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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Omar’s Discovery Tour: A First Visit to the USA
Omar Chavez Santiago is twenty-four years old. He is a weaver and natural dyer from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. Last year, he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering after studying for four years at Anahuac University in Oaxaca. He is at a cross-roads.
Fayetteville, Lillington, Coats, NC friends give Omar a warm welcome in Durham. Thanks Becky, Robin and Debbie for your support.
Does he pursue a professional engineering career and move to Monterrey or continue in the generations-old family tradition of his Zapotec culture?
On March 1, 2017, Omar went to Mexico City for an interview appointment at the US Embassy to follow-up on his visitor visa application to enter the USA. He is male. He is young. We didn’t know what his chances would be. Slim, I thought. Very slim. So few are allowed to enter.
I wrote my Congressman G.K. Butterfield ((D-NC) to ask if they would send a message and alert the Embassy staff that Omar would be there on March 1 to present a letter of invitation from me and Wendy Sease, owner of INDIO Durham. We invited him to give a presentation and sale of the family’s 100% naturally dyed wool rugs in early April.
List to this GistYarn Podcast with Omar Chavez Santiago
Omar, age 24, has been weaving since he was eight years old.
An alert is different from a request to approve. No one interferes with US Embassy immigration decisions. An alert just says, Look out for this applicant. I guess they did. At the end of the short interview, Omar was awarded a 10-year visa. Ojala.
Discovering La Superior Carneceria y Super Tienda, Durham
Three weeks later, the paperwork arrived in Teotitlan del Valle, and Omar arrived in Durham, North Carolina on March 28.
I started calling this Omar’s Discovery Tour because everything was new to him. Exciting. Inspiring. Being here gave him the chance to see that what Galeria Fe y Lola creates in Oaxaca is linked to the home goods fashion cycle in the USA, where most of their clients come from. It connected the dots.
A walk through Duke University with Jacob and Hettie.
He discovered that design and color preferences change according to season. Texture and palette compliment. He saw traditional and contemporary side-by-side. He saw cities and farmland. Innovation and comfort. The edges where his countrymen and women live beyond the chi-chi neighborhoods, shopping in grocery stores named La Superior Carneceria or Compare or Tienda Mexicana Guadalupana, where life is familiar and safe. He heard an earful about politics, leadership void and political discontent.
A walk through Duke Gardens with Jacob
Omar thinks we are organized, tidy, friendly, and open to opportunity. (Of course, we know this is NOT a universal truth in the USA.)
Lime bikes propagate in downtown Durham. Take a ride.
He likes that people here greet him with a smile, that cars stop for pedestrians, and he can ride a Lime Bike on the American Tobacco Trail all afternoon for a few dollars, followed by beer and bonding at Ponysaurus with Jacob and Kathryn. He likes that we recycle (some of us). And, he can put on his jogging shoes and run for miles on groomed paths and streets.
Wow, there are REALLY good goat tacos here, just like in Mexico
It got to the point after the first week that he could rank order the best hamburgers in Durham after tastings at many restaurants. In retail shops, he was invited to sit down in a comfy chair or sofa, offered refreshment, and an invitation to kibbitz informally. He saw that deep friendships can be formed well beyond the inner circle of family.
A talk and cochineal dye demo at Echoview Fiber Mill, Weaverville, NC
Then, we went to Asheville and Weaverville, where the fiber arts community welcomed Omar for a cochineal dye demonstration and exhibition. We ate at Buxton Hall Barbecue and White Duck Tacos, and walked the downtown going in and out of fine art and craft galleries. He was mesmerized by the creativity. We slept in a cozy Arts & Crafts Cottage on the Blue Ridge Parkway hosted by Laura and Bryan.
100% naturally dyed churro wool rugs from Galeria Fe y Lola
Omar began to imagine that his dreams could become a reality. He began building new dreams. By the time he went home on Saturday morning after almost three weeks here, he was excited and inspired to create new designs, incorporate new business ideas, capture on cloth that which captured his imagination, and incorporate elements of traditional Zapotec motifs with new energy.
I wish we could give this opportunity to other talented young Mexicans who have dreams, who want to create and add value to their country.
Making the presentation at Echoview Fiber Mill, in collaboration with Local Cloth
Cochineal dye demonstration at Echoview Fiber Mill
I feel much this way when I go to Mexico. I see that families are tightly knit, where ancient ritual gives meaning to life, how reverence for the elderly shapes continuity, how people take time to be with families and celebrate together.
Art at the Durham Museum Hotel
Travel broadens and opens us up to more than new experiences. It gives us something intangible, a new neural pathway to exploration, learning, becoming. It gives us an opportunity to befriend, to connect and to live expansively with meaning.
Taking a break at Ponysaurus Brewing Company, Durham
It was twelve-and-a-half years ago when I met Omar’s brother Eric and sister Janet in the Teotitlan del Valle rug market. They were both students, not knowing where their paths would lead. Omar was not quite twelve. Through mutual support and effort, our lives were changed.
Thanks to all who supported Omar with a purchase!
Laura and her family with Omar in Asheville
There are many people to thank for making Omar’s Discovery Tour possible: parents Federico Chavez Sosa and Dolores Santiago Arrellenas in Teotitlan del Valle; Wendy Sease, Hettie Johnson, Jacob Singleton, Kathryn Salisbury, Karen Soskin, Steve Haskin, Nick and Rochelle Johnson in Durham; Laura and Bryan Tompkins, Judi Jetson with Local Cloth, Grace Casey-Gouin at Echoview Fiber Mill in Asheville and Weaverville, and our friends everywhere. Thank you.
We are talking now about when he may return.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Teotitlan del Valle, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving
Tagged Asheville, cloth, Durham, Echoview Fiber Mill, fiber, fiber art, Galeria Fe y Lola, INDIO Durham, Mexico, natural dyes, North Carolina, Oaxaca, rugs, textiles, weaving, wool, workshop