Shuko Clouse is here. She opened Mano del Sur recently, a beautiful online shop that combines her Japanese aesthetic — simplicity and quality — with Mexican handcraft excellence. Shuko came to Oaxaca to restock the shop.
She takes her time. She curates each item. She meets the makers and engages with them. She holds an article in her hands and savors its creation. She kneels down to touch a wool rug whose life is created on the loom. She traces the pattern with her fingertips, asking about ancient design origin.
It is a marvel to go shopping with Shuko. She chooses carefully. Selects one or two items that are the same. She is not a volume shopper. I learn from her. Take your time. Each moment with a handmade article is a blessing for the maker and eventually, the buyer.
Don’t rush. When I was in Japan, I saw that a large room with one extraordinary vase containing one exquisite flower was enough. This is antithetical to my own collecting sensibilities. It is a struggle to keep my living environment spare, and I confess I am unsuccessful. But I aspire to this — one object, beautifully crafted, as focal point.
Meanwhile, Shuko and I travel the villages; to San Marcos Tlapazola to visit the women makers of red clay pottery; to Mitla to see the weaver of natural dyed wool and cotton; deep into a Mitla neighborhood to visit the antique dealer whose eclectic collection tempts all; to old adobe houses of Teotitlan del Valle where humble weavers work magic.
My quest for Japanese indigo fabrics and clothing took us to remote villages and high-end designer boutiques. I searched old kimono stacked in department store corners and flea market stalls. In the old Geisha district of Gion, two vintage textile shops offer 100+ year-old pieces in varying condition. I traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto to the remote thatched roof village of Miyama with blue on my mind. We lingered at the Amuse Museum exhibition of boro cloth in awe of indigo-dyed hemp and cotton patchwork born of poverty.
Indigo is my passion. It’s why I wanted to go to Japan. Oh, and the food. Oh, yes, and the cherry blossoms. Temples. Zen. Gardens. Oh, my.
My sister was more interested in Kabuki and Noh theatre, so we negotiated time dedicated to our interests. We attended performances of both and met with a foremost expert on Noh, a US ex-pat living and teaching in Japan for 40 years. We managed to walk blocks that became miles, traveled by bus, train and taxi, all in search of blue, art and food.
Finding indigo in Japan is not easy. Sometimes we couldn’t locate the address. Sometimes we got lost despite Google maps. Sometimes I would stand on a street corner and call out, Does anyone speak English? to help us get our bearings. (Always, a kind, helpful person came to our aid, even guiding us to where we needed to go!) Sometimes the source was in such a remote area that we couldn’t get there. Tokyo is a vast megalopolis, on a scale beyond my ken. Kyoto, described as smaller, hardly pales in comparison.
The art of dyeing with indigo today is uncommon, as it is in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is necessary to travel twelve hours from Oaxaca City to meet the maker. In Japan, one must also ferret out the dye masters and makers who turn indigo-dyed cloth into clothing. The practice is almost extinct, just like Mexico. And, as with all things made-by-hand, quality comes with a price, when you can find it.
I also noticed construction similarities between traditional Oaxaca huipiles and Japanese kimonos. Both are simple assemblages of cloth squares and rectangles, with hand-stitchedSi seam sewing and no tailoring (ie. no darts). The long, drooping kimono sleeves are merely rectangles attached to the main robe. Hand-stitching for seams and embellishment a standard practice.
Few pieces, I discovered, are hand-loomed now. Indigo-dyed ready-to-wear can be designed in Japan and made in India to keep prices in check. I found one amazing Meiji period kimono in perfect condition. Price tag, $1,800 USD. Pass. I’m looking for wearable art and not creating a museum-level collection.
What I also discovered is that a focused quest for indigo takes time. Even more than a three-week introductory visit such as the one I just completed. Perhaps another trip is needed to go deeper and wider. Perhaps.
I also want to thank Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel and Tours, Japan Travel Expert, who generously shared her list of Kyoto textile shopping resources with me. I hunted down those most relevant to my interests.
My friend Madelyn wrote, I hope you found yourself a wonderful indigo garment or textile. Plural, I replied. I filled a duffle bag with blue. Ancient blue. New blue. Traditional blue. Deep, dark, almost black, blue. Kimono with wide, boxy sleeves. Cozy, contemporary long-sleeved jacket with roll-up cuffs. Vintage farmer’s coat with sashiko stitching. All perfect with blue jeans or black skirt. I have satisfied my lust for blue.
Sidebar: Barbara and I were flaneuring down the main street of Tokyo’s Aoyama district (which easily overshadows Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive) after visiting the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I noticed a pop-up shop and stepped in to find Yu Design Office featuring hand-crafted indigo clothing.
Yu Design Office was founded by artisan Hiromi Yamada and her architect son Yuji Yamada. They use natural indigo dye from Hanyu City, Saitama, employing a traditional kimono-making technique called itajime from Mizuho City, Tokyo, and fine cloth from Hachioji, Tokyo. Combining indigo, persimmon juice and pitch black, the wool-silk scarf they make takes on a deep greenish blue hue. The cloth is folded and stacked and pressed between wooden boards to give it texture.
Aizenkobo, indigo workshop and gallery, Kyoto. Third generation workshop, producing traditional garments, scarves, yardage. People love it. I was underwhelmed.
Little Indigo Museum, Miyama, Kyoto Prefecture, is operated by Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo. In picturesque town of thatched-roof houses, this is a full-day trip. Small souvenir indigo samples and scarves are for sale. firstname.lastname@example.org
Gallery Kei features vintage textiles and is operated by Kei Kawasaki on the famous Teramachi Street (671-1 Kuoinmae-cho Teramachi Ebisugawa-agaru), just south of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. At our visit, she had vintage boro from Northern Japan, garments and cloth fragments of hand-woven natural materials (hemp, linen, cotton, silk) and dyes. Write to confirm they are open. email@example.com
Gran-Pie, also on Teramachi Street between Ebisugawa-dori and Nijo-dori, is a contemporary clothing store with garments designed in Japan, dyed and made in India.
I can’t publish this post without mentioning NUNOworks Fabrics in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. On our last afternoon in Japan, I went bonkers over the bolts of fabrics, and sewn-on-the-premises clothing. Delicious scarves. Beautiful garments. Outstanding design. Reasonable (by Japan standards) prices. Though few pieces are naturally dyed.
Department stores like Isetan (Kyoto Station), Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Matsuya Ginza feature contemporary Japanese designer boutiques, including Issey Miyake, Comme de Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and others. Some use indigo and other natural dyes, and are priced in the stratosphere.
Where to Stay in Tokyo: the b roppongi hotel. Loved our stay here. Convenient to metro, restaurants, fair price, excellent service.
Where to Stay in Kyoto: we loved the YADO Hotel in Arashiyama. Book room #308. Recommend also staying in Gion area for more central experience.
I’m going to the US for an impromptu short visit before the Winter Holidays, returning to Oaxaca on December 24. Need a couple of routine exams. No worries.
So, I’m offering this pre-sale. Buy it now and I’ll bring it with me and mail by December 15. 18 Items. Just-in-time unique gifts, all made by hand and personally curated. Keep scrolling.
How to buy: Send me an email and tell me which item you want BY NUMBER. Include your mailing address. I will send you a PayPal invoice for the cost, plus $8 for USPS priority mail. If you live outside the USA, ask about mailing fees.
#1 All natural dyes, San Juan Colorado
#1 SOLD is from the oldest women’s weaving and dyeing cooperative in San Juan Colorado, Jini Nuu. Our textile study group will meet them on the Oaxaca Coast Tour, but you can have one, too. They use the drop spindle to spin the wild, native cotton and weave using the back strap loom. This is a short blouse, 3″ long from the shoulder and 26″ wide across the front, side seam to side seam. NEW. It’s called a blusa, seams and finish work all hand-embroidered. Natural dyes include Coyuchi brown cotton unique to Oaxaca, wild marigold and cochineal. Size L-XL. $175 USD plus mailing.
#1 Pattern woven into the cloth
#1 needlework seam joinery
#2 Wool and Cotton Shawl with Indigo
#2 SOLD is Oaxaca’s version of ikat. The wool is tied and dyed with indigo. The loom is warped with highest quality cotton. Lightweight, warm and drapes beautifully. 24″wide x 80″ long. NEW. Large and long, cozy enough to wrap around your neck or use as a throw. $145 USD plus mailing.
#3 Wild Marigold and Indigo Shawl
#3 SOLD is also ikat. NEW. The wool is tied and dyed with wild marigold interlaced with indigo. The loom is warped with highest quality cotton. Lightweight, warm and drapes beautifully. 24″ wide x 80″ long. Large and long, cozy enough to wrap around your neck or use as a throw. $165 USD plus mailing.
#4 Zayzelle indigo block print tunic
#4 is a hand-stamped 100% cotton fabric, indigo on white. I bought this yardage in Ahmedabad, India and just had it made into a Zayzelle tunic. NEW. Short sleeves with deep pockets and French seams. Size L-XL. $135 USD plus mailing.
#5 Deep blue dangle earrings
#5. New. Pair these hand-carved gourd earrings made on the Oaxaca coast with #4 for Blue Pizzaz. 4″ long from ear hole, 3″ diameter. $45 USD plus mailing.
#6 Save the Turtles
#6 are hand-carved gourd dangle earrings adorned with endangered sea turtles that lay their eggs on the coast every winter. NEW. 3-1/2″ long from ear hole, 2-3/4″ diameter. $45 plus mailing.
#7 Zayzelle India block print dress with deep pockets
#7 I brought this beautiful block print fabric back from Ahmedabad, India, and just had it made up into a Zayzelle dress, long sleeves, lightweight 100% cotton dyed with madder. NEW. Size L-XL with deep patch pockets. $165 USD plus mailing.
#8 Black Stars Earrings
#8 hand-carved gourd earrings, dramatic and lightweight, made on the Oaxaca coast. NEW. 4″ long from ear hole, 3″ diameter. $45 plus mailing.
#9 Vintage 12K gold filigree and pearl dangle earrings
#9 SOLD Three baskets of pearls swirled with filigree, hand-made, Mexican vintage 12 karat gold with French hooks. Dress up or wear with jeans! $265 plus mailing.
#10 Zayzelle Think Spring dress
#10 is a lovely, soft, easy-to-wear spring green linen dress in my exclusive Zayzelle design, with top-stitched deep patch pockets. NEW. Long sleeves that can roll up for a more casual look. Wear over a long sleeve T and leggings for a Think Spring winter. Size L-XL. $155 USD plus mailing.
#11 earrings from Malinalco, Estado de Mexico, crotchet waxed linen
#11 Think Pink snowflakes or a full bloom flower. 3″ long from ear hole, 3″ diameter. NEW. Fun and fancy. $45 USD plus mailing.
#12 elegant VINTAGE earrings, Gusanos, silver on gold filigree with white sapphires
#12 is a vintage Oaxaca pair of earrings with 14k gold backs and hooks, studded with sparkly white sapphires set in silver, with drop pearls. 2-1/4″ long x 3/4″ wide. $185 USD plus mailing.
#13 Lavender blue gourd earrings
#13 earrings hand carved from gourds on the Oaxaca coast, NEW, 3-1/2″ long from ear hole, 2-3/4″ diameter. $55 USD plus mailing.
#14 Zayzelle natural cotton dress
#14 SOLD our Zayzelle pattern in a soft, cream manta cotton woven in Puebla state. NEW. The fabric has a subtle cross-hatch pattern that gives it texture, luxurious and comfortable. Size L-XL. $135 USD plus mailing.
#15A and #15B two 12K gold filigree rings, priced each. Vintage.
#15A (top) and #15 B SOLD (bottom)are $65 USD each plus mailing. They are 12K gold filigree and handmade in the state of Veracruz. Size 5-1/2 or 6. Can be sized by a jeweler. Please specify which you want.
#16 Hot Tomato Red Dangle Earrings
#16 are hand-carved gourd earrings from the coast of Oaxaca. NEW. 4″ long from ear hole, 3″ diameter. $55 USD plus mailing.
#17 Verdant Blusa from Aguacatenango, Chiapas, with extraordinary details
#17 All this smocking and embroidery is made by hand in the village of Aguacatenango, Chiapas. Blouse fits size L-XL. $65 USD plus mailing.
#18 Unisex Winter Green Shirt, weighty cotton
#18 SOLD is a casual shirt woven on a back strap loom in Chiapas, Mexico. NEW. It will fit a Men’s Size Small or a Woman’s Size L-XL. Seams are hand stitched, secure. Side slits. Roll up your sleeves, if you wish. $35 USD plus mailing.
The on-going discussion endures about whether one bargains in Mexico with vendors for a lower price. Is it a cultural norm or expectation? Many say, Yes.
Colorful Oaxaca armadillo now tops my bookcase. I paid the ask price.
Others resist for obvious reasons. Why? The exchange rate is in favor of Europeans, Estadounidenses (those from USA) and Canadienses (those from Canada). Mexicans have always been undervalued for their labor.
Chiapas potter/clay sculptor. Small jaguars are 150 pesos.
They say the average daily Mexican wage is 150-200 pesos. I’ve also heard 88 pesos a day and 100 pesos a day. At today’s exchange rate of 18.2 pesos to the USD, 200 pesos is about $11 USD per day. In Chiapas, where I just returned from, skilled women weavers on the back-strap loom, creating garments with intricate supplemental weft, earn about 30 pesos per hour.
Here’s what my friend and colleague Sheri Brautigam, in her book Textile Fiestas of Mexico, says about shopping and bargaining:
“I know everyone likes to get a deal, but I feel this attitude takes advantage of the position of the artisan who made the item; it’s an exploitation model of the past.
For the most part, artisans are quite humble when they present their work, and they possibly have in mind the price they would like to get for their item. Often, almost immediately, they will bring the price down if they see you hesitate more than a few seconds. They want you to buy it. This is because local Mexicans are ruthless when they bargain, and the artisan — if she really is in need of making a sale for her survival — can be reduced to selling the item for barely the cost of the materials.”
hand-woven huipil takes three months to make.
There is more, of course. I suggest you get this valuable Traveler’s Guide to Celebrations, Markets and Smart Shopping.
The same applies to all artisan craft throughout Mexico, not just textiles. Pottery. Carved and painted wood figures. Masks. Guitars. Silver jewelry. Handcrafted food.
Organic pumpkin pie with corn meal crust, $3 USD, from Jorge Daniel Bautista, Union Zapata
Think about your position when you ask for a discount. You are the person NOT making 200 pesos per day. If an item costs 500 pesos and you want it for 400, in all likelihood it is priced fairly and the extra 100 pesos represents almost a full day of work to the maker. To you, it is a $5 difference. A cup of coffee at Starbucks.
We have this discussion among expats and visitors in Oaxaca all the time — to bargain or not? There is a private Facebook group, Clandestine Oaxaca Appreciation Society, where members address the question repeatedly.
Intricately embroidered blouse, San Bartolome Ayautla, 8 months to make
Many who are proponents of bargaining are like Accidental Tourists, armchair travelers who occasionally get out of their seats, embark on a vacation and think that bargaining is part of the entertainment. Anne Tyler’s protagonist in her novel hates traveling, and does so only “with his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life.” Yet, he enjoys “the virtuous delights of organizing a disorganized country” while pretending he never left home. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Why do artisans lower their prices?
The season is slow and sales haven’t been good
They need money for food, to pay rent, to buy gasoline, to buy raw materials, to pay for school books and bus fare — in other words, cash flow
There’s a family emergency, and since this is a cash economy, they need cash
They may have lower self-esteem because they are the underclass, treated to believe that what they make has little or no value
What do you think?
Why do tourists bargain?
I think about this question in terms of cultural, political and socio-economic disparities. It might include being unconscious about where we are and our relationship to the people around us. We might conjure up the stereotypical image of Mexico thirty or forty years ago and apply it today. Perhaps, we are totally unaware of the daily or artisan wage. We might say, Oh, it’s cheaper to live here, they don’t need as much. We assume that the government takes care of its poor. (There is no social security in Mexico.) We like the power that the exchange rate gives us and the ability to strike a deal.
What is the value of a natural dye wool rug, 8 weeks in the making?
What about the foreign community from the USA and Canada who live in Oaxaca full-time or for many months of the year? We might say:
Tourism drives up local prices, from artisanry to rents
We learn to identify higher prices and walk away from them
We understand that if we buy five or 10 items, we can ask if there is a discount
We know that if we use a credit card, the merchant/vendor is paying 16% tax at a minimum
We ask if there is a discount for cash
We want to buy local and direct from the artisan, so we don’t pay overhead
We want the price to be in pesos, not US dollars
We are careful because we are retired, on a fixed income, and while we love the art, we can’t usually afford it
Art is subjective, and the price is based on what the seller and buyer agree to
What do you think?
I’ve been thinking about bargaining in today’s Mexico consumer environment where class and race drives business and success. Is it institutional racism to bargain and drive a hard bargain with an indigenous person who has few resources, little or no education, and limited health care access?
Juana and her granddaughter, Luz Angelica. Her future?
Only each of us can answer this for ourselves. Are we willing to look at our own buying behavior and make adjustments? What is our personal view of cultural sensitivity?
I’m back in North Carolina for a while and I’m going through my 20+ year treasure collection. The pieces I’m offering for sale today are jewelry from the bygone years, an eclectic mix of “needed for professional life” or an “artistic point-of-view” that no longer fits my lifestyle. I’ll be listing an eclectic mix of pieces over the next weeks. Keep your eyes open! They are one-of-a-kind!
You get first choice before I list these on eBay and in my Etsy shop.
#1. SOLD.John Hardy Pearl, 18K Gold and 925 Silver Earrings. 14K gold posts. 6mm (approx) pearls set in 1/2″ diameter bezel, 1-1/2″ long, mesh silver ball topped with 18K gold crown. Bought at Saks 5th Avenue, 1990’s. Vintage. $165. plus shipping. No signs of wear.
#2. SOLD. Artisan-designed and hand-made sterling silver leaf and flower necklace 16″ long including clasp. Flowers have 14K gold centers. Bought at Smithsonian Crafts Show, Washington, D.C. $165. plus shipping.
#3. Contemporary Asheville, North Carolina jewelry artist Joanna Gollberg designed and made. I purchased these from her at the North Carolina Designer Crafts Show in 2003. Hand wrought sterling silver Ellipse (3a. left) and Stix (3b. right) earrings. $35. each pair. Plus shipping.
#4. I Don’t Remember Earrings. They are either platinum or white gold. Simple, functional. 5/8″ diameter. $85. plus shipping.
#5. Vintage Thailand Silver Fish Earrings, handmade. Bought in a Hill Tribe Village outside of Chang Mai, 1994. Old then. Fish dangles 1-1/2″ from hook eye. I have not polished these. $125. plus shipping.
#6. Abalone shell and silver triangle tiered earrings made by Chapel Hill, North Carolina, jewelry artist Rebecca Laughlin McNeigher. Shimmering abalone shell difficult to come by now. 2-1/2″ long. $95. plus shipping.
#7. Jade studs, approx. 5 to 6mm, with gold setting and post. $65. plus shipping.
#8. 14K Rose Gold ball earrings bought in Australia, 2002. 1″ long from curve of hook. Approx. 1/4″ dia. ball. $65. plus shipping.
#9. Rare spiny oyster pendant from South America with hand-made sterling silver setting/bale. 1-1/4″ long by 3/4″ wide at bottom. $65. plus shipping.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
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