Tag Archives: price

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?

Want to buy direct from artisans? Take a study tour!

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!



San Pedro Quiatoni, Oaxaca Jewelry: Quest for the Past

San Pedro Quiatoni is a small Zapotec mountain village in the eastern region of the Tlacolula Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. For some inexplicable reason, the village collected Venetian glass beads that came into Mexico with the Spanish galleons along the trade routes between Veracruz, Acapulco and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The necklaces and earrings have become hard-to-find collectibles.

San Pedro Quiatoni necklace, Museo Nacional de Anthropologica

San Pedro Quiatoni necklace, Museo Nacional de Anthropologica, Mexico City

Early necklaces were strung with finely woven ixtle fiber, then later cotton. They typically included a mix of brown, clear, cobalt blue and light turquoise hand-blown slender glass rods of varying lengths, from one to three inches, interspersed with Venetian skunk (black and white) and colored handmade glass beads. Some say the rods originated from Puebla craftsmen. Others dispute this and insist they were part of the bounty coming from Europe to trade for gold, silver and cochineal.

We do know that these particular necklaces have a unique provenance only to this one Oaxaca village, San Pedro Quiatoni. The women wore them for ceremonial occasions, part of the gala traje. Some were single strands. Others, double strands. Each one I found seemed to be unique to the person who assembled the beads based upon what was available and personal aesthetic.

The necklaces, along with complementary earrings, were passed down through the generations, safeguarded in baules (treasure chest, hope chest) in the isolated village that is a good three hours from Oaxaca city.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s, when the Pan-American Highway (Mexico 190) was paved that there was easier access.

Xaquixe reproduction San Pedro Quiatoni necklace

Xaquixe reproduction San Pedro Quiatoni necklace

The old jewelry became a source of needed income for local families as collectors recognized the originality of design and age of the beads. It is difficult now to find an intact strand of these glass beads on their original cord anywhere other than in museums or among private collections.

I became interested in the history of these necklaces last year at a Museo Textil de Oaxaca exhibition that included vintage San Pedro Quiatoni daily traje (dress) and accompanying necklaces. I tried to find glass rods in local antique shops to make my own necklace but was unsuccessful. The reproduction necklaces for sale in the MTO gift shop, made by Xaquixe, sold out in days.

Close-up, Museo Textil de Oaxaca collection

Close-up, Museo Textil de Oaxaca collection, San Pedro Quiatoni

My interest was sparked again this month when I went to visit the Mitla antique dealer I wrote about before. He pulled out three of these Quiatoni necklaces, obviously recently strung on silk cord, to show me. The prices were in the stratosphere even with the favorable dollar to peso exchange rate ($1=17 pesos).

Researching Provenance and Value

To even consider a purchase, I had to know more. So, I searched the Internet for a history of San Pedro Quiatoni beaded necklaces and what was available for sale to find comparables in quality and pricing. I wanted to know if what he was selling was really real! I saw old photos of village women wearing them. I saw 2002 festival photos with beautiful girls each laden with several strands.

I sent an email to Old Beads owner Silva Nielands, an expert in old Mexican beads, as well as old beads from around the world. She had a Quiatoni necklace for sale, one of two that I was able to find online. It was a beauty and had already sold within days of being listed, she told me. Silva was incredibly generous with her advice and time, offering to look at photos I sent her to authenticate age and quality.

Asking for Expert Opinion

She suggested a reasonable retail price for the necklace strung with old coral and I gulped again. She noted that the white oblong beads with the blue squiggles on the necklace I was looking at are typical of those that came into Mexico and South America over 100 years ago, and the light turquoise rods are more rare and valuable than the clear or blue ones. Most of these necklaces are adorned with red glass tubes, not coral, and may be newer.

Quiatoni necklace, Museo Textil de Oaxaca collection

Close-up, Quiatoni necklace

On my recent visit to the USA, I bought an old copy of Mexican Jewelry, the bible written in 1964 by Mary Davis and Greta Pack, and referred to it often during my investigations. I also found, online, a history of beads in Mexico, The Margaretologist, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1987, Journal for the Center of Bead Research (see page 9 of the linked journal).

I visited the necklace four times.  I examined each bead and the stringing. I found several broken tips on the rods. I walked away. He called me and asked me to make an offer. I returned, questioned whether the stringing was done correctly to honor the original design — from my research, it wasn’t. So, I asked for the necklace to be strung correctly and then I would look at it again.

One of three necklaces for sale in Mitla that I was considering

One of three San Pedro Quiatoni necklaces for sale in Mitla that I was considering

According to my sources, the ribbons were originally used for decorations, not to tie the necklace. So this was a dead giveaway that the necklaces were strung improperly. The beads would have been strung on a cotton cord, which would be braided from the last bead to the terminus.

Bargaining and Walking

In the two-week process, I also got negotiating coaching from my friend Scott who has been a trader here in the region for over 40 years. He advised that I admire, inquire and walk away. He suggested I do this several times, not my usual style, but I disciplined myself.  I courageously asked the dealer to restring the beads and replace the rods with broken tips.

This 14" strand came in on turquoise embroidery floss. The short brown beads are old.

This 14″ strand came in on turquoise embroidery floss. The short brown beads are old, and you can see the beautiful glass lamp work.

Scott counseled that the dealer would respect me more if I made a reasonable offer that was fair to us both. Being that the dealer was as close to the source as I was going to get, on the return for the fourth time, I decided to start out by offering half his asking price to test what a reasonable offer might be.  When we reached an agreement for less than what I had in mind, he invited me to return for a family dinner and gave me a warm embrace. I guess Scott was right!

San Pedro Quiatoni necklace and earrings

San Pedro Quiatoni necklace and earrings

The earrings above have a silver disc hammered from an old coin, then cut along the edge to form a double-headed guajolote with feathers. The ear findings are original, too. They are now part of my collection along with the necklace, which now has a cotton cord for proper tying. The navy blue ribbon mimics some of the old pieces, but I’ve also seen photos of these necklaces without the ribbon.

San Pedro Quiatoni Necklace, restrung, Norma Schafer Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC

San Pedro Quiatoni Necklace, restrung, Norma Schafer Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC



Morocco Journal 8: Magic Carpet Ride Rug Buying Guide

Rules for rug shopping in Morocco and other advice from a seasoned shopper who admits to being a naive novice when it comes to bargaining in the Land of a Million Carpets.

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Carpet merchants fill the souks in every Moroccan city.  Then, there are the random carpet shops on high traffic tourist pedestrian avenues.  There was one store I visited in Marrakech that was filled floor-to-ceiling with at least three thousand carpets.  How many carpets are there in Morocco would you say? I asked the proprietor. Five million?  Maybe more, he answered. I imagine the weavers in the High and Middle Atlas Mountains are busy night and day!

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The weaving and carpet culture in Morocco is totally different from that of Mexico, where the original purpose of wool woven textiles was for blankets or serape to cover horses and humans.  The nomads of Morocco use carpets to cover the floors and walls of their tents for warmth and comfort.  Some Moroccan carpets have longer wool weft threads so they can be tied as a shawl in winter.  Many also cover the backs of camels, horses and donkeys to cushion their riders.  I saw lots of Boucherouite rag rugs (below left) sticking out from under camel saddles.

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In Oaxaca, the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle is conveniently located just 40 minutes outside the city.  A trip to the weaving villages of Morocco requires an expedition of several days from either Marrakech or Fes.

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In both Mexico and Morocco, cheaper knock-offs from China inundate the market.  Buyer beware!

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In the High Atlas Mountains the carpets are knotted, a heavy sheep wool pile.  In the Mid-Atlas, the carpet design combines the knotted higher pile with flat weave or kilim style using camel-hair.  Some have added embroidery for embellishment and include the symbols of sun, moon, animals, fertility, womanhood, and water.  At lower elevations near the Sahara, the carpets are all flat and woven from camel-hair.

Why?  Sheep only prosper and develop a thick coat at colder, higher elevations while camels are desert animals who love the heat.

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Most carpet traders have an inventory of old and new rugs.  Carpets are everywhere. The older rugs cost much more because more likely the older wool fibers were prepared with natural dyes.  It’s hard to tell if natural dyes are used for newer rugs, although, as in Oaxaca, most here claim it is so.  I’ve heard that some dealers will put a rug out in the sun to fade and look older to sell it at a premium.

Natural dyes, I’m told, include saffron, henna, cinnamon, wild mint, kohl and indigo. The color is fixed with vinegar and the wool is washed in mountain snow.  Over-dyeing is employed to get a wider color range.

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Carpet shopping in Morocco is tricky.  Anyone is capable of taking the vulnerable tourist on a magic carpet ride.  It is difficult to know who to trust. Referral is the best guarantee that you won’t be ripped off.  Luckily, I got a referral to an Essaouira carpet merchant from a friend who worked for the U.S. State Department in Rabat for over 12 years.  I visited this man a week into my trip and got a great carpet at a fair price.  Who can leave Morocco without a carpet? Only the most disciplined. (See contact information below.)

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Based on advice from friends, I made the huge mistake of hiring a guide to take me through the souq on my first day in Marrakech.  He led me into a carpet store that I could not escape from. Honest. And, of course, I realized later that I overpaid because I was not yet familiar with the local currency conversion.  Yep. Buyer beware!

Carpet salesmen are determined.  They have it in their blood. They have the genetic instincts of thousands of years of being at the trading center of North Africa — Morocco.  They hang out on sidewalks, street corners.  Some will even say, Have you seen the painted ceiling of this historic building? The rabbi once lived here.  Once you enter to see the intricate work, the rugs start to unfold. Tourist beware.  What is your best price? they ask.  Customer responds. Salesman says, Oh, I need a little more.  Can you get a little closer?  And you come closer, and the next round continues.  After buying my first rug on the first day in Marrakech, the salesman said he would offer me a really special price on a second rug because I was the first customer of the day and that will bring him good luck.

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You can’t believe how many times I heard that in the weeks to come.  Then, I heard, You are my last customer of the day and the last customer brings good luck for tomorrow.  By that time I said, you’ve got to be kidding me!  It took me about a week to learn to be a skeptic.

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As I said in an earlier blog post, nothing, I mean NOTHING, has a price tag. Food, taxis, herbal medicine, carpets, clothing, jewelry, nada.  This is the land of bargaining and you have to be good at it to play the game.  It is wearying and that’s the idea.  Who has more stamina?

So, I ended up overpaying on some things until I got the hang of it, and then I did a little better.  Rule of thumb — be willing to walk away.  It is not offensive.


Rules for Souq and Rug Shopping in Morocco

  1. Never hire a guide.
  2. Go into the souq on your own.  You won’t get lost.  There are plenty of signs that direct you back to Jemaa el Fna — the central square.
  3. People are friendly.  Even shop keepers will give directions, although they will try to get you into their shop after that.
  4. Never buy anything on your first day. Get the lay of the land. Practice negotiating.  You need practice.  You need to feel confident.  You need to start at a price less than half of what they first name.
  5. Take your currency converter and USE IT.
  6. Stand your ground. By the second week, I could respond to What is your best offer? with the first price I named and not budge.  Not even 20 dirhams higher.  When the merchant got too pushy, I said thank you, and walked out.
  7. It’s hard to know the REAL PRICE.  You can test the real price by always naming a low price, lower than mid-point and then see the response.
  8. A friend coached me.  The real cost could be 6 dirham but they ask 50 dirham, you respond with 25 dirham, they go to 30 dirham and you say yes, thinking you got a great deal.  Maybe!
  9. Do your research in advance.  Shop around.
  10. Be patient.  The negotiating and buying process can take at least an hour or two and at least 2 glasses of mint tea.  Maybe more!  If you are in a hurry it will cost you more.
  11. Don’t be impulsive.  Shop around.  Be sure to see many styles and colors before you buy.  Have the mint tea if you are somewhat serious.  If not, politely say no thank you.
  12. Always be courteous.  You are in a Moslem country and people are respectful and gracious.  Say no thank you– merci beaucoup — with a smile.
  13. People welcomed me when I said I was from the USA.  We’re glad you’re here, they said.  I believe they meant it.


By the time I returned to Marrakech after ten days in Essaouira, I was ready for the souq on my own.  I ventured in with some trepidation, I confess.  The passageways are narrow, most are obscure, shadowy, there is the unfamiliar, and the crush of stuff and people.

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It is daunting, the labyrinth of winding, narrow alleys lined with leather goods, painted furniture, Berber jewelry, textiles, dried fruit stands, brass and copperware, cooking utensils and turbaned men who speak Arabic and French.  I got lost.  I wandered.  I meandered.  I discovered hidden courtyards.  I was alone.  I found my way around and out.

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My huge camera was slung around my neck.  I never felt fearful though I did encounter a few unexpected turns and dead ends where I met some amazing craftsmen and a snake charmer with cobra in hand.

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And I discovered treasures that I could digitally capture and bring home to share with you.  But, not before finding a good glass of Moroccan red wine, available to visitors at selected hotel bars. Saha: to your health.

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Rug Shopping in Marrakech

  • Chez Laarabi, Arset El Maach, Rue de La Radeema, No. 41, 1st floor, ask for Mohamed Twarig, Tel 06 66 09 11 59 or email simolaarabi@hotmail.com

Rug Shopping in Essaouira

  • Maroc Art, 3 Rue el Hajali, ask for Abdullah Imounaim or Abdoul Gnaoui, Tel 04 44  47 50 50