The Social Justice of Textiles

Many of us find comfort in the handmade. We know that most handwoven, embroidered, appliqued, and other ornamental elements of cloth are made by women, many of whom live in rural areas that struggle with poverty, lack of access to health care and limited educational facilities. We buy, collect, wear handmade not only for its innate beauty, but because we are supporting women and families. The social justice of textiles is cross-border and cross-politics.

Yet, political boundaries separate tribal groups and families, too. Think of the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, who were separated by the Usumacinta River post-Mexican Revolution. Think of the Pakistanis and their cousins who live in Gujarat, India, separated after the partition that created the Muslim and Hindu nations.

Textiles know no borders, grew in similar ways on different continents, using the same techniques, explains Yasmine Dabbous, PhD, an anthropologist who is based in Beirut, Lebanon. Founder of Kinship Stories, she delivered the keynote address at the Weave a Real Peace (WARP) Annual Conference that I attended via Zoom on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

Textiles are the human common denominator, creating connections and giving us the capacity to communicate beyond the politics of national borders. Textiles promote cross-cultural exchange and migration. Ancient trade routes expanded our capacity to understand and fuse differences. As human beings, we desire to create or appreciate creativity, and travel has given us the ability to blend different techniques and designs as creators and makers. Across the continents, peoples exchanged fabrics, culture, art, techniques and language.

Visually, we see the similarities of designs: the infinite circle of life, the Eye of God, the butterfly, mountains and rain, the life affirming force of the sun, the power of lightening, the duality of light and dark or man and woman. Common threads point to common interests, dreams, fears and needs. We seek meaning in textiles that share these common motifs even though there was no physical connection between makers from disparate parts of the world.

The symbols of cloth point to fertility and childbirth, abundance, protection, universal hope. The Evil Eye represents fear of the unknown expressed in the embroidered mirrors of India, glass beads of Egypt, amulets in Southeast Asia.

The Social Justice of Textiles now points us to what we value and what we need to pay attention to: handmade beauty of slow fiber or mass produced fast-fashion that results in pollution, cheap prices, subsistance labor in abusive factories. Disposable clothing in a disposable society represents, I believe, deep dissatisfaction that yields multiple marriages, self-indulgences and self-destruction.

Fabric has a lot to teach us. Whether it is embroidery, knitting, sewing, weaving, piecing, dyeing, designing, these are art forms practiced by both women and men. It is a way for individuals and communities to rise out of poverty, to overcome war and refugee experiences. For the individual, the meaningful act of creating can eliminate sadness and depression, is empowering and healing, may resolve conflict, and overcome the ravages of lingering colonialism.

When we purchase clothing to wear, we have a conscious choice to make. Will we invest a bit more to buy something that is created by hand that will directly improve the lives of the makers? Will we choose a low-cost, factory-made garment that will serve us in the short-term? Either way, it is important to be aware of our own reasons and motivations, as well as our own willingness to understand ourselves, others and the world we inhabit.

There are no intellectual property protections for indigenous makers in the international court of law. IP laws cover individuals, not cooperatives or communities. We must also be aware of “knock-offs,” what textile leaders are calling cultural appropriation or cultural plagiarism. This is rampant in the design world, where native symbols of meaning and spirituality are replicated only for the purposes of commercialization and profitability, made by invisible labor hired by factory owners who work under the most oppressive conditions. We call these sweatshops and they follow the international labor market, moving to countries where manufacturing is the most profitable, taking advantage of the lowest hourly wages with no benefits.

One way we can all reassure the continuity of native cultures and fair-market value is to buy directly from artisan makers, and when this is not possible, to purchase directly from representatives who understand and support their endeavors. Please help spread the word!

Some Resources:

Kinship Stories, Yasmine Dabbous, Ph.D.

Weave a Real Peace (WARP)

Spiderwoman’s Children (Thrums)

Weaving for Justice, Christine Eber, Ph.D.

Fashion Revolution

Local Cloth

I am offering textiles and jewelry for sale in my Etsy Store. I support artisan makers. If you are interested in making a purchase, please see the Etsy Store, then send me an email When you buy direct from me, I will offer you a 10% discount and a $12 flat rate mailing fee. You may purchase with Zelle, Venmo or PayPal. Thank you very much.

New Treasures in My Etsy Store

It’s a laid-back world here in Taos, New Mexico. The dress of choice is either blue jeans and a T-shirt or hiking pants with elastic cuffs to keep out the noseeums. I’ve adapted my dress to put a Oaxaca or Chiapas blouse or huipil over pants to be able to wear some of the textile treasures I have brought with me into this new life. I’m trying to balance the vibe between Woo-Woo and Shi-Shi. Santa Fe is a mere 60 miles away, but it’s a different world, where visitors and those with second homes wear layers of Navajo and Kewa jewelry.

Last week, I went to an opening at the Millicent Rogers Museum. Most of the women were casually dressed (more or less), but adorned in magnificent Squash Blossom Necklaces, laden with turquoise and silver. This level of jewelry is not in my wheelhouse. However, I managed to fit in (somewhat) with my hiking pants and boots, topped with a naturally-dyed gauze Oaxaca huipil from Khadi Oaxaca. The task at hand for me now is to continue to downsize and edit my collection. Living in the land of hiking trails has its benefits, but also demonstrates that the social life is pretty low-key.

So, I’ve listed some treasures on my Etsy Store.

If you are interested in any pieces, you can either contact me directly to buy from me direct or you can purchase on Etsy. If you contact and buy direct from me, I will offer you a 10% discount. Just describe the piece you want. No discount with direct purchase from Etsy. I will send you an invoice and you can pay with Zelle, Venmo or PayPal. It will include $12 mailing cost. Thanks very much, Norma

WARP Textile Conference Free and Online

Annual Meeting/Conference is June 18-20, 2021

Weave a Real Peace (WARP) is an international textile networking organization made up of weavers, academics, and interested supporters. Their mission is to exchange information, raise awareness of the importance of textile traditions to grassroots economies, mobilize textile enthusiasts, and create conversations that result in action.

I’ve been a member for several years, and helped the organizers produce their very successful 2017 Annual Meeting in Oaxaca, Mexico.

This year because of Covid, the annual meeting will be held virtually via Zoom. It is FREE and open to the public. All you need to do is register in advance. I’ll be there and hope you will join me!

Click Here to Register for Unraveling Borders, Weaving Networks and to see the full program.

Kudos are in order: My godson Omar Chavez Santiago from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, was just named an Alice Brown Memorial Scholarship recipient by WARP. It is a two-year honor. Omar will attend this virtual conference and the next one in 2022, which will hopefully be in person! Omar is a fourth generation weaver and works only with natural dyes. He is part of the Fe y Lola Rugs gallery and an accomplished textile designer who incorporates contemporary elements with traditional tapestry weaving techniques.

Oaxaca Hand-embroidered Shoulder Bags SOLD OUT

SOLD OUT. I will reorder these. Thanks so much!

I love this bag style. I’ve been using one like these for walks, hikes, and just everyday wear for the last year-and-a-half. It’s functional and versatile and colorful and cheerful. Just about everything fits — a coin purse, credit cards, lipstick, pen and notebook, hand sanitizer and alcohol spray, lipstick and moisturizer, kleenex, and even pepper spray — just in case!

So, before I moved from Durham to Taos, I designed and commissioned my Teotitlan del Valle friend and sewist/embroiderer Rosario to make 10 bags that Janet brought with her from Oaxaca. They got packed away for the move and now, I’ve unearthed them and they are for sale here.

Each bag is durable and one-of-a-kind. They are cotton, lined, have an inside pocked, a zipper closure, a 41″ cross-body shoulder strap. They can be washed inside-out in the washing machine on gentle cycle. Each bag body is approximately 9″x 9-1/4″ in size. Priced at $45 each. Buy 2 for $80.

Remember, these are hand-made and there may be slight imperfections. All sales are final. No exchanges or refunds.

How to Buy:  Please email me with your name, mailing address and item number. Tell me if you want to purchase with PayPal, Venmo, Zelle or Square. I will mark your choice(s) SOLD, send you a payment link and add $12 for cost of mailing.

Memorial Day Tribute

My goddaughter from Oaxaca, Janet Chavez Santiago, asked me, How do you celebrate Memorial Day? Well, I answered, now if we have been vaccinated, we have barbecues and drink beer in the backyard with family and friends. Some of us raise the flag and think about freedom. Maybe we play music or basketball or croquet. Perhaps we take a ride in the country or shop for online sales. It’s a three-day weekend, the beginning of summer. We are supposed to be having fun.

And, then I thought about it more. This is a tribute to Veterans, the people like my dad who was conscripted in 1943 and sent off to war in the Pacific Theatre. He was a medic because he was a biology major in college, an Ohio State University 1936 graduate who knew about cultures, petri dishes, and looking at specimens sliced and displayed on glass to evaluate under a microscope. But, that didn’t prevent him from being in the line of fire.

He never talked about it — how his ship was torpedoed and sank at Guadalcanal. How he floated in the dark, fathomless sea until rescue came. How he contracted malaria, had night sweats and nightmares his entire life. How this was a phenomenon that was then called shell shock or battle fatigue or combat fatigue. It was thought then that if the symptoms lasted longer than six months, it had nothing to do with war, but was a deep-seated psychological issue within the individual. As a society, after the Vietnam War, we came to know this more holistically as PTSD –– a lifelong nervous system response to extreme trauma.

Our dad never fully recovered from his war experience and he managed, despite lack of support from the Veteran’s Administration and a wife who was weary from his angst, to survive, father three accomplished children, teach high school history and ceramics, and live until the age of eighty-three.

During the Vietnam War, our family became anti-war activists. It was a moment in history of right-wrong. They were wrong. We were right. Our neighbors were building bomb shelters down the surburban San Fernando Valley, California, street where we lived. Our mother explored migrating to Australia. We took to protesting and joined Another Mother for Peace. Our dad led the way. He knew what war did to people.

Back then, I had disdain for those who didn’t get deferments in what we blamed as Lyndon Johnson’s War. I didn’t fully understand how conscription swept up Brown and Black people who lacked the resources to avoid service, or who sought military service as a way out of poverty and a path to developing a marketable skill. Many in the general population hailed Our Country, Right or Wrong, a justification. I didn’t fully understand how those returning from combat in 1972 with PTSD needed our full support and resources to make them well again. It was a moment of upheaval, confusion and despair. Since then, we have sent our young men and women to Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, to Africa and the Middle East. There is always justification, which is weighed against cost of human life.

In the intervening years, I have come to honor the service of the individual who is sent by government to uphold the ideals of democratic principles. Often, this goes awry as principles get tangled up with economic priorities — access to oil, gas, trade, low-wage manufacturing, maintaining political balance of power.

I go back to our Dad, who went to war to protect us from the annihilating clutches of Nazi expansion and the insidiousness of Adolf Hitler. Most in our European family perished in the Holocaust. Since then, there have been many Holocausts: Cambodia, Sudan, Guatemala, not to mention the holocausts perpetrated agains indigenous peoples here and around the world.

It is nothing short of a miracle that our Dad survived to give us life. Today, I remember him, pay tribute to his sacrifice and tip my hat to all the Veteran’s who deserve our thanks for risking and giving their lives. I set them apart from the often misaligned political goals, ambitions and policies of nationhood.

As a footnote: I have been in Taos, NM, for two weeks. I’m settling in, embracing the landscape. At times, I wonder about the wisdom of my choice to leave North Carolina at the age of 75 and embark on another new adventure. I am the wanderer in my family. Then, I look at the mountains, the vastness of the sky, the austerity of sagebrush, the ancient culture surrounding me, the similarities between Mexico and Nuevo Mexico, and I reach a place of contentment and peace.

Have a great Memorial Day and remember those in your family who gave of themselves so that we could live.