We are mid-way through our second Chiapas tour. I always say, The right people always show up! and they do. We saw the same things, made the same stops, met the same people and each tour is different based on interests, questions, experience and personalities. We have four weavers and two three textile designers on this tour, plus two tag-along husbands who also contribute a lot to the dynamics of engagement.
We have traveled to Tenejapa for market day. We have meandered museums, designer shops, met Alberto Lopez Gomez, picnicked under the Maya crosses at Romerillo cemetery, and visited with humanitarian healer Sergio Castro Martinez. We met with weavers at a 30-Year old cooperative to talk about cultural appropriation and explored the life of the Lacondon indigenous group through the eyes of archeologist Frans Blom and his photographer wife Gertrude Duby Blom at Na Bolom.
This is a photo essay of our days here, so far. At this moment a fine rain shrouds San Cristobal. I’m sipping hot tea and warming up. I hope you can come with us in 2023! send an email if you are interested.
This morning I received a link to this article from Vogue Mexico that features Oaxaca clothing designers modeled by Oaxaca indigenous woman Karen Vega. This grabbed my attention for many reasons. Just as there is a movement in the United States to recognize non-traditional beauty, i.e. a departure from a fashion industry defined by tall, lanky, undernourished white girls, we are seeing something different.
This is especially important in Mexico, where fashion models have always represented the European-centric image of superiority and style. Those with Spanish heritage — long legs, lighter skin, sculpted faces — are prized for their beauty and promoted as the standard of beauty to attain.
Since Yalitza Aparicio made her debut in the 2018 award-winning film, Roma, indigenous woman are defining a new standard of beauty and talent.
Oaxaca, long considered a fashion backwater, is coming into her own as a center for creative style. I am familiar with most of the designers featured in this article below. Some are adapting indigenous design to contemporary application. Some may be accused of cultural appropriation, taking snippets of weavings and embroidery and repurposing them into contemporary blouses and dresses that only vaguely resemble the original indigenous textile.
These designers are from Oaxaca. Perhaps they have more of a right to do this than the international designers who swoop in and market huipiles they call kaftans to an unsuspecting, fashion-hungry public, priced in the stratosphere, giving no credit or compensation to sources.
Be that as it may, we now get to applaud 18-year old Mexican model Karen Vega, who is helping to pave the way for others and for us to embrace beauty with a different paradigm.
Mexican Model Karen Vega Is Bringing Oaxacan Pride to the Fashion World
At 18-years-old, Karen Vega is off to a strong start with her career in fashion. The Mexican model, who is from Oaxaca, got her big break when she recently appeared in the pages of Vogue Mexico’s July issue, becoming the first Oaxacan model to do so in the publication’s history. “It was a great surprise, from the moment I received the invitation,” Vega says. “The day I had the magazine in my hands and I could see my portrait in print, my family was incredibly happy. It was a dream that we
Shuko Clouse just opened her online shop Mano del Sur. She is a friend and I want to help give her a boost.
Shuko is from Japan. She loves Mexico and particularly Oaxaca. She combines her aesthetic for quality and simplicity with all unique, one-of-a-kind pieces she finds along the way during her travels south-of-the-border.
Shuko is dedicated to learning Spanish. She recently came to Oaxaca for a language immersion program. In her generous, kind and insightful multicultural approach, she communicates directly with artisans to identify and buy the best home goods and fashion accessories to pass along to discerning buyers via her new website.
Our textile study tours offer people like Shuko a guided opportunity to seek out some of the most outstanding artisans in a region. Shuko came with us to Chiapas and she is now returning for the Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour. She comes to Oaxaca city, too, where I take her to villages to meet some of the best artisans to buy their craft.
I am happy to work with Shuko, designers and retailers to introduce them to artisans. The makers appreciate being able to sell direct with no middleman and the buyers know they support artisans directly and pay a fair price for their quality workmanship.
We are filled for the Oaxaca Coast Tour, but we have space for
Magdalenas Aldama is an hour-and-a-half from San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, on a winding road deep into the mountains beyond San Juan Chamula. Its isolation is protection from the forces of modernization. The Spanish had difficulty getting there to evangelize. Traditions run deep and strong.
Rosa, center, wearing neighboring Chenalho dog paw embroidered blusa
Being remote is a double-edge sword. It guarantees lack of access to education and decent health care. It ensures sustaining traditional practices like building with wattle and daub, creating garments with the back strap loom.
Welcome to Magdalenas Aldama, where liquor is not permitted, per Zapatista custom
This is the same story for many villages tucked into the swales of eight thousand foot mountains around the city.
Close-up textile texture of supplementary weft on back strap loom
On our quest to explore the textiles of the Maya people surrounding San Cristobal de Las Casas, it is important to meet and know the people where they live and work. This is a cultural journey to appreciate artisania, to give support and to put funds directly into the hands of the makers.
Women at the Magdalenas expoventa, photo by Carol Estes
Magdalenas Aldama women weave some of the most beautiful blouses and huipiles in Chiapas. They are intricate textiles with ancient pre-Hispanic Maya symbols that have spiritual and physical meaning. It can take six to eight months to weave a traditional Gala Huipil used for special occasions.
A ceremonial Gala Huipil, cost is 3500 pesos, 8 months to make
Typical Maya symbols incorporated into the cloth — a story of life:
The milpa — corn fields, squash and beans
The sacred forest — pine trees
The Four Cardinal Points — sun, moon, earth and sky
The making of cloth on a back strap loom, Magdalenas
During our van ride we talk about what to look for in a quality garment as we approach Magdalenas. We are sewers, embroiderers, collectors, knitters, appreciators of the creative work that women do.
How are the seams finished? Are the seams raw and unraveling?
Is the embroidery done on cloth that is made on a back strap loom or is it done on cheap commercial polyester or a poly/cotton blend?
Are the embroidery stitches small, tight, evenly executed?
Is the weaving even and are the supplementary weft threads densely packed?
First stop is to the home of Rosa and Cristobal. They were activists in the Zapatista movement, working for land reform, indigenous rights, access to services, and justice for Maya people. Twelve women in the extended family gathered in the smokey kitchen to prepare our lunch: handmade tortillas, sopa de gallina (free range chicken soup).
Mary Anne enjoys sopa de gallina chicken soup, a rich broth
Babies are tied to their backs with rebozos. Toddlers and youngsters played around their mothers’ skirts. The wood fire was pungeant, smokey, making it difficult to see or breathe.
The best corn tortillas, organic, criollo
After an expoventa in the adjacent barn, we went to the plank wood house of Don Pedro and his son Salvador, just a few blocks away to see their fine handwoven ixtle bags. Women in the family brought traditional Magdalenas huipiles and blusas, woven pocket bags, belts and embroidered skirt fabric.
Young nursing mother waits for a sale
Over breakfast this morning we share our impressions of the experience.
Don Pedro’s wife, wearing traditional huipil (blouse) and falda (skirt)
Lanita commented that this is a culture where back strap looms are everywhere. Women can do it a bit at a time, between caring for children, cooking, tending the kitchen garden, after chores are done.
Tortilla making by hand, a woman’s fingerprints in dough
Carol appreciates that joy is possible in any circumstance. We see the power of a community of women, and as women travelers, we, too, become a community of women. We made connections. There are ore things that make up the same among us that make us different.
Children entertaining themselves. No television here.
Mary Anne notes that she learned more about the social justice issues of the Zapatistas. They are not a bunch of rebel revolutionaries.
Woman against adobe wall, photo by Carol Estes
Cath says that this trip is more than about textiles, although this is a good place to start. To be here is to look beyond the fibers, to look at the totality of life and ask, Where did this cloth come from? Who made it? What does it mean? Where is the woman who designed it?
Norma examining weaving detail, photo by Carol Estes
Textiles are a way into being part of another culture. We could dig in, experience, open up to what else it is we can see and discover. We were excited to find cooperatives where innovative design uses traditional fabric woven on the back strap loom.
Weaving is a way of life, while tending the flock and children
Most importantly, we provided direct support to women, men and families whose work we appreciate, admire and regard with respect.
Don Pedro and son Salvador weave the finest ixtle bags, photo by Carol Estes
Portrait of Patricio, who shows us the way, nephew of Tatik Samuel Ruiz
Remember when you were a child and got a set of crayons and coloring book? The book was printed with figures and designs. It was your job fill in the color between the lines.
Stenciled design on cloth gives embroiderer stitch guide
Be careful, a parent or teacher would say. Be neat. Don’t go outside the lines. There were no blank pages on which to scribble or be creative. You got a gold star for staying inside the lines, filling in all the shapes.
Young Ahir woman honing her craft
Soon, you may have been bored and gone on to do something else. Perhaps the color intensity lessened as you hastily went on to the next page. Maybe, you went outside the lines on purpose to make your own mark.
Working on a pre-printed pattern. Is there freedom for color choice?
Yesterday we went to visit India textile expert Judy Frater at the NGO she runs in Adipur, about an hour east of Bhuj near the Gulf of Kutch and the Arabian Sea. Before starting Somaiya Kala Vidya in 2014, Judy was the founding director of Kala Raksha, another NGO dedicated to textile promotion and development.
New Ahir embroidery that will become pillow or handbag
Today she works with indigenous artisans to provide education and training programs designed for cultural sustainability, market development, and indigenous identity.
Ahir women in embroidery circle, all working on stenciled patterns
With Judy during my visit and with Salim Wazir the following day, I talked about the questions we discuss in Mexico that India shares. I suspect that these are pressing questions among artisans throughout the world.
Old embroidered Ahir textile with fine detail
How do you create a sustainable craft enterprise without compromising an artisan’s innate creativity and urge for innovation?
When a designer comes in to work with local artisans, employing his or her own drawings and hires the local artisan to execute them, how does this have an impact on craft preservation and design ownership?
If NGO’s create cooperatives that then produce cookie cutter patterns printed on cloth that the embroiderers then fills in with silk threads in pre-selected colors, is this craft development or exploitation?
If something is produced for the tourist market and not for personal or community use, what impact will this have for design sustainability?
What compromises can be made to make sure that people work for fair wages, without being piece workers doing routine jobs for work they don’t own?
Is paid work the only important consideration or does originality and integrity of communal design hold more value?
How will textile craft survive and who will decide its future?
Workshop participant making panel for tourist market
What other questions would you ask?
How would you answer these questions? I’m interested in hearing from you!
Old mirrored embroidery on silk bandhani, imperfectly beautiful
Mexico and India are both sources for great textile artistry. Weavers in Mexico have made cloth on back strap, flying shuttle and pedal looms for centuries and longer. In India, artisans have been weaving cloth, dyeing it with natural colors and embellishing it with embroidery since Mughal conquerors and spice trade adventurers moved from central Asia and the Levant.
She is beginning to fill in the blanks.
As tourist preferences drive the crafts market, most non-governmental agencies direct people to make things that will sell. Production uniformity is important to outside markets as collectors demand high-quality, perfect workmanship, and sophisticated design (in their point-of-view).
Whimsical embroidered blouse belonging to Wandh herding community
The whimsy of asymmetry and uneven stitches seems to be losing ground in the commercial marketplace. Only foreigners are interested in tribal textiles.
Rabari women in another workshop also follow a designer provided pattern.
If a boutique owner or retail client orders 100 handbags, he or she may expect that while color may vary, design will be consistent. If there is deviation or variation, something may not sell and then the risk is that the worker and the organization will no longer receive orders and then go out of business.
Contemporary Rabari needlework
What price will be paid for quality consistency and uniformity? Will the naive, free-form folk art design produced for self-use disappear in favor of making something more polished that will then be sold at a higher price to foreigners?
Vintage Rabari embroidery trim on bandhani tie-dyed shawl
What about making goods for the local market vs. the foreign market? I was told repeatedly that woven goods are now being made with acrylic because it is cheaper to produce and that is what local people will buy.
Whimsical Toran in Ahir village community center
What is the cost and the loss for using cheaper raw materials and industrial mechanization?
I’d love what she’s wearing!
It is difficult to find artisans in India, as well as in Mexico, who are still working in natural dyes because the process is longer and the investment in raw materials is much higher.
Rabari embroidered storage bag, 40 years old
The tourist season in Gujarat, India is about four months long, from November through February, about the same as in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s the dry season, easier to travel. Yet, this is the hottest December that people in Bhuj can remember. There is no global warming, right?
Sheep wool, hand-woven skirt trimmed in embroidery, pure Rabari
And, this year, because of India’s demonitization crisis and no access to cash currency, about 60-70% of international tours cancelled. This region that depends on tourism is being hard hit. Sound familiar to those of you who visit or live in Mexico?
Rabari woman working on dress trim to be sold in a boutique somewhere
I’ve heard stories about embroidery designs from one tribal group that are co-opted and used by another because it is more popular. I have heard about a village that weaves a piece of cloth which is sent to another village for embroidery embellishment. Neither is credited with for the work.
Rabari women’s hands make quick work; tattoos and cloth, key symbols of identity.
Since cloth is about identity, does this practice contribute to loss of cultural identity? Who is responsible for this loss? How do we put value on what is made by hand? Are we willing to compensate or are we looking for a bargain, at whatever the cost to the maker?
Tools of the trade: cotton or rayon floss, needles, mirrors
I’m writing this blog post from the airport in Seoul, South Korea. It’s 10:50 a.m., December 14 here. I will be back in California, USA by 8:30 a.m. December 14. Go figure! The international news is daunting, and the prospects of a new presidency are depressing as cabinet appointees are named. I’m still apologizing, especially to the terrific Muslim people I have met along this Path to and from India.
Old block print, made with madder root, backs vintage textile.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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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.
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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.
Oaxaca has the largest and most diverse textile culture in Mexico! Learn about it.
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.
1-Day Oaxaca Textile Walking Tour 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.
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. TWO SPACES OPEN
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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