In March 2022, I had the good fortune to meet the weavers of the Maya cooperative Tsobol Antsetik (Women United) where they live and work in the township of Chixilton, Chenalho, Chiapas, on International Women’s Day. The group was formed over two decades ago and has 25 members. They use the back strap loom to weave for personal use and to sell, when they can. This is so important because without this work to sustain their life on ancestral lands, they would be forced to migrate to other parts of Mexico or the USA for employment. Besides weaving, they help husbands and sons to grow corn and beans and coffee.
I went through the auspices of Weaving for Justice, a Las Cruces, New Mexico not-for-profit founded by Christine Eber, Ph.D., an anthropologist who teaches at New Mexico State University. This is an organization that knows no boundaries. Members are from throughout the USA, Canada and worldwide. Flora Graham and Sheryl Williams, both members, who were participants on our Chiapas Textile Tour, arranged the visit.
To get there is easy … and not. Chenalho is a mountain town about an hour from the hustle bustle of San Cristobal del las Casas. We find the designated colectivo taxi garage on a commercial street beyond Santo Domingo Church, deep in the indigenous market that encompasses many city blocks. The streets are packed with tianguis, the temporary tents where informal vendors sell fruit, vegetables, housewares, brassieres, infant clothing, and occasional handcrafts. After paying the fare of 200 pesos for five of us, we make out way out of the valley and up the winding road.
Curves and switchbacks take us through terraced fields where spring corn has not yet been planted. on one side of the road, fern-filled rock walls send forth rivulets of water cascading down the hill. On the other side, a sheer drop off gives us views of lush green fields where giant round winter squash are ready for harvest. Sheep, goats and cows graze. Bromeliads cling to tree branches. A curl of smoke in the distance is either from a field being cleared (slash and burn agriculture) or a cooking fire. Humble wood dwellings dot the landscape. As we get closer to town, we begin to see women wearing their traje (indigenous garments) as they sweep porches or tend to children and livestock. A lonely painted wood road sign offers gasoline for sale at the neighborhood convenience store around the bend.
I’ve always admired the back-strap loomed striped cotton cloth of Chenalho, typically embroidered or woven using the supplementary weft technique on the bodice with symbols central to life on the highlands, central to dreams and mythologies: stars, a crescent moon, corn stalks, field furrows, strawberries, turtles, butterflies, hearts, spiders, grapes, dog paws, the heads of caterpillars and fish bones. A design called five spines is most emblematic of the village.
Years ago, during my first visit to Chiapas, I found this incredible weaving and embroidery in the artisan market in front of Santo Domingo Church. Today, there are few pieces to be found. It’s been a dream to go to the village, but I never managed it until March 2022. Here, I found a creative, dedicated and energetic group of women of all ages, dedicated to preserving their textile traditions.
Christine Eber writes, “Since the 1990’s, young women have been inventing new designs that include animals, insects, plants and fruits. They embroider these designs on their blouses and some put them on their skirts.” As time progressed, more shiny, synthetic threads were incorporated into the embroidery in addition to cotton. As these threads became more available, there was a move away from using wool which produced a bulky embroidery that wasn’t as fine.
We are adding a visit to Chenalho on our 2023 Chiapas Textile Tour. There are four spaces open. Come with us for a textile adventure of a lifetime!
Our tours are always off-the-beaten path, exploring the best textiles, meeting with makers.
Weaving for Justice provides support through Sophie’s Circle, the 501(C)3 that accepts tax-deductible donations and offers books and clothing for sale to support the women and their families.
Our tours are aligned with Weaving for Justice values: We ensure that producers receive fair prices and their values, goals and needs guide the fair trade process. We never bargain. It takes hours and months to make these garments. We support providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged. By bringing visitors to remote villages, we offer opportunities for creativity and individual recognition. We support providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context. We respect cultural traditions, do not judge another way of life nor compare it to our own. We value reciprocity and respect. We have been bringing groups of textile lovers to Chiapas for many years and we are committed to building long-term relationships, to autonomy and human rights.
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.
Eric Chavez Santiago and I are back at the Oaxaca Lending Library for a repeat presentation of Stories in Cloth: Oaxaca Textile Narratives on Monday, February 7, 2022, at 5 p.m. The first one we did in January was sold out and this one is, too. However, if you want to come early to see if you can get in at the last minute if there are no shows (as there often are), we invite you to do that.
The presentation goes until about 6 p.m. Then, our weaving friends will show and sell their work. They represent the most outstanding and famous weaving family of this southern Oaxaca coast village where the finest gauze weaving can be found in the entire state of Oaxaca. Bring your credit card or cash for purchases. Sale opens at 6 p.m. Come for the sale if you can’t make the presentation.
Stories in Cloth: Oaxaca Textile Narratives gives you knowledge of weaving traditions in our state: history of weaving technologies, types of looms, types of fibers, types of natural dyes, iconography — what the symbols and figures woven into the cloth mean, clothing identity from village to village, and where to find some of the best textiles in and around the city.
Unfortunately, the presentation cannot be videotaped at this time.
Want to meet the best weavers in the city where they live and work? Take the Oaxaca City Textile Collector’s Tourfor an in-depth, exclusive and insider experience to meet these and other fine artisans who represent their villages and cooperatives. Some maintain a residence on the outskirts of the city and this is where we take you for a day of exploration and discovery.
In a week, I climb on the magic bird to carry me back to Oaxaca. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I left, just before Covid became a pandemic in March 2021 that erased all our plans and created this hunker-down-for-a-while, I’m scared mentality. Yesterday, I got my third jab, the Pfizer-BioNTech booster, plus a flu shot. I’m ready, face masks and sanitizer in the packing pile. Back to Teotitlan del Valle where churro sheep wool is carded and dyed to weave into rugs.
Churro sheep came to the Americas with the Spanish conquest. We find this breed in Northern New Mexico and Colorado, where the high altitudes are conducive to growing a thick pelt. When it is shorn, carded and woven, it makes thick, sturdy, resilient blankets (for humans and horses), and later adapted to the making of floor rugs.
My adopted Zapotec family in Teotitlan del Valle, Galeria Fe y Lola, buy their handspun Churro wool from Chichicapam and the Mixteca, where 7,000 feet altitude guarantees a higher quality pelt. This elevation is similar to the Mountain States where livestock growers, spinners and dyers work in this wool to textile weavers who use the ancient European treadle loom that was also introduced by the Spanish in the New World.
This sheep is descended from the Iberian Churra, prized by the Spanish for its hardiness and adaptability. It was the first breed of sheep domesticated in the New World in the 16th Century, when it was used to feed and clothe the armies of the conquistadores, clergy and settlers. We can trace the lineage to 1494 when Spain established colonies in the Caribbean and Mexico. There were no four-legged animals in North America and only llamas in South America before the Spanish arrived.
Carolyn wrote to me to add this:
How the Spanish brought sheep to America? In slings in the holds of their ships! Several years ago a replica of the Santa Maria sailed into the Oakland estuary and docked for several days. We were able to tour the ship and the sailors were more than happy to answer our questions. Four legged animals were kept in slings so their legs would not break in rough weather. The smell must have been atrocious. But the image stuck with me.I’m happy for you that you finally get to go back to Oaxaca.
Taos is host to the annual Wool Festival, now in its 38th year, and always held the first weekend in October. I made it a point to attend. Fiber art and textiles call to me here, too. Why was I surprised to see rugs woven on the peddle loom using churro sheep wool? I shouldn’t have been. I know the Navajo were resourceful in growing their herds of churro sheep, and all those beautiful blankets and rugs trace their origins to the Spanish introduction of this breed.
Today, non-native weavers use this breed, too, to make and sell beautiful rugs. I saw plenty of them at the festival, many reminiscent of Zapotec and Navajo textiles. Over the years, the churro has been cross-bred with the softer, finer merino sheep. Sometimes, churro and merino are also spun together to give a silkier, softer luster.
When I first moved here to Taos, NM, four months ago, one of the first things I did was join the Millicent Rogers Museum. It has an extensive collection of Native American folk art and craft, including early Navajo looms and textiles. This loom is more similar to the back strap loom, used as a vertical frame loom. This got me thinking about how technology is adapted to the user. It´s not a floor loom and it´s not a back strap loom. Weavers sit on the ground to weave.
History of Navajo Weaving. Some scholars speculate that the Navajo picked up this weaving technique in the 1600´s from nearby Pueblo tribes who were adept using the vertical loom. It couldńt be used to weave a textile wider than 18 inches. Larger pieces needed two identical textiles that were then stitched together. We find thesame circumstance in Oaxaca, Mexico.
In Teotitlan del Valle, the floor loom has hardly changed from when it was introduced there by the Spanish in the 1500´s, who taught the local men to weave in the tradition of the European tapestry loom. It was too heavy and cumbersome for women, who were versatile cotton back strap loom weavers, to use.
Last week I wrote about pronunciations and mis-pronunciations. Here we have another one! Settlers had a difficult time saying Churra Sheep so they said Churro instead. And, that’s how we know this breed today!
At Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, we aim to give you an unparalleled in-depth travel experience to participate and delve deeply into indigenous culture, folk art and celebrations. Our hope, too, is that we will all be well and it will be safe enough to travel to Chiapas by March 2022. If for any reason we must cancel this tour, you will receive a full 100% refund. See notes below about COVID vaccination requirements to travel with us and our cancellation/refund policy.
The Maya World of Chiapas, Mexico, spans centuries and borders. Maya people weave their complex universe into beautiful cloth. Symbols are part of an ancient pre-Hispanic animist belief system. In the cloth we see frogs, the plumed serpent, woman and man, earth and sky, the four cardinal points, moon and sun, plus more, depending on each weaver.
We go deep into the Mayan world of southern Mexico, from February 22 to March 2, 2022. While we focus on textiles, we also explore what it means to be indigenous, part of cooperative, live in a remote village, have agency and access to economic opportunity. We meet creative, innovative and talented people who open their doors and welcome us.
Our dates of March 8-16, 2022, are reserved in a fine historic hotel. 8 nights, 9 days in and around the San Cristobal de Las Casas highlands.
Cost • $2,795 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,295 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
We are based in the historic Chiapas mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas, the center of the Maya world in Mexico. Here we will explore the textile traditions of ancient people who weave on back strap looms.
Women made cloth on simple looms here long before the Spanish conquest in 1521 and their techniques translate into stunning garments admired and collected throughout the world today. Colorful. Vibrant. Warm. Exotic. Connecting. Words that hardly describe the experience that awaits you.
We are committed to give you a rich cultural immersion experience that goes deep rather than broad. We cover a lot of territory. That is why we are spending eight nights in this amazing Pueblo Magico — Magic Town — to focus on Maya textiles, weaving and embroidery traditions.
Our cultural journey takes us into villages, homes and workshops to meet the people who keep their traditions vibrant. We explore churches, museums and ancient cemeteries. This is an interpersonal experience to better know and appreciate Mexico’s amazing artisans.
Your Study Tour Leader is Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We have invited Sheri Brautigam, author of Living Textiles of Mexico, to participate as our expert resource guide (to be confirmed).
Take this study tour to learn about:
culture, history and identity of cloth
cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation
wool spinning and weaving
clothing design and construction
embroidery and supplementary (pick-up) weft
Maya textile designs — iconography and significance
village and individual identity through clothing
social justice, opportunities and women’s issues
market days and mercantile economy
local cuisine, coffee, cacao and chocolate
quality and value
We work with one of San Cristobal’s best bilingual cultural guides who has worked with weavers and artisans in the region. Alejandro is a native Mexican who knows textiles and can explain the meaning of the woven symbols embedded in the cloth. You will enjoy learning from him.
We will travel in a large comfortable van as we go deep into the Maya world. We promise a sanitized van and all necessary precautions during our visits.
We visit 6 Maya weaving villages
We enjoy home-cooked meals
We meet makers and directly support them
We go far and away, off-the-beaten path
We decode the weaving designs unique to each woman and village
We explore three towns on their market days
We understand the sacred, mysterious rituals of Maya beliefs
Who Should Attend Anyone who loves cloth, culture, and collaboration • Textile and fashion designers • Weavers, embroiderers and collectors • Photographers and artists who want inspiration • Resellers
Tuesday, March 8: Travel day. Arrive and meet at our hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas. You will receive directions to get from the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport to our hotel. The airport is a clean and modern facility with straightforward signage. You will book your flight to Tuxtla from Mexico City on either Interjet, AeroMar, Volaris or Aeromexico. To find best routes and rates, search Skyscanner.com There are plenty of taxis and shuttle services to take you there. Your cost of transportation to/from San Cristobal is on your own. Taxis are about $55 USD or 800 pesos. Shared shuttle is 180 pesos or about $10 USD.
Wednesday, March 9: On our first day in San Cristobal de las Casas, we orient you to the textiles of the Maya World. You will learn about weaving and embroidery traditions, patterns and symbols, women and villages, history and culture. After a breakfast discussion, we will visit Centro Textiles Mundo Maya museum, Sna Jolobil Museum Shop for fine regional textiles, meander the Santo Domingo outdoor market that takes over the plaza in front of the church, and visit two outstanding textile shops. We guide you along the walking streets to get your bearings. We finish the morning together with a Group Welcome Lunch. (B, L)
Thursday, March 10: Tenejapa is about an hour and a world away from San Cristobal de Las Casas. Today is market day when villagers line the streets filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and household supplies. Peer into dimly lit doorways to find hidden textile treasures. We’ll meander the market to see what’s there. In years past, I’ve found some stunning shawls, huipils and bags. Keep your eyes open. Then, we will visit the outstanding textile cooperative founded by Doña Maria Meza Giron. After a box lunch at the centuries- old Romerillo Maya cemetery, we continue on up another mountain to visit Maruch (Maria), a Chamula woman at her rural home. Surrounded by sheep and goats, Maruch will demonstrate back strap loom weaving and wool carding, and how she makes long-haired wool skirts, tunics and shawls. Perhaps there will be some treasures to consider. Return to San Cristobal de Las Casas in time for dinner on your own. (B, L)
Friday, March 11: After breakfast, we set out for a full morning at Na Bolom, Jaguar House, the home of anthropologist Franz Blom and his photographer wife, Gertrude Duby Blom. The house is now a museum filled with pre-Hispanic folk art and jewelry. We walk the gardens and learn about Franz and Trudy’s work with the Lacandon tribe and their relationship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. After hot chocolate there we go to the outskirts of town to an outstanding women’s weaving cooperative that was founded over 40 years ago. You will learn about international collaborations and textile design that conserves traditions while meeting marketplace needs for exquisite and utilitarian cloth. After lunch on your own, we meet in the early evening to visit Museo de Trajes Regionales and humanitarian healer Sergio Castro, who has a large private collection of Maya indigenous daily and ceremonial dress representing each Chiapas region. (B)
Saturday, March 12: We set out by foot to a nearby textile collaboration that houses three different cooperative groups, one of which is founded by Alberto Lopez Gomez who was invited to New York Fashion Week in 2020. We hear presentations about creativity, style, innovation, and how to incorporate tradition while breaking new ground. Next, we stop at Los Leñateros, the hand-made paper workshop that is also a graphics arts print studio. You will have the afternoon and evening on your own. (B)
Sunday, March 13: This is a big day! First we go to San Lorenzo Zinacantan, where greenhouses cover the hillsides. Here, indigenous dress is embellished in exquisite floral designs, mimicking the flowers they grow. First we meander the open-air market, then visit the church, bedecked in fresh flowers. Next stop is magical, mystical San Juan Chamula where the once-Catholic church is given over to a pre-Hispanic pagan religious practice that involves chickens, eggs and coca-cola. You’ll find out why. We’ll roam Chamula’s abundant textile market, compare and contrast fabrics and designs. (B, L) Dinner on your own.
Monday, March 14: Today, we make a study tour to the textile villages of San Andres Larrainzer and Magdalena Aldama. This is another ultimate cultural experience to immerse yourself into families of weavers in their humble homes. We will see how they weave and embroider beautiful, fine textiles, ones you cannot find in the city markets or shops. They will host a show and sale for us, and we will join them around the open hearth for a warming meal of free range chicken soup, house made tortillas, and of course, a sip of posh! (B, L)
Tuesday, March 15: This is expoventa day! We have invited one of the finest embroiderers of Aguacatenango blouses, an amber wholesaler, an organic coffee grower/roaster, and other artisans to show and sell their work. Afternoon is on your own to do last minute shopping and packing in preparation for your trip home. We end our study tour with a gala group goodbye dinner. (B, D)
Wednesday, March 16. Depart. You will arrange your own transportation from San Cristobal to the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport. The hotel guest services can help. It takes about 1-1/2 hours to get to Tuxtla, plus 1-2 hours for check-in. Connect from Tuxtla to Mexico City and then on to your home country.
What Is Included
• 8 nights lodging at a top-rated San Cristobal de las Casas hotel within walking distance to the historic center and pedestrian streets
• 8 breakfasts • 4 lunches • 1 grand finale gala dinner
• museum and church entry fees
• luxury van transportation
• outstanding and complete guide services
The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.
Cost • $2,795 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,295 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
Reservations and Cancellations. A $500 deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 50% of the balance is due on or before October 1, 2021. The third 50% payment of the balance is due on or before December 15, 2021. We accept payment using online e-commerce only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After December 15, 2021, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before December 15, 2021, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date. After that, there are no refunds.
If we cancel for whatever reason, we will offer a 100% refund of all amounts received to date.
All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.
NOTE: All travelers must provide proof of vaccination for COVID-19 to travel with us. You must also wear CDC-approved face masks, use hand-sanitizer, and maintain all public health precautions. By the time we travel, it is likely booster vaccinations will be required and you will need that, too.
How to Register: First, complete the Registration Form and send it to us. We will then send you an invoice to make your reservation deposit.
Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: San Cristobal de las Casas is a hill-town in south central Chiapas, the Mexican state that borders Guatemala. The altitude is 7,000 feet. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, mostly narrow and have high curbs. Pavement stones are slippery, especially when walking across driveways that slant at steep angles across the sidewalk to the street. We will do a lot of walking. Being here is a walker’s delight because there are three flat streets devoted exclusively to walking. We walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day at a moderate pace. We recommend you bring a walking stick and wear sturdy shoes.
NOTE: If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the program for you.
Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
Click image to order yours!
Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
*North Carolina State University
*WARP Weave a Real Peace
We offer textile experiences in our studio where we weave and work only in natural dyes.You can see the process during our textile tours, dye workshops or customized weaving experiences. Ask us for more information about these experiences, customized scheduling, and prices.
One-Day Custom Tours: Tell Us When You Want to Go!
Oaxaca has the largest and most diverse textile culture in Mexico! Learn about it.
When you visit Oaxaca immerse yourself in our textile culture: How is indigenous clothing made, what is the best value, most economical, finest available. Suitable for adults only. Set your own dates.
1-Day OaxacaCity Collectors Textile Tour.Exclusive Access! We take you into the homes and workshops of Oaxaca State's prize-winning weavers. They come from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Mixteca, Mixe, Amuzgos and Triqui areas and represent their weaving families and cooperatives here. For collectors, retailers, buyers, wholesalers, fashionistas.
February 5-13, 2023: Bucket List Tour: Monarch Butterflies + Michoacan. Spiritual, mystical connection to nature. Go deep into weaving, pottery, mask-making and more! We haven't offered this tour since 2019 and we anticipate it will sell out quickly. SOLD OUT
Stay Healthy. Stay Safe. In Oaxaca, wear your mask. Questions? Want TO REGISTER or more info? Send an email to Norma Schafer.
Maps: Teotitlan + Tlacolula Market
We require 48-hour advance notice for map orders to be processed. We send a printable map via email PDF after order received. Please be sure to send your email address. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map After you click, be sure to check PayPal to ensure your email address isn't hidden from us. We fulfill each map order personally. It is not automatic.
Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle