On the Oaxaca Coast, it’s about the cloth, not the cut. Why? Because lengths of cloth meticulously woven on the back strap loom are never cut. They are squares and rectangles that are joined together at right angles to create a garment. The garment construction never has darts, either. Nor is it form-fitting. Plus, the finish work is all done by hand. Women who weave on the Oaxaca coast and elsewhere in Mexico believe the cloth is a reflection of their souls and has spiritual, mystical symbolism. A cut in the cloth is a travesty that would never be acceptable. In thinking about this, I recall it’s been about fifty years since I’ve seen a self-made button hole on any garment in the USA. I learned to make these in junior high school home economics, but it seems the skill may be lacking now or that fast fashion prevents this attention to detail. I don’t attend the Paris Couture shows, so don’t know if a multi-thousand dollar jacket even has button holes or how they are made!
Years back, for her thesis, the Mexico City designer Carla Fernandez wrote a book, now out of print, Taller Flora, in 2006. If you can find a used copy somewhere and you are interested in indigenous clothing construction and design, you might try to find this online, though the price will be hefty!
So, to go with us on the Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour is to go deeply into indigenous weaving and natural dyeing culture that includes how ancient garments, still made and used today, are made. I’m writing this because in Western fashion, we are so concerned with fit and the shape of our form. If something doesn’t fit right, we are inclined to be self-critical about our body shape rather than the inherent beauty of how it is made. Here, we can focus on the quality of the weaving, the meaningful designs incorporated in the cloth using a weaving technique call embordado or supplementary weft, and the drape of the cloth, rather than if it hugs our body (for good or bad!). This clothing frees us to focus on something else rather than body image.
Often, when people first look at a handwoven textile, they think the design embedded in the cloth is embroidered, a surface design technique of stitching on a piece of plain weave. Not so here! Cloth is woven on a loom that is warped with thread. Then, the weft, or horizontal threads are added row by row. This is a long process and it can take several months to make two, four or six wefts or lengths of cloth to construct a huipil, depending on the desired width of the finished piece. The designs integrated into the cloth are part of the weaving process. Individual threads are added, again row by row, to form a pattern that women keep in their heads. I think it is part of their DNA, something learned from mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. The cloth is their heritage.
2024 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour coming soon! Get on the list. Send an email.
Almost all these garments are cotton, though some can be made with wool. The Spaniards brought sheep to the Americas and native peoples loved the warmth the cloth provided. Before that, everything here was pre-Hispanic native cotton, which we find cultivated and used in villages along the Oaxaca coast foothills. Becoming more rare now is the coyuchi (native brown cotton the color of a coyote), green cotton (pale mint or military green), and creamy white cotton.
All of these must be grown, harvested, picked clean of seeds, beaten to separate and soften the fibers, hand-spun using the malacate (drop spindle), formed into balls, wrapped onto spindles, and then woven into cloth. Even before the weaving begins, this is a labor-intensive process. Often, the white cotton is dyed with natural materials: wild marigold, indigo, cochineal, tree bark, squash pulp, caracol purpura purple snails, leaves and seeds of various fruits and vegetables. The dye materials need to be collected and prepared in dye vats. It is alchemy and chemistry. Then, according to the choice of each artisan, the threads are dyed before weaving or the garment is dyed after it is completed.
As we plan for our 2024 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour, I write this to give you a sense of the importance of keeping this weaving culture viable. Very few indigenous women, except those in remote communities, continue to wear their distinctive clothing on a daily basis, instead saving them for fiestas and other special occasions. The garment they wove for their wedding will go to the grave with them. This is the reason very few vintage garments exist.
Appreciators and collectors of handmade textiles are doing much to revive interest and support the economy that gives women an opportunity to monetize their skills, encouraging them to continue the traditions. Most often, it is the women who are able to earn a cash income to supplement the work the men do as subsistence farmers. The men all grow the same food — corn, beans and squash — so there is no selling opportunity unless they take their produce to a regional market. It is the women who pay for the education and health care of their children, grandchildren, and aging parents. There is no social security in Mexico. Each family is responsible for taking care of their own.
We wrote a blog earlier this week about being a Oaxaca Fiberista. You might want to look at this for examples of garments, too.