Tag Archives: weaving

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.

 

Rebozo Weaving Technology in Mexico: How to Make an Ikat Shawl

On our textile study tour to Tenancingo de Degollado, Estado de Mexico (State of Mexico) we met ikat rebozo weavers, called reboceros, who use up to 6,400 cotton warp threads on a back strap loom.

Evaristo Borboa, grand master of Mexican folk art, weaves on a back strap loom

About 3,000 to 5,000 cotton warp threads are used on the fixed frame pedal floor loom.

Rebozo weaver Gabriel Perez at his floor loom

The technology is simple. The fabric created is complex.

The floor loom is faster.  Weavers can produce a rebozo in about a week using this loom. It takes three months or more to make a rebozo on the back strap loom.

Weaver Jesus Zarate defies imagination with his ikat butterfly design

Because fewer warp threads are used on the floor loom, the cotton threads can be thicker and the finished cloth might be coarser.

A weaver’s took kit

As you might imagine, the cost for a rebozo made on a back strap loom is much more than one woven on a pedal loom. Except for the rebozos woven by Jesus Zarate! What do rebozos cost? From 400 to 16,000 pesos.

Bits and pieces of supplies that might be needed for dyeing

Would you work six months to earn $800 USD?

The pattern can be more blurred and not as detailed as those created on the back strap loom. Except for the rebozos woven by Jesus Zarate!

Fermin Escobar marks stiff bundles of thread with ink to make a pattern

There are fourteen different steps required to make an ikat rebozo. The most difficult and time-consuming part is the preparation of the threads before they are dressed on the loom.

Threads are soaked in starch to dry and stiffen before marking.

Ikat pattern markers are coated with ink, rolled along stiffened cords.

The weavers we met all repeated that the actual weaving is the simplest part of the process.

Weavers throw hardwood bobbins between the warp sheds to make the weft

Dipping the yarn into the starch to stiffen it

A better view of the pattern marked on the stiff cotton cords

Separating the cords so they dry evenly

Each mark must be hand tied to create the dye resist

Once the cords are marked in ink with the pattern, each mark is hand tied. The cloth will then be dipped in the dye bath. It is then washed and dried. The knots are cut and the pattern emerges on the warp thread, ready to be threaded on the loom.

Mexicans innovate and cobble together materials to keep things running

For rebozos with multiple colors, they can be hand-dipped in the dye pot or the part that is already colored will be tied off so it does not absorb the new color.

Over 4,000 warp threads pass through the hettles of these looms

The loom might be considered low technology, but it is a complex system for making cloth. Today, industrial cloth is made totally by machine. We are interested in the hand-made process.

Bobbin making system — a bicycle wheel

Making ikat for a rebozo on the pedal loom

One of Evaristo’s beautiful blue ikat shawls in blue, finely detailed

The enpuntadora hand ties each knot to create fringe, the finishing touch

Knotting the rebozo can take equally as long as weaving it — three months or more, depending on intricacy. We know one enpuntadora who takes a year to tie a complex fringe.

The fringe must equal or exceed the beauty of the shawl

India Journal: Textiles and My Family in Delhi

This is a tribute to family, dispersal and reconnection.

It was a remarkable afternoon at my cousin Sharon Lowen‘s apartment in New Delhi, India. The city has been her home for the last 43 years. My 99-1/2 year-old Aunt Ethel lives with her youngest daughter Sharon who is her primary caregiver. It was a remarkable feeling of reconnection, as if I was seeing my mother alive once more. In my cousin’s face I recognize my mother, sister, uncles.

Sharon Lowen shows incredible brocade sari with gold threads

Sharon went to India 43 years ago on a Fulbright scholarship to do post-graduate study. She fell in love with the culture and the people, settled in, became a renowned performer of Odissi classical dance, and teacher at the American Embassy School.

Cousin Sharon with her mom and my aunt Ethel, with photo of my mom Dorothy

I’ve only seen Sharon a few times over the years. She came to a Smithsonian Institution program while I was living in Washington, D.C., and later we visited in North Carolina when she participated in the American Dance Festival.

Our mom, Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, 2/14/16-11/15/15

One key reason I spent a week in Delhi was to reconnect with them and I intended to make at least two visits during this time. But extreme jet lag and the onset of a head cold (perhaps a reaction to dust and pollution), altered the plan.

Family portrait on Sharon’s wall: our mothers, uncle and grandparents

I didn’t want to infect my aunt, who is becoming more frail as she approaches a century of life, so I cancelled our second visit.

My mom was the oldest of four children and my aunt was born fourteen months later. Their Eastern European immigrant parents worked hard to raise their family in a small Pennsylvania town not far from the Ohio border. My tailor grandfather sewed suits, dresses and fur coats. Our family has a love of cloth, fine stitches and those who create them.

Sharon shows fine Rabari Toran.

Spending the afternoon with family was emotionally satisfying on many levels. Our experiences are different, yet we share genetic code. Life is a mystery and disperses us, brings us together for a moment, sends us on our way again.

Sharon treated me to a preview of her Indian textile collection, many vintage pieces amassed over the last forty years: embroideries, double ikat, weaving, gold brocades and tribal mirror work. Most were gifts presented at dance performances she gave traveling throughout India and the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

India Journal: Fill in the Blanks, Stencil Art

Remember when you were a child and got a set of crayons and coloring book? The book was printed with figures and designs. It was your job fill in the color between the lines.

Stenciled design on cloth gives embroiderer stitch guide

Be careful, a parent or teacher would say. Be neat. Don’t go outside the lines. There were no blank pages on which to scribble or be creative. You got a gold star for staying inside the lines, filling in all the shapes.

Young Ahir woman honing her craft

Soon, you may have been bored and gone on to do something else. Perhaps the color intensity lessened as you hastily went on to the next page. Maybe, you went outside the lines on purpose to make your own mark.

Working on a pre-printed pattern. Is there freedom for color choice?

Yesterday we went to visit India textile expert Judy Frater at the NGO she runs in Adipur, about an hour east of Bhuj near the Gulf of Kutch and the Arabian Sea. Before starting Somaiya Kala Vidya in 2014, Judy was the founding director of Kala Raksha, another NGO dedicated to textile promotion and development.

New Ahir embroidery that will become pillow or handbag

Today she works with indigenous artisans to provide education and training programs designed for cultural sustainability, market development, and indigenous identity.

Ahir women in embroidery circle, all working on stenciled patterns

With Judy during my visit and with Salim Wazir the following day, I talked about the questions we discuss in Mexico that India shares. I suspect that these are pressing questions among artisans throughout the world.

Old embroidered Ahir textile with fine detail

  1. How do you create a sustainable craft enterprise without compromising an artisan’s innate creativity and urge for innovation?
  2. When a designer comes in to work with local artisans, employing his or her own drawings and hires the local artisan to execute them, how does this have an impact on craft preservation and design ownership?
  3. If NGO’s create cooperatives that then produce cookie cutter patterns printed on cloth that the embroiderers then fills in with silk threads in pre-selected colors, is this craft development or exploitation?
  4. If something is produced for the tourist market and not for personal or community use, what impact will this have for design sustainability?
  5. What compromises can be made to make sure that people work for fair wages, without being piece workers doing routine jobs for work they don’t own?
  6. Is paid work the only important consideration or does originality and integrity of communal design hold more value?
  7. How will textile craft survive and who will decide its future?

Workshop participant making panel for tourist market

What other questions would you ask?

How would you answer these questions? I’m interested in hearing from you!

Old mirrored embroidery on silk bandhani, imperfectly beautiful

Mexico and India are both sources for great textile artistry.  Weavers in Mexico have made cloth on back strap, flying shuttle and pedal looms for centuries and longer. In India, artisans have been weaving cloth, dyeing it with natural colors and embellishing it with embroidery since Mughal conquerors and spice trade adventurers moved from central Asia and the Levant.

She is beginning to fill in the blanks.

As tourist preferences drive the crafts market, most non-governmental agencies direct people to make things that will sell. Production uniformity is important to outside markets as collectors demand high-quality, perfect workmanship, and sophisticated design (in their point-of-view).

Whimsical embroidered blouse belonging to Wandh herding community

The whimsy of asymmetry and uneven stitches seems to be losing ground in the commercial marketplace. Only foreigners are interested in tribal textiles.

Rabari women in another workshop also follow a designer provided pattern.

If a boutique owner or retail client orders 100 handbags, he or she may expect that while color may vary, design will be consistent.  If there is deviation or variation, something may not sell and then the risk is that the worker and the organization will no longer receive orders and then go out of business.

Contemporary Rabari needlework

What price will be paid for quality consistency and uniformity? Will the naive, free-form folk art design produced for self-use disappear in favor of making something more polished that will then be sold at a higher price to foreigners?

Vintage Rabari embroidery trim on bandhani tie-dyed shawl

What about making goods for the local market vs. the foreign market? I was told repeatedly that woven goods are now being made with acrylic because it is cheaper to produce and that is what local people will buy.

Whimsical Toran in Ahir village community center

What is the cost and the loss for using cheaper raw materials and industrial mechanization?

I’d love what she’s wearing!

It is difficult to find artisans in India, as well as in Mexico, who are still working in natural dyes because the process is longer and the investment in raw materials is much higher.

Rabari embroidered storage bag, 40 years old

The tourist season in Gujarat, India is about four months long, from November through February, about the same as in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s the dry season, easier to travel. Yet, this is the hottest December that people in Bhuj can remember. There is no global warming, right?

Sheep wool, hand-woven skirt trimmed in embroidery, pure Rabari

And, this year, because of India’s demonitization crisis and no access to cash currency, about 60-70% of international tours cancelled.  This region that depends on tourism is being hard hit. Sound familiar to those of you who visit or live in Mexico?

Rabari woman working on dress trim to be sold in a boutique somewhere

I’ve heard stories about embroidery designs from one tribal group that are co-opted and used by another because it is more popular. I have heard about a village that weaves a piece of cloth which is sent to another village for embroidery embellishment. Neither is credited with for the work.

Rabari women’s hands make quick work; tattoos and cloth, key symbols of identity.

Since cloth is about identity, does this practice contribute to loss of cultural identity? Who is responsible for this loss? How do we put value on what is made by hand? Are we willing to compensate or are we looking for a bargain, at whatever the cost to the maker?

Tools of the trade: cotton or rayon floss, needles, mirrors

I’m writing this blog post from the airport in Seoul, South Korea. It’s 10:50 a.m., December 14 here. I will be back in California, USA by 8:30 a.m. December 14. Go figure! The international news is daunting, and the prospects of a new presidency are depressing as cabinet appointees are named. I’m still apologizing, especially to the terrific Muslim people I have met along this Path to and from India.

Old block print, made with madder root, backs vintage textile.

 

 

India Journal: Tribal Textiles in Bhuj, Gujarat

Finally, I have landed in Bhuj, Gujarat, after hectic days in Ahmedabad followed by three nights at a secluded safari camp, Rann Riders, in the wilds of the Little Rann. This borders the town of Dasada where marsh and salt desert are home to rare wild ass and migratory birds. Internet connection impossible.

Tribal Rabari Toran hangs over door, marks sacred space.

Tribal Rabari Toran hangs over door, marks sacred space.

I have a lot of catch up to do between then and now. For the moment, I’m highlighting some tribal textiles of western India in the state of Gujarat, where I’ve been for the last six days. It’s hot here, over 92 degrees Fahrenheit, with dust clouds everywhere.

Working the pit loom in Bhujodi, a seated flying shuttle version like Oaxaca.

Working the pit loom in Bhujodi, a seated flying shuttle version like Oaxaca.

This area is known as The Kutch (Kuh-ch) and borders Pakistan on the west. The area is populated by nomadic and semi-nomadic herding people who came from Saudi Arabia, the Sindh, and Mongolia. They came with camels, donkeys, sheep, goats and cattle. Some continue their nomadic lifestyle, moving camp each season in search of grazing lands.

Seated Muslim woman, tribal Wandh group

Seated Muslim woman, tribal Maldharis group, the Banni, Kutch

The ethnic mix includes Hindus, Parsi, Ismailis, Muslims and Jews. It is a region of rich religious, cultural and social diversity, and a long tradition of wool and cotton-weaving, fine embroidery, natural dye work and tie-dye. Most women, Muslim or Hindu, wear the bandhani tie-dye head scarf upon marriage, in the language of textiles.

Hand-painted dowry chests, Wandh village

Hand-painted dowry chests, Maldharis village

Many of the artisans and crafts people I’ve met this week have made their mark and participate at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Several, like Jabbar Khatri, attended the 2016 International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca.

Women's ceremonial marriage mask, Wandh community, Bhuj

Women’s ceremonial marriage mask, Maldharis community, Bhuj

Most are friends of Australian Carole Douglas, who has brought small groups of travelers to the region for the last 17 years. Carole recommended that I connect with Kutch Expeditions guide and vintage textile dealer Salim Wazir, who took us to the White Salt Desert known as the Great Rann of Kutch.

A prized cow with Wandh herders, Bhuj, Gujarat

A prized cow with Maldhari herders, Bhuj, Gujarat

To get there, we passed tribal villages of Rabari, Ahir and Jat peoples, stopping along the way to visit a few of the more accomplished artisans. Their embroidery and weaving is distinctive and can be identified by group and sub-group.

Fine vintage textile embroidery example from Salim Wazir

Fine vintage textile embroidery example from Salim Wazir

In the small Maldhari settlement, a group of 43 Muslims live in mud huts with thatched roofs. The men tend cattle and sheep, and collect honey and gum arabic. The women cook, sew and embroider in the Mukko style using metallic threads.

Village elder tells us about her dreams for her family

Wandh village elder tells us about dreams for her grandchildren

Salim explains that the group has lived in this area for over 350 years, migrating from the Sindh, now Pakistan. They prefer mashru cloth, as do all tribal Muslims because the warp is cotton.

Man's beaded ceremonial marriage mask, in mock demonstration.

Man’s beaded ceremonial marriage mask, in mock demonstration.

According to Muslim tradition, they are not allowed to wear silk next to their bodies and mashru is a way to have the luxury without violating the law. (We met a mashru weaver in Buhjodi just a couple of days before, one of the remaining few who make cloth in this tradition.)

Bhujodi mashru weaver Babu Bhai, on flying shuttle pit loom

Bhujodi mashru weaver Babu Bhai, on flying shuttle pit loom

The raised platform floor of the village where the Bungha round houses are situated is hard packed mud, like adobe, soft to walk on barefoot and easy to clean with a broom. The area can flood during monsoon season, becoming a muddy mess, and the tribe then seeks higher ground.

Wandh village round huts. Each serves a family unit.

Maldhari village round huts. Each serves a family unit.

There is nothing for sale here except the exchange of a visit and hospitality. It is a refreshing stop along a tourist route to the Great Rann that is becoming commoditized with synthetics and crudely embroidered or beaded trinkets.

Door latch, secured by a keyed lock

Door latch, secured by a keyed lock

I asked the elders what they dreamed of for their children and grandchildren. A better education, they replied. I am as old as you are, another said to me, and I have not seen the world as you have. They want their children to know what goes on in the world.

Traffic jam on the way to the Great Rann of Kutch

Traffic jam on the way to the Great Rann of Kutch

There is no school here and opportunity is limited. They want the government to build them a school, but there are not enough children to populate it. If there is a health care emergency, they travel 45 minutes by bus or auto rickshaw to Bhuj for services. We have no future, they say, but we must be happy with what we have.

A visit to embroiderer Sofiya Mutwa, Dhordo, The Banni, Kutch

A visit to finest embroiderer Sofiya Mutwa, Dhordo, The Kutch, Gujarat

I ask what I can do to help. Salim and I discuss the downsides of giving money, which corrupts values. He suggests a length of hand-spun cotton that they can use for their embroidery work. They can only afford to buy synthetics and this would be a valued gift. It’s on my shopping list and I will give the fabric to him before I leave to present to the village women.

Sofiya Mutwa demonstrates tiny stitches to secure tiny mirrors to cloth.

Sofiya Mutwa demonstrates tiny stitches to secure tiny mirrors to cloth.

My experience in India is mixed. I have only met open, warm, helpful and friendly people of all faiths and backgrounds. The interaction with them has shaped my experience. Talented NGO representatives work here to support the weaving and needlework talents of many, to keep the traditions alive. I’m grateful for their dedication and energy.

Example of Wandh embroidery work

Example of Maldhari embroidery work, now embellished with commercial bric-a-brac

Yet, there is dust everywhere. Cattle roam the streets and graze on roadside garbage. Tent cities are filled with the impoverished. The crush of cars, auto-rickshaws and the sound of horns honking is a way of life. Intense. Loud. Persistent.

Henna painted hands will wash off. Tatoos on Rabari women are permanent.

Henna painted hands will wash off. Tatoos on Rabari women are permanent.

The food is wonderful and I’m going to bring Indian cooking into my repertoire. I’ve decided to end my visit early and return to the USA five days sooner than planned, to rest, reflect and write more about this experience.

My travel companion, Fay Sims, models heavily embroidered apron.

My travel companion, Fay Sims, models heavily embroidered apron.

I want to end this journey in Bhuj, and not in the big city of Mumbai, so that being in textile heaven will be the last of my India memories.

Typical village scene, India

Typical village scene, Gujarat, India

And, of course, I’m in search of a second piece of luggage to carry all these textiles home.

Sofiya Mutwa embroiders small sampler to become pillow cover

Sofiya Mutwa embroiders small sampler to become pillow cover

Where to Stay:  Bhuj House B&B or Hotel Prince, Bhuj, Gujarat, India

How to Get Here:  Fly from Mumbai to Bhuj on Air India or Jet Airways, less than $100 USD one-way. Travel from Ahmedabad overland by private car/driver on 8 hour journey at cost of 6,000 rupees or about $100 USD one-way.