was a special treat. Not only was it a glorious day, the workmanship was especially fine.

A particularly fine blouse with finished seams, all hand-stitched

Our only problem was that most of the blouses were too small. One woman insisted that her blouse was a large and when I said it was too small for me.  We went back and forth about this a couple of times.

Lanita snags this amazing blouse covered in French knots.

Finally, I thanked her, complimented her work, and told her it might be size large for women in the village, but it was a size small for us gringas. I’m tall here and I’m a chaparrita!

We also met and bought from Catalina Juarez Hernandez who has participated in the Feria Maestros del Arte at Lake Chapala.

We did our best to try on and buy. Most things did not fit. Photo by C.L. Estes

Then, Francisca Hernandez, one of the better embroiderers, invited us to visit her mother’s house. We have larger sizes there, she said. Lanita immediately said, YES. Cynthia endorsed the high quality of her work.How far is it, I asked. Only three blocks, she said.

An embroiderer blouse making with a bundle to show us.

We were hooked.

Down the street three blocks to larger sizes

Eight women from the USA and Canada followed Francisca down empty streets in midday. We passed a house with corn drying on the roof. We passed women and children peeking out of doorways. Behind us trailed women and girls from the village interest in what we were up to.

Close up of corn drying on the rooftop

These were long blocks.

We entered a humble home after climbing through a stick and wood fence where  Francisca’s mother and father welcomed us.  We walked across an uneven stone path.

Francisca Hernandez demonstrates embroidery techniques

Out came the larger embroidered blouses. We tried them on, standing next to bags stacked four high, fill with corn cobs. The space was dark and narrow, illuminated by one raw bulb. The French seams were perfect, all hand-stitched, finished perfectly.

Out came the larger sizes, each one equally as beautiful

We formed a ring around Francisca and her mom. A ring of women, two deep, looked on.

Francisca’s mom. Note the exquisite bodice work.

Francisca gave us a demonstration of how she makes French knots. Nudos de francesa. Catherine, president of her embroidery guild, was mesmerized since the technique was different and equally as beautiful. I promised to return in two weeks with our next group.

Bagged corn cobs. Photo by Carol Lynne Estes

Being open to serendipity provided us with a memorable experience and a connection none of us will forget.

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Catherine checks the sleeve length to see if this one fits.

Inside Out: Primer to Buying Mexico Handmade Clothing — Quality Tips

On Friday, I took a 40-minute trip with my friend Laurita to Magdalena Teitepac in the foothills on the other side of the Carretera Nacional Mexico 190 (aka Panamerican Highway) for the purposes of textile shopping, always my favorite past-time.

Magdalena Teitipac church next to the municipal building

The Zapotec village is beyond San Juan Guelavia, the basket-making village. A group of entrepreneurial Magdalena women who do needlework staged this First Annual Embroidery and Weaving Fair, promoted with a banner hanging from the highway overpass. Laurita spotted it coming home one day.

Can you tell if this beautiful embroidery is hand- or machine-stitched?

Spaces Open: Chiapas Textile Study Tour 

  • Study Tour 1 — February 13-22, 2018
  • Study Tour 2 — February 27-March 8, 2018

The visit got me thinking about quality variations in clothing that is sewn, embroidered, woven and crocheted here in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico.

Some of the women showing us their needlework blouses.

We are coming into Oaxaca’s peak tourist season when travelers come from all over the world, and many snowbirds plant their wings here from December through March.

Great cut-work and embroidery with unfinished seams

It is particularly challenging for first-time visitors who are blown away by the quantity of blouses, huipils, rebozos and other garments sold by street vendors, in small markets, and in tourist shops throughout the city.

Beaded blouses finished with French seams on 100% cotton, the best

How do you know what to buy and how much to pay for it?

Tip #1: Shop around. Look before buying. Look at lot. Go in and out of stores. Stop and look at the clothing the vendors have for sale. Ask prices. See what you like. Take your time.

Tip #2: Turn the garment inside out. Look at the seam edges of the cloth. Are they finished with a machined zigzag stitch or serger for reinforcement? Has the cloth edge been trimmed with a pinking shears? It is rough and will it unravel after a few washings? How strong are the stitches?

Softest, finest manta cloth, great embroidery, dense pleating

Tip #3: Check out the fabric. Is it populina?  This is what locals call the commercial cloth mix of cotton/polyester blend. Locals like this cloth because it dries much faster than pure cotton. It is also less expensive. Is it manta? This is 100% cotton cloth, more expensive, and preferred by many of us for softness, wearability and comfort.

Populina has a sheen. You can feel the polyester.

Tip #4: Check out the cloth again. If it’s manta, is it a fine, lighter weight weave or it is coarse and scratchy? Is it yellow color or white? What are your preferences?

#whomademyclothes .... is a Fashion Revolution movement dedicated to sourcing textiles direct from makers, awareness for buying disposable clothing made from cheap materials, assembled by underpaid workers.

Tip #5: If the clothing is embroidered, how fine is the embroidery? Is it by hand or machined? Are the stitches dense or loose? What about the crochet edge? Is it tied off or are there loose threads? Is it shiny, synthetic thread, dense/coarse polyester thread or good quality cotton?

Amazing pleated work from the Mixteca, with coarse embroidery yarn

Tip #6: Shop first in some of the better clothing galleries like Los Baules de Juana Cata or Arte de Amusgos to compare what you see on the street. See what the best looks like. Turn these inside out. Look at the finish work. Are the edges straight? What about the stitches that join two lengths of hand-woven cloth together? How is the neckline finished? What about the hem?

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Tip #7: Price is usually based on quality, but not always. I recently bought a beautiful deshillado and embroidered blusa in San Antonino Castillo Velasco. I paid 2,500 pesos, quite a lot!  The embroidery is exquisite and the crochet edges are fine. The seams are not finished well and I may need to take it under the needle of my sewing machine to reinforce it. But, I knew that when I bought it.

Locals gather for the Magdalena Teitipac Feria

What are you willing to pay? What is it worth to you? Is there a whimsical design you like and you are willing to sacrifice some of the quality issues?

Tip #8: Don’t hesitate to walk away because you notice stains on the cloth, raveling threads or holes in the seams. Work is done quickly and quality can suffer.

I’ve seen excellent work done on very poor cloth.  I’ve seen embroidered, beaded and woven pieces made by one women that are attached to cloth that doesn’t match. Needlework and sewing can often be made by two different people. The sewing can be haphazard. The corners don’t match up and the joining work isn’t good. It is up to us to educate ourselves and to also say in a gracious, caring way, that we would like a better quality product.

We can support artisans and cooperatives who take the time to work on quality improvement.

Banner advertising the event

Tip #9: When is a bargain not a bargain? When the color bleeds. When the seams unravel. When the embroidery stitching loosens. When you get it home and ask, Why did I buy that?

Tip #10: Please know that because you are in Mexico, YOU ARE NOT EXPECTED TO BARGAIN. It is not a culture of bargaining, much to the surprise of many. The average daily wage is 150 pesos, or about $8 USD. We have a big advantage. The exchange rate is about 18-19 pesos to the U.S. dollar. It takes weeks, sometimes months, to create a handmade textile. Let’s pay people a fair wage for their labor and creativity. They will offer a discount because they need to feed their families, not because it is part of the “game.”

On the street, Magdalena Teitipac

Did I buy anything in Magdalena Teitipac? Yes, a lovely, beribboned apron for 100 pesos and some amazing artisan chocolate from Tlacolula, 20 pesos a bag.

Why didn’t I buy a blusa? Because indigenous women here in Oaxaca like their blouses tight across the chest and snug under the arms. Sizes are deceiving and it’s best to try something on first, otherwise you can get it home and find out it doesn’t fit. Nothing fit me!

Basket weavers outside the Magdalena Teitipac market

Cooperatives working with NGOs on product improvement are receiving education about quality control, making finished seams,and patterns to fit women from the U.S.A. and Canada.

If you have any tips you’d like to share, please add them.

Of course, the final caveat is always — if you love it, buy it. You’ll never see the same thing again!



Chiapas Notebook: Magdalena Aldama Weavers

Our recent textile study tour took place over nine days. We were based in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, with so much to see and do, and no time to write!. I’m going to start now with one highlight that happened in the middle: a visit to Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas.

A few of our group with hosts Rosa and Cristobal, Magdalena Aldama

Some of us know this village, about two-and-a-half hours from San Cristobal, as Magdalenas. Others call it Aldama. It is one and the same. Officially, it is known as Santa Maria Magdalena.

Indigenous justice and liberty are elemental here, as is native Non-GMO corn.

It took on the name Aldama in 1934 in honor of Mexican insurgent Ignacio Aldama. This is a Tzotzil village strongly aligned with the Zapatistas.

Rosa with Barbara, and a neighboring Chenalho blue emboidered top

Not many foreigners show up here. Without an introduction to a family, it would be difficult to know where to go to see extraordinary back strap loom weaving and intricate embroidery that the women here are known for.

Susie admires a finely woven, embroidered huipil

We pulled up to the village zocalo and parked near the church. Cristobal was waiting for us and took us to his family home where his wife Rosa greeted us. She was joined by family members who were busy weaving and doing fine stitching, surrounded by children.

Children hover close to mom when strangers show up

This would not have been possible without our knowledgeable guide who arranged the visit through an anthropologist friend who has been working here for some time.

Every garment handmade: the woven cloth, fine embroidery, seams, hem

After demonstrations and a stunning expoventa of very fine work, the family invited us into their kitchen where they prepared Caldo de Gallina over a wood fire.

Work continues with babies bundled across backs with rebozos

They make the soup from organic free-range chicken and fresh local vegetables. The tortillas come hot off the comal. We toast the day with posh, the local fermented drink made from corn and sugar cane.

It is quite tasty!

Indigenous rights are fragile. People here take a stand for themselves. Viva Zapata!

Women work hard here, staying close to home. Tending babies, preparing meals, cleaning up, weaving, sewing. Extended families live together in the same household and next door.

Fifteen enjoying a family meal, altar with Mayan cross in background

I saw no young men and assume they were in the fields tending to vegetables or herds of cows. Or, perhaps they were in El Norte USA trying to make a few dollars to send home. At 20 pesos to 1 US dollar now, it’s an economic advantage to go north to work. Regardless of what Agent Orange says, families do not like to be separated. They do it out of necessity. 

A village Mayordomo came by to check us out and stayed for lunch

Since the village is not frequented by tourists, we had a social call by one of the village leaders, a mayordomo and friend of our host family. He saw that we were supportive of the cultural norms and stayed to talk and have lunch with us. We were not a rowdy group!

Waddle and daub traditional village construction, perfect backdrop

The large kitchen space where we had lunch, the traditional outbuilding where the expoventa (show/sale) was held, and some of the surrounding cottages, were all constructed with waddle and daub. This is different from adobe bricks. It is a great insulator, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer.

Yes, smoke gets in your eyes, clothes, hair and lungs in traditional kitchens

The only problem was the ventilation from the smoke, which rose to the ceiling in billows but didn’t escape readily from the open areas near the rafters. In some villages, NGOs are working with locals to create better vents so they don’t breathe the wood smoke and develop lung disease.

Britt wears an elegant dress, traditional in design

Magdalena Aldama is about ten minutes further from San Andres Larrainzar, another amazing weaving village, much larger than Magdalena. There seems to be some crossover in stitching and fashion, though for the most part women like to identify with where they are born and live by their costume.

Mom and toddler, infant sleeping behind

The finely woven mesh bags you see below are hand-woven from ixtle, the washed, pounded and softened fiber of the agave cactus leaf. The finer and smaller the bag, the more costly. The shoulder straps are soft leather. Sometimes they are finished with colorful woven edging. We love them and bought lots!

Display of blouses, bags, table runners, dresses, pillow covers

Often, the difficulty for western women is to find a garment large enough to fit us. The width here is as wide as the loom, but the arm holes and necklines can be small. So small, we can’t get the blouse over our heads or arms through the sleeves. Here, it wasn’t a problem! They knew we were coming!

Rosa holds up one her group’s fine blouses. They sold out!

On our way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, we made a quick stop in Larrainzar to check out the street scene.  On the way, we passed a family of sheep herders. While the animals grazed, the women tied their looms to the trees. No one here is idle.

Looms tied to trees. Always something to weave.

In San Andres Larrainzar, we stopped at a commercial cooperative outside of town. I was disappointed in the quality and offerings, though a few of us managed to find a treasure. It’s best to find a private group!

San Andres Larrainzar main street. Hard to find a huipil for sale here.

Local women buy the embroidered bodice pieces and then stitch their own cotton or poplin (cotton/poly blend) to make the complete blouse. They like the polyester because it dries much faster. So, it’s getting more difficult to find a pure cotton garment. The embroidered pieces cost 1,000 to 1,500 pesos before being made into the blouse.

Embroidered blouse pieces, Larrainzar. White area is for head opening.

Back in San Cristobal, I wore the Magdalena Aldama blouse I bought from Rosa and Cristobal on the following day. People stopped me. Where did you find that? I told them. I visited a local Mayan coop and the manager said, “We don’t carry anything that fine. It’s hard to find and too expensive.”  Well, not really. Not for us at the current exchange rate!

The weaving group in black and white.

Making a trip into the village to meet the family, share a meal and support their work was one of the highlights of this trip.

Weaving on the street, Magdalena Aldama

We are going to offer this again at the end of February 2018. Contact me if you are interested and I’ll put you on the list to let you know dates and cost. This study tour will be limited to 9 people maximum!

Games little boys play, in the doorway to the kitchen.