Category Archives: Travel & Tourism

On the Oaxaca Coast, It’s About the Cloth, Not the Cut

On the Oaxaca Coast, it’s about the cloth, not the cut. Why? Because lengths of cloth meticulously woven on the back strap loom are never cut. They are squares and rectangles that are joined together at right angles to create a garment. The garment construction never has darts, either. Nor is it form-fitting. Plus, the finish work is all done by hand. Women who weave on the Oaxaca coast and elsewhere in Mexico believe the cloth is a reflection of their souls and has spiritual, mystical symbolism. A cut in the cloth is a travesty that would never be acceptable. In thinking about this, I recall it’s been about fifty years since I’ve seen a self-made button hole on any garment in the USA. I learned to make these in junior high school home economics, but it seems the skill may be lacking now or that fast fashion prevents this attention to detail. I don’t attend the Paris Couture shows, so don’t know if a multi-thousand dollar jacket even has button holes or how they are made!

Years back, for her thesis, the Mexico City designer Carla Fernandez wrote a book, now out of print, Taller Flora, in 2006. If you can find a used copy somewhere and you are interested in indigenous clothing construction and design, you might try to find this online, though the price will be hefty!

So, to go with us on the Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour is to go deeply into indigenous weaving and natural dyeing culture that includes how ancient garments, still made and used today, are made. I’m writing this because in Western fashion, we are so concerned with fit and the shape of our form. If something doesn’t fit right, we are inclined to be self-critical about our body shape rather than the inherent beauty of how it is made. Here, we can focus on the quality of the weaving, the meaningful designs incorporated in the cloth using a weaving technique call embordado or supplementary weft, and the drape of the cloth, rather than if it hugs our body (for good or bad!). This clothing frees us to focus on something else rather than body image.

Often, when people first look at a handwoven textile, they think the design embedded in the cloth is embroidered, a surface design technique of stitching on a piece of plain weave. Not so here! Cloth is woven on a loom that is warped with thread. Then, the weft, or horizontal threads are added row by row. This is a long process and it can take several months to make two, four or six wefts or lengths of cloth to construct a huipil, depending on the desired width of the finished piece. The designs integrated into the cloth are part of the weaving process. Individual threads are added, again row by row, to form a pattern that women keep in their heads. I think it is part of their DNA, something learned from mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. The cloth is their heritage.

2024 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour coming soon! Get on the list. Send an email.

Almost all these garments are cotton, though some can be made with wool. The Spaniards brought sheep to the Americas and native peoples loved the warmth the cloth provided. Before that, everything here was pre-Hispanic native cotton, which we find cultivated and used in villages along the Oaxaca coast foothills. Becoming more rare now is the coyuchi (native brown cotton the color of a coyote), green cotton (pale mint or military green), and creamy white cotton.

All of these must be grown, harvested, picked clean of seeds, beaten to separate and soften the fibers, hand-spun using the malacate (drop spindle), formed into balls, wrapped onto spindles, and then woven into cloth. Even before the weaving begins, this is a labor-intensive process. Often, the white cotton is dyed with natural materials: wild marigold, indigo, cochineal, tree bark, squash pulp, caracol purpura purple snails, leaves and seeds of various fruits and vegetables. The dye materials need to be collected and prepared in dye vats. It is alchemy and chemistry. Then, according to the choice of each artisan, the threads are dyed before weaving or the garment is dyed after it is completed.

As we plan for our 2024 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour, I write this to give you a sense of the importance of keeping this weaving culture viable. Very few indigenous women, except those in remote communities, continue to wear their distinctive clothing on a daily basis, instead saving them for fiestas and other special occasions. The garment they wove for their wedding will go to the grave with them. This is the reason very few vintage garments exist.

Appreciators and collectors of handmade textiles are doing much to revive interest and support the economy that gives women an opportunity to monetize their skills, encouraging them to continue the traditions. Most often, it is the women who are able to earn a cash income to supplement the work the men do as subsistence farmers. The men all grow the same food — corn, beans and squash — so there is no selling opportunity unless they take their produce to a regional market. It is the women who pay for the education and health care of their children, grandchildren, and aging parents. There is no social security in Mexico. Each family is responsible for taking care of their own.

We wrote a blog earlier this week about being a Oaxaca Fiberista. You might want to look at this for examples of garments, too.

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator : Norma Schafer

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator : Norma Schafer

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Day Tour: Ocotlan Highway, October 27, 2023

Get a head start on Day of the Dead and arrive a few days early to enjoy the rich artisan culture and history of our region’s villages. Each artisan we visit along the Ocotlan Highway will not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they will discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of 1521 and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

It’s Friday! Ocotlan Market Day. Here we will meander the aisles to explore the special foods, flowers and decorations needed for Day of the Dead home altars. This includes special breads, marigolds that help the deceased find their way back to their living families with the aroma, copal incense, sugar cane stalks, candles, hot chocolate and famous Oaxaca mole. Each has a meaning we will explain to you.

Our day together starts at 9:00 a.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m. We will pick you up at a central meeting place in the Historic Center of Oaxaca. We will notify you of the location two weeks before the tour.

As we go down the Ocotlan Highway, we stop to visit a famous black pottery maker in San Bartolo Coyotepec. She tells us that working with the clay brings her peace, offers her a voice as a woman, and keeps alive the heritage she is so proud of. Our master potter is also an important volunteer official in village administration, one of the first women in the region to serve in this capacity. After her household chores are completed, she takes refuge in her workshop to give life to mermaids, angels, birds and other creatures of her imagination. Barro negro (black clay) is a craft that was made Oaxaca famous by Doña Rosa, and the tradition continues today.

We continue on to explore the workshop and techniques of one of the best alebrijes makers in Oaxaca. Alebrijes are intricately carved copal wood anthropomorphic figures that are then highly decorated in detail with the finest brush strokes to evoke a sense of a living figure. The village of San Martin Tilcajete is best known for this type of work. After the studio visit, we make our way to ALMU restaurant out in the campo (countryside) where traditional cooks prepare lunch in the ancient style over wood-fired clay comales. You will sample mole negro the way it is made in the villages, an important offering during Day of the Dead during the family meal.

Then, we stop to explore the life-size clay figures of sculptor and Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art Don Jose Garcia and his family. The outdoor patio is filled with completed and works in progress and a walk-in wood-fired kiln to hold the gargantuan pieces. Don Jose is blind but feels his work with his hands. We have known him for over 15 years, before he was invited repeatedly to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Each family we visit will describe their traditional celebrations for Day of the Dead along with giving us a demonstration of their craft.

A visit down the Ocotlan Highway also necessitates a stop at the county administrative building that houses some amazing frescoes — murals painted by famous artist Rodolfo Morales. He restored the adjacent church and a museum is established next to it in honor of his contributions. In fact, the town was renamed Ocotlan de Morales to honor him. Ocotlan is known for woven baskets, leather work, and a hat maker who fashions sombreros out of beaver and rabbit fur.

Join us to learn about cultural customs around Day of the Dead as you prepare for your own celebrations in Oaxaca.

Registration

Tour cost is $138 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, and lunch. A $35 non-refundable deposit per person will reserve your space.

Final payment is due in cash (either dollars or equivalent pesos) on the day of the tour.

Deposits can be made with a Zelle transfer (no service fee), or with Venmo or PayPal (with a 3% service fee). Please tell us by email which payment method you prefer along with your intent to participate, how many people will be in your party, and we will send you a request for funds. We will confirm once we receive your deposit. Thank you.

Interlude: Road to Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas

This week is one of rest! Hahahaha! I scheduled myself for a calming week between our two Chiapas textile tours. In between, eating, sleeping, walking around and getting super-fixed with shiatsu massage from Kentaro, I asked our guide Gabriela if she would take me to the distant weaving village of Venustiano Carranza. I have never been there but I’ve admired their fine gauze weaving for many years.

Venustiano Carranza is a hill town perched atop a promontory looking out over a vast valley of sugar cane fields and traditional milpa (fields of corn, beans, squash). It’s hot here. Tropical. We travel from cold highlands to warm humidity. Around 10 a.m. it’s time to shed the long sleeves. We drop down from the cloud forest and pine trees. We pass thatched covered huts. Banana and coconut palms accent the landscape. Almost everyone can just pluck a ripe banana from a tree growing in their courtyard.

In front of us on the road are a convoy of trucks laden with cut cane on their way to the factory where the cane is cooked and crushed. It will be used to make pox (posh) the distilled cane and corn beverage preferred in this region or to turn into sugar crystals for export.

Many of the town’s streets are vertical and narrow and winding. It’s a Tzotzil speaking Maya community. It is also a good 2-1/2 to three hours from San Cristobal, so this is an all day outing. We left at 8 a.m. and didn’t return until 6:30 p.m. after a leg-stretch around the Chiapa de Corzo zocalo. Long day. Great finds.

The climate is why the fine, lightweight gauze weave is so popular here. Made on the back strap loom, most of the blouses and dresses are still using the traditional 4-selvedge edge, which means there is no cutting and no hem — sign of a superior textile that showcases weaving skills. I’m looking for white-on-white blouses though the traditional style for the village is white with red designs woven in the cloth. Featured prominently around the hem are figures of chickens and roosters.

While Venustiano Carranza is not on our tour, many of the finest examples of weaving from there are found in designer shops in the historic center of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Let us know if you want to come to Chiapas in 2023. We will add you to the interested list. Just send an email.

Stay tuned. I will be offering some of these goodies for sale soon.

Where is Zacoalpan, Guerrero? Find It on the Oaxaca Coast Textile Tour

The Costa Chica of Oaxaca actually includes the southern part of Guerrero state, stretching from Puerto Escondido north to Acapulco. We don’t go quite as far as Acapulco, but we go deep into Amuzgo territory. The Amuzgo ethnic group encompasses northern Oaxaca and southern Guerrero. As in many parts of the world, political boundaries have nothing to do with tribal affiliations. I have seen this in India, China, Chiapas and Guatemala, too.

Selection of beautiful huipiles

Some years ago, I discovered the weaving family of my friend Jesus Ignacio when Instagram was in its infancy. I saw through his photos that the workmanship was extraordinary and he was dedicated to reviving ancient patterns, many lost to common memory. I knew that our itinerary took us to Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero, and learned that Zacoalpan is a nearby sister village where back-strap loom weaving also has important traditions. I added this family to our tour.

2023 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour–Registration Open!

Supplementary weft technique yields dense design – 8 months of work

During our first visit a few years ago, Jesus showed us examples of textile fragments he was able to find and replicate. The family grows their own native, pre-Hispanic cotton on a small plot that he and his father tend. They grow coyuchi brown, soft green and creamy white. His mom, aunts and cousins process the cotton by hand, separating the fibers and taking out the seeds which they save for future planting. They roll a petate around dried corn leaves and beat the cotton on top with two hefty sticks to soften it. Then, they card and spin it using a malacate or drop-spindle. The cotton is then ready for the back-strap loom.

Raw native green cotton

I describe all this because the preparation is an integral part of the weaving process and takes a lot of time. To calculate he cost of a hand-made garment, we must factor in all the steps in the vertical production process — from growing to the final blusa or huipil.

Not only does the family use native cotton, they also use natural dyes: indigo, cochineal, wild marigold (pericone), nanche bark, zapote negro (a local fruit), and occasionally purple snail dye which they buy from Pinotepa de Don Luis across the Oaxaca-Guerrero border.

Native coyuchi brown and creamy white cotton

I want to share with you these words that Jesus wrote to me a few days ago. He doesn’t speak English, but he uses Google Translate. I’m copying what he wrote verbatim. When I read it, it makes me cry.

“Thank you friend Norma for visiting us. The Zacoalpan textile workshop teacher has been very talented, I have focused on helping her to spread her backstrap loom arts, even though I do not have compensation from the teachers, but my passion is to spread our ancestral knowledge. I feel so grateful for your visit in my humble home where we are struggling with stereotypes.

A study in humble— Jesús ‘ aunt

“I have always dreamed of going very far for the world to know our arts. I know our textiles are in danger of extinction, but I have not been able to make a lot of progress due to lack of support. The only support we have had is from your trip to our workshop. I have been a young dreamer, sometimes it makes me sad because I have not found a job in my profession, which is civil engineering. I have become very sad because our Mexico lacks employment. My dream is to become a better construction engineer but I have not been able to find work to practice my profession.

“My only dream is to have a house of my own and work. Sincerely, I am deeply grateful for your support in purchasing the art we make. I also have a dream that one day I will get to know your country, the USA, friend Norma. It is my only wish.

“I used Google translate.”

Jesús, Norma and his mom

Find Jesus on Instagram: @textil_zacoalpan

I’m sharing the contact because we don’t want them to have to wait another year for our visit to sell something! They ship internationally. Please support them. Our group was the only one to visit in the last two years. The work is finely made and exceptional. You must be able to do a wire transfer to his bank account. I use the App Remitly to send wire transfers to Mexico.

Ancient double-headed eagle design revived

Best of Oaxaca’s Biodiversity at Ejido Union Zapata: Day of Plenty

Oaxaca celebrates indigenous food and handmade at the annual Agro-biodiversity Fair in Ejido Union Zapata. This once a year event is building traction. The main street of several blocks, cordoned off for booths and foot traffic, was packed by noon. The natural food color was beyond belief.

Day of Plenty: native corn varieties with tortillas

Criollo, organic-natural tomatoes + More

Billed as a seed exchange, farmers came from as far away as Chiapas, the Coast of Oaxaca and the Mixteca Alta, the high mountain range that borders the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Weavers working in natural dyes and mask makers joined in. For sale were seeds, fruit, vegetables, flowers, tortillas and tamales.

Coconut from Oaxaca’s coast. Have you tasted coconut crackers?

Fitting for Thanksgiving Weekend, it was a day of plenty.

Amaranth seeds, protein-rich, makes sweet treat

There is a big and growing movement in politically active Oaxaca to conserve native food: chiles, tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash, coffee, chocolate, amaranth, jicama and more. There are so many different varieties of each.

Sierra Mixe handmade ceramics, utilitarian beauty

One of the leaders, Rafael Meir, was present along with government representatives of Oaxaca and Mexico. Leaders are becoming more conscious about the importance of keeping GMO contained to what has already infiltrated the commercial tortilla business. Yet, there is still much more to do.

Public education has so much to do with the success of programs like this one.

House made sesame crackers — yummy, or buy seeds and make your own.

Backstrap loomed textiles rom San Juan Colorado

I was so happy to see Yuridia Lorenzo and her mom, Alegoria Lorenzo Quiroz from the Colectivo Jini Nuu in San Juan Colorado. They were selling their beautiful blouses and dresses made with native coyuchi, white and green cotton and natural dyes. Participants in my Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour will visit them in mid-January.

Alegoria Lorenzo Quiroz and me.

If you missed it, I hope you will mark your calendar for next year. Although the dates may float, so I’m not sure exactly when it will be held. Check out these Facebook pages to keep track: Rafael Meir, who is director of Fundacion Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana. Watch a VIDEO of the fair. 

Zapotec words describe native food

Another benefit of attending is to taste and buy mezcal, Oaxaca’s organic, artisanal alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented agave.  I bought a bottle of sylvestre (wild) jabali mezcal grown and distilled in Teozacoalco in the Mixteca Alta  by Mezcalero Javier Cruz. Que Rico!

San Juan Colorado Katyi Yaa coop, native coyuchi cotton, natural dyes

I’m noticing that Oaxaca is becoming inundated with foodies and followers of What’s Hot on the food and beverage scene. We’ve got free walking tours led by guides holding colorful umbrellas and flags downtown who get paid with tips. We have USA restauranteurs coming for cooking classes to bring the cuisine home. Rent prices are escalating in the historic center. If one lives on the peso, everything is at a premium now. Those of us who live here always ask if the influx of tourist dollars trickles down to the pueblos, the makers, the field and kitchen workers.  What is your experience?

Corn, snake, cacao symbols on wool, back-strap loom

Back-strap loomed wool, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, corn, snake, cacao symbols. That’s why fairs like this one are so important — to buy direct from those who produce.  Slow food. Slow fashion. Slow mezcal. Saludos.

Know the Natural Richness of Mexico

Chiles, squash, Mexico’s gift