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!
Kinship Stories, Yasmine Dabbous, Ph.D.
Weave a Real Peace (WARP)
Spiderwoman’s Children (Thrums)
Weaving for Justice, Christine Eber, Ph.D.
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 email@example.com 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.
Oaxaca WARP Conference Kicks-Off with Marta Turok Wallace Keynote Talk
Marta Turok Wallace is a noted applied cultural anthropologist whose specialty is Mexican textiles. A resident of Mexico City with roots in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, (her parents were ex-pats), Marta was invited by program chair Judy Newland to speak at the WARP (Weaving a Real Peace) textile conference held in Oaxaca, June 8-11, 2017.
WARP attendees gather in San Pablo Cultural Center, Oaxaca
More than 70 people attended the conference. They came from Mexico, the USA, Canada, Poland and Russia.
Applied cultural anthropologist Marta Turok Wallace
What Marta talks about concerns all of us who love indigenous textiles and appreciate the people — women and men — who make them. She asks questions, makes observations, offers solutions and consultation. Then she steps back and listens, suggests, guides. She affirms that weavers can create their own destiny, their own future for themselves, their families and their communities. And, that consumers can more fully appreciate the history behind the cloth.
WARP president Cindy Lair welcomes participants
Traditions are powerful in Mexico. Remote villages throughout Oaxaca continue to weave garments using distinctive iconographic designs particular to place. These weavings are rooted in centuries past, worn by grandparents and great-grandparents. There are garments for daily wear and special ceremonial occasions.
Clothing is cultural identity in Mexico. It signifies where you are from and your status in the community.
Teotitlan del Valle weaver Porfirio Gutierrez talks about history, culture
Yet, over time, clothing has changed (think cotton to synthetic threads, hand-spun to machine-spun) based on cost of raw materials, time to make, and influence of current fashion trends in the larger culture. This has an impact on style, design and quality. As villages interact with each other because of communication and ease of transportation, there is design-crossover, too.
What is “pure” or “authentic” is no longer relevant, perhaps. Change happens and it is impossible to keep people in a box doing what they have always been doing to satisfy collectors and appreciators of tradition. What we want to do is encourage innovation, collaboration, independence and economic success.
The inversion graph, an aging population of artisans, copyright M. Turok
Marta showed a slide explaining that there is a 50% loss of traditional artisans in Mexico. Artisans are aging out and so few of the next generation are stepping in to continue the work. She asks, Why is tradition dying out?
Is the acquisition of artesania being abandoned by the consumer? What is happening in the communities to impact this change? What is in need of revitalization? How do you prepare artisans to sell at fairs and expoventas? How do they show things, take orders, fulfill and ship? Are goods priced fairly for the amount of time put into making them? What are people willing to pay because something is made in Mexico? How do you commodify art, handmade?
Scholarship recipients present their work, philosophy of design
So, it’s not only about keeping the skill alive, it is about getting it out into the marketplace? Once something becomes commercialized, then does that erode its value and also compromise how an artisan is compensated?
As they say, It’s complicated!
Young women from Chenalho, Chiapas, represent their cooperative
And, if one changes the scale of motifs or introduces different color palettes to satisfy marketplace demands, or adapt a textile to another purpose (think going from sarapes/ponchos to rugs to handbags and purses), is this a compromise of traditions?
Important topics of discussion during the conference included appropriation of traditional design motifs by contemporary fashion designers, fair wages, using sustainable and native materials. “What is Fair Trade, really?” when there are no standard rules.
Speaker Eric Chavez Santiago will discuss commercialization
Marta notes that when something is handmade AND mass-produced, someone is not being paid very well.
Many of us want to meet the artisan, have a personal relationship and buy directly so that the money exchange benefits the maker 100%. That’s not always possible, so it’s important for us to read labels, and ask who made my clothes.
We also need to be sensitive and conscious to the myth that Mexican handmade items are cheap or that we can bargain just for the fun of it. Let’s be conscientious about the haggler mentality.
What we also notice is that most weavers are no longer creating cloth for themselves — they are weaving for the marketplace, no longer investing a year of labor to create an elaborate ceremonial huipil. They may dress in ready-made cotton or polyester purchased at Soriana or Walmart. Why?
SOLD: Hand-woven, embroidered ceremonial huipil, San Felipe Usila.
[Note: This “stained glass window” huipil, above, is from the Chinantla pueblo of San Felipe Usila, about 12 hours from Oaxaca up a mountain road. I know the makers. It is woven on a back-strap loom, then intricately embroidered in cross-stitch. A special piece. Size L-XL. $500 USD. Time to make: 8 months. Who wants it?]
To dress differently exposes one to racism and discrimination. We heard a story about a Oaxaca village where the mayor was so intent on assimilation, that he forbade any weaving of traditional garments. It took thirty years to rescue the tradition by encouraging a new generation of weavers to bring back their cultural identity.
During the conference, Andares del Arte Popular hosted a curated show and sale of artisans in an adjacent patio. Conference-goers could meet the makers and buy directly from them. It was a wonderful introduction to Oaxaca for WARP.
A conference of weavers, dyers, anthropologists, collectors, textile lovers
I was pleased to to work with WARP to produce this conference. I served as the on-site administrator and conference planner, participated on the program committee, contacted speakers, organized a panel discussion, arranged for hotel, meals, conference venue, transportation, and a one-day natural dye textile tour for all conference attendees. We went to villages to meet artisans and understand the complexity of the creative work of Oaxaca. On Sunday, 12 women accompanied me on an optional walking tour of Oaxaca with a focus on naturally dyed textiles. More about this in the next posts.
Posted in Clothing Design, Cultural Commentary, Travel & Tourism, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged anthropology, conference, culture, Marta Turok Wallace, Mexico, Oaxaca, textiles, WARP, Weave a Real Peace