In my search to find another weaving group to visit near Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero, I stumbled upon 23-year-old Ignacio Gomez on Instagram. He is using the social media site to promote Textil_Zacoalpan. What stood out in the photos were the use of natural dyes and the native cotton — coyuchi brown, verde green, and the creamy white — that distinguish the pre-Hispanic fibers used to make the huipil.
I could tell these were quality pieces that deserved a stop and the attention of our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour group of very supportive women. We contacted him to set up a visit.
Ignacio is a university engineering student. He is passionate about keeping the traditions of his village and helping his family. The women in his family are the hand-spinners, dyers and weavers. The men work the fields to grow corn, beans and squash, and tend the native cotton plants.
Though Zacoalpan is just twenty minutes from Xochistlahuaca, it feels like a world apart, much more rustic and basic. The family speaks Amusgo. Because Ignacio also speaks Spanish, he can bridge the language gap and aim to bring visitors to the house.
We were the first group to visit the family where they live and work. It felt like a personal discovery.
You’ll notice that because Xochistlahuaca is the dominant village, the Zacoalpan women have adopted the traje (dress style) of their neighbors. The original village dress is woven entirely of coyuchi cotton.
As we learned more, we went back and forth between Amusgo, Spanish and English to get a fuller picture of the natural dyes they use, the designs and iconography that tell the story of life in the woven cloth, and how women take their best huipils with them to the grave.
Yes, throughout the Amusgo language and cultural group that spans the Oaxaca and Guerrero border, women are buried in the huipil they were married in. They also take their best ones, sometimes as many as 10 or 20, to the grave to travel with them to the next life.
Few examples of old, traditional huipiles exist for this reason. So, it is difficult to conserve the ancient patterns. Ignacio showed us scraps of fabric, frayed and faded, from the 1960’s and 1970’s, as examples of past designs that he found and the family is replicating.
Textiles deteriorate quickly in hot, humid climates. Preservation is almost impossible on the local level. I wondered, how could the 1960’s be considered old?
Ignacio’s display of dye stuffs included skeins dyed with almond leaf, nanche fruit tree bark, caoba, zapote negro fruit, and muitle, a wild, green leaf that will tinge white cotton a blue-green. Muitle, a Nahuatl word, is also found in the Oaxaca valley and used as a dye for wool rug yarn.
The huipiles are woven using a back-strap loom weaving technique called supplementary weft. On the bodice, around the collar, there is intricate cross-stitch embroidery, too, that is called punto de cruz in Spanish. The Colonials loved floral motifs and encouraged weavers from this region to make cloth abundant with flowers and needlework.
The iconography includes mountains, the zochipal flower, four-legged animals and sea life, corn plants and seeds, birds, pineapples, squash blossoms, fertility, and the four cardinal points. The result is unique to each maker. Every weaver has a personal story to tell.
This is a coastal, tropical climate, so the weaving is fine and gauzy, comfortable to wear. Usually, three wefts or widths of cloth are used for the huipil. They are sewn together using a triple-point stitch typical of Zacoalapan randas. The randa is needle lace, sometimes simple, sometimes intricate, that connects two pieces of cloth together. In ancient times, the spiny tip of the agave leaf was used as a needle.
It takes five kilos (about 11 pounds) of hand-spun cotton thread to make one long huipil.
Now, it is unusual to find a huipil woven with 100% coyuchi cotton since it is becoming very rare. The same for the algodon verde, the green cotton, that some locals also call coyuchi verde. There were several that Ignacio’s family offered for sale along with several blusas woven with the green cotton. We saw this cotton in other villages used only for embellishment on white.
It takes five-plus hours driving north from Puerto Escondido to reach Zacoalpan. Clearly, this is off-the-beaten path and a destination only for dedicated textile enthusiasts. I hope we will go again.
If you are interested in joining us for a January 2020 textile study tour to the Oaxaca Coast, please contact me. I will only offer this trip if there are six people committed to go by May 1, 2019 with a $500 deposit.