We’ve been traveling on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica for the past four days. This is the stretch of territory that starts at Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Ocean and goes north to Acapulco along Mexico’s Highway 200.
A highlight of our 12-day Oaxaca Textile Study Tour that started in the central valleys of Oaxaca, was a visit to San Juan Colorado, a remote Mixtec village at the end of the road in the fold of a mountain above Oaxaca’s coast.
In this weaving village, women work with three varieties of native cotton: coyuchi, natural and green. They use natural dyes from tree bark, flowers, indigo and cochineal.
Interested in going in 2019? Send me an email.
On occasion, they will insert thread dyed with purple that comes from the caracol púrpura snail, endangered and harvested from ocean outcroppings of rock. Legally, only a few indigenous men are licensed to harvest the snail. They gently squeeze the ink onto cotton or silk and return the live snail to its home. Poachers threaten its existence.
They weave geometric designs on back-strap looms using a supplementary weft technique of counting and adding threads to the cloth. Their work is prized and many whom we met are featured on posters that hang on the walls of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca education department.
Cotton is prepared by first washing it, drying it and removing the seeds. A woven palm leaf mat, called a petate, is draped over a roll of corn husks that is tied with a long palm frond. Everyone here knows how to clean, wash and beat cotton. Not everyone spins using the drop spindle malacate. It is a special skill.
Seventy-five year old Zenobia Zenaida Lorenzo is the cotton beating expert her cotton is the softest and easiest to spin, all the women agree. Beating the cotton achieves the same result as using a carder for wool.
Work is differentiated by gender. The men grow and harvest cotton, planting in August and harvesting in December. They make the wood tools and parts for the back strap loom. Women weave in between cooking, cleaning and caring for children.
Identity is interwoven with cloth here. Women imbed ancient symbols of fertility and images of the natural world into the cloth. Each adapts a uniform design to make her own fabric unique.
Traditional traje, or dress, consisted of a back strap loomed skirt woven with cotton dyed with cochineal (red), indigo (blue), and purple (caracol purpura). The weather is hot and steamy.
This is a traditional topless culture. Today, in the regional market, we see a few older women covered with gauze transparent shawls, doubled and draped over their bosom.
Remote villages throughout Mexico have been able to keep their traditions and identity because of their isolation from the contemporary world. Now, very few places are inaccessible and the pressure to conform with western clothing is intense.
Reviving Lost Textile Traditions in Tututepec, Oaxaca on the Costa Chica
Villa de Tutupec de Melchor Ocampo is a mountain town above the Pacific Ocean on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica. During our recent Oaxaca Textile Study Tour: Valley and Coast, we spent almost a complete day there immersed in the region’s cultural history.
Tututepec is tucked into the fold of a mountain that overlooks the Pacific coast and off-shore lagoons. We get there driving through papaya groves — the biggest growing region in Mexico.
Ancient design revived by Luis Adan on the back strap loom
Get on the list for the 2019 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour.
Tututpec is the oldest pueblo on the coast. People settled there before 800 BC. Once the power center of the Mixtec people who defied conquest by the Aztecs, Tututepec is now rediscovering her roots. A small museum near the Zocalo features stelae and ancient relics from the nearby archeological site. The Codex Columbino (original is in the British Museum) tells the story of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw.
Reproduction of one page of the Codex Columbino in the Tututepec Museum
Eight Deer Jaguar Claw unified the region on the northwest border of Oaxaca, rich in gold, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables. It included parts of modern states of Puebla and Guerrero, about the size of Texas. The capital was Tututepec.
Native Oaxaca brown and green cotton, waiting to be spun
Hundreds of pre-Hispanic ceramic whorls point to a vibrant native cotton-spinning tradition using the malacate or drop spindle. The whorl is an essential part for turning the wooden stick. Wood disintegrates. Clay survives.
Malacate — drop spindle — with native Oaxaca cotton
After the museum orientation, Luis Adan meets our group to guide us to his mountain home. Here, after a delicious lunch of two different moles, we see how this twenty-six year old young man is reviving the lost traditions of his village.
Our group of textile travelers at the home studio of Luis Adan
Originally, only the people descended from Eight Deer Jaguar Claw were allowed to use the traditional brocade (supplementary weft) designs in their huipiles. Cochineal must be dyed only during the full moon so it is more intense, they say here.
Very portable, the back strap loom, a universal fabric-making tool
The story goes that a village mayor sometime between 1900 and 1930 commanded that all the women bring their huipiles and blusas to the zocalo. When the pile was complete, he set the cloth on fire. There were no remains except memory. Identity through the stories told in the back strap loom weaving physically disappeared.
Native brown Coyuchi cotton with native green cotton design in supplementary weft
Why did he do it? My interpretation is that political and social conformity is a powerful force to guarantee assimilation. If clothing is indigenous identity, rulers have the power to destroy and redefine self. Only now, almost one hundred years later, the cloth is resurrected from the fire. What do you think?
Embroidered collar, native white cotton dyed with caracol purpura
Luis Adan shows us how he is making the drop spindle to spin native cotton grown nearby. He saves the seeds. He did research, learned from his grandparents, and is recreating the designs lost in the fire. He uses the natural dyes that are known in this part of Oaxaca: cochineal, indigo and caracol purpura.
Get on the list for the 2019 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour
Dressing Denise in an indigo, cochineal, caracol purpura dyed posahuanco
The back strap looms that Luis Adan uses are hand constructed from local wood. We spend the afternoon with him in awe that a young man would dedicate and devote himself to recapturing a lost art.
Luis Adan at the back strap loom
He uses clay pots to ferment the indigo, which he grows himself. This year, because of heavy rains, there was not much native cotton or indigo produced. Cotton doesn’t like water. It is planted in August and harvested in December. The different varieties are planted far apart so they do not cross-pollinate. Here, too, the men tend to the crops and the women weave, except for Luis Adan!
Caracol purpura dyed cotton thread before it goes to the loom
The endangered caracol purpura makes it difficult to find enough to dye with. The native brown and green cotton offer a subtle contrast to the brilliant purples, reds and blues. The blouses and dresses are a loose weave because the climate is hot and humid.
Mixtec stelae, excavated from Spanish church, Tututepec Museum
Come with me in 2019. Send an email.
Taking notes, with intense indigo dyed native white cotton
Posted in Clothing Design, Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving, Travel & Tourism, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged caracol purpura, cloth, Cochineal, Costa Chica, coyuchi, fabric, fiber, Mexico, Oaxaca, study tour, textiles, Tututepec, weaving