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On the Oaxaca Coast, It’s About the Cloth, Not the Cut

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.

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator : Norma Schafer

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator : Norma Schafer

What is a Oaxaca Fiberista?

My friend Carol Egan from Savannah who has wintered in Oaxaca for almost 20 years uses the term Fiberista to describe those of us who love and wear (and who demonstrate cultural appreciation for) clothing made on the back-strap loom by the very talented indigenous weavers of Oaxaca. Carol is a graduate of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and she has an impeccable sense of color and style. Maybe Fiberista is an adaptation of Fashionista, a word that has been part of the Urban Dictionary vocabulary for a while, though likely applied mostly to those who follow haute couture. Fiberistas have an affinity for the handmade textile. We are sewists, knitters, dyers, designers, spinners, embroiderers, crocheters, weavers, photographers, artists, and artisans or we just appreciate the texture of beautiful cloth. We know we have something to learn from indigenous cultures.

Our mantra on the Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour is to gain a greater cultural appreciation for the women and men who make garments from scratch — the talented people who grow native Oaxaca green, white and coyuchi (brown) cotton that goes back to before the Spanish Conquest. This is why we visit remote mountain villages — to see the traditional techniques, uncover the designs (or iconography) in the woven patterns that are an integral part of the cloth, and to show our support by being able to purchase directly to put much needed funds into the hands of the makers.

Next Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour will be in mid-January 2024. Get on the interested list! Email us!

We don’t believe that we are appropriating another culture by wearing the garments they make. We believe we are supporting and sustaining women and families. Without our admiration and support, their ancient back-strap loom weaving art form will be lost to future generations. Today, not many women in traditional pueblos are wearing traditional traje (costumes). They have adopted Western-style dress, which enables them to fit in and assimilate into the larger, dominant community. This clothing, usually made with synthetic fibers, is easier to wash and dry, too. So, the huipiles we have gone in search of are brought out only for special celebrations. That is why our visits are so important.

It takes an extraordinary amount of labor to make one of these garments. First, the seeds are picked from the cotton bolls, to save for the next planting. Then, the cotton is beaten with sticks after it is laid on a rolled woven straw mat inside of which is stuffed corn stalks and leaves. It is then hand-spun with a malacate or drop spindle. If it is green or coyuchi cotton, both quite rare, it will be woven in its natural state and not dyed. Sometimes, the native white cotton is dyed with natural pigments — indigo, cochineal, wild marigold, or tree bark, for example. Fine commercial threads, purchased from the last cotton mill in the State of Puebla, will also be dyed. Then, it will be the man’s task to warp the back-strap loom. It usually takes a women three to four-months to make a complete full-length huipil, weaving five to six-hours per day. She will tie one end of the loom to a post or a tree, tie the waist harness around her, get on her knees or sit cross-legged, moving her body to create the weaving tension, swaying back and forth in a gentle motion.

We bring eye glasses with us to distribute. If the brocade or supplementary weft of the designs in the woven cloth is intricate, this takes a toll on a weaver’s vision. So many say they now have difficulty seeing. So, it is a blessing to be able to give reading glasses to the many groups in five communities we visit along our route from Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, north to Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero.

Think of fashion as an art form, extolls one source I researched. This is not difficult to do on the coast of Oaxaca, where diversity of weaving techniques, colors and designs tell stories of ancient myths and beliefs. Look at the stars, animals, sun, moon, plants woven into the cloth to learn about how rooted these communities are in the natural world and their social history. We embrace this as the world has become more commercialized, mechanized; as our attention spans have shortened with instant information and gratification, as we cannot leave our smart phones behind for even a minute. However, we are careful not to romanticize. The economic poverty is palpable. The talent is immeasurable.

We go deep into Mixtec, Zapotec, Chatino and Amusgo territory. We hear languages uncommon to our ear. We travel to villages where few who look like us dare to venture. Not because it isn’t safe, but because it takes hours to reach a remote destination. The Spanish friars never penetrated deeply into these mountain towns until the 18th century because they were so inaccessible. We are intrepid travelers who are interested in discovery!

What we find are people who want to educate their children, provide them with good food and health care, access to opportunity, who are not interested in out-migration unless all other options are closed to them. They want the same things that we do for our own families. And, this is what connects us.

Traditional indigenous clothing is not form fitting. It is lengths of squares or rectangles that are sewn together using a needlework joining technique called a randa, that looks a bit like embroidery. This means, the garment is not tight-fitting. It is loose and airy, and will drape beautifully if the woven fabric is lightweight. This is style we come to appreciate since this is a different look than we are used to. Sometimes, the skirt or dress can be tied with a belt. In all instances, the stand-out quality is not so much the structure of the garment but the weaving techniques used to create designs woven as an integral part of the cloth. The more complex and dense the design, the more costly a garment will be. Price is often related to the quality of the materials used — finest cotton and natural dyes are what we are looking for.

The experience broadens our view of how we dress ourselves. We know that the New York and Paris runways are not the only source for beautiful inspiration.

The day before our tour ended, we gathered under the palapa by the upper pool at Hotel Santa Fe, for a show and tell. We each brought three pieces we purchased along the way, and we wore one more. We then talked about the experience of where we got these, who wove them, what dyes were used, and what designs were incorporated into the cloth. It was a way to review our visits and to see others’ choices. Being Oaxaca Fiberistas!

Usually Overlooked, Yagul Archeological Site Offers Stunning Vistas

Along the Pan American Highway from Oaxaca City to Mitla and Hierve El Agua, two popular tourist destinations, lies the seldom visited Yagul archeological site. We know that as the taxis, cars, and vans pass, a guide might point to a faint cave painting on the cliff wall as testimony to an ancient Zapotec group that lived here. Don’t blink. You might miss it.

You can see the restoration of this site from the highway. Tucked into the hillside is the outline of a once proud city-state fortress guarding the trade route between Central America and what is now the southwest USA. The ochre colors of the plastered stone walls stand out against the desert landscape and hills beyond. This is not a large site, and it does not have the attraction of neighboring Mitla that boasts extraordinary carvings in ancient stone. It is not as impressive at Monte Alban, the vast city atop the hill outside Oaxaca city, center of Zapotec power noted by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as the most important city-state in Mesoamerica.

We take the Esprit Travel + Tours group there with special guide Eric Ramirez from Zapotrek. We drive on a dirt road to detour the main entrance and arrive at the foot of the cliffs to get a closer view of the glyphs painted on the face of a stone wall. A few years ago, during an earthquake, the wall face sheered off, exposing a painting in what was once inside a cave.

Eric, who grew up in nearby Tlacolula, and whose ancestors have been farming the land for centuries, tells us that the agricultural crop of agave to make mezcal is changing the landscape and the environment. So many growers are now using herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers. This is changing the quality of the soil and prohibits anything else from growing. It is even having an impact on locally grown non-GMO corn. The explosion of the mezcal culture in Oaxaca is having a negative impact on traditional crops — the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash. It used to be that the bean and squash plants would wrap their tendrils around the agave leaves and replenishes the soil with nitrogen.

This is a key reason why so many of us take issue with mezcal tourism, which promotes drinking and overall does not educate visitors about the related environmental impact. I am now meeting the party generation in Oaxaca who fly in for four or five days with little interest in cultural history, archeology or artisan craft. How can we influence this for the better?

An important fact to note: Yagul is the mother source for the hybridization of corn, beans and squash. A World Heritage Site, geneticists have tested seeds found in the caves and determined they are at least 10,000 years old. This site is key to the development and distribution of this essential protein-carbohydrate source of food energy around the world.

This is a photo essay of our experience at Yagul. I hope you will consider making a stop there. I know you will not be disappointed.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tour: Teotitlan Altars + Studio Visits, October 29, 2023–One Day

No where is Day of the Dead celebrated with more authenticity than in the villages.

The artisans we visit in Teotitlan del Valle not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they will discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522 and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

We pick you up at 9:00 a.m. at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there by 6:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour.

We welcome you into the Altar Room of each artisan we visit to pay respects to the family and their ancestors. We have arranged for permission for you to take photos and participate in some of the rituals, including tasting Pan de Muertos and Hot Chocolate made locally from toasted cacao beans. All along the way, you will learn more about how this tradition is celebrated, with its deep pre-Hispanic indigenous roots.

Our itinerary includes stops to see

  • a traditional flying shuttle loom weaver who creates award winning home goods and clothing
  • a famous rug weaving family that works only in the highest quality wool and natural dyes
  • a chocolate maker who uses grandmothers’ recipes to make delicious eating chocolate
  • a Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art beeswax candlemaker
  • an accomplished women’s cooperative that fashions leather trimmed handbags
  • lunch at a local restaurant owned by a traditional chef who prepares exquisite food

Registration. Tour cost is $138 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, cemetery visit and lunch. A $35 non-refundable deposit per person will reserve your space.

Final payment is due in cash (either dollars or equivalent pesos) on the day of the tour.

Deposits can be made with a Zelle transfer (no service fee), or with Venmo or PayPal (with a 3% service fee). Please tell us by email which payment method you prefer along with your intent to participate, how many people will be in your party, and we will send you a request for funds. Thank you.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Day Tour: Dia de los Muertos in Mitla, November 1, 2023

Our path along the Pan-America Highway leads us to some of the most iconic villages in Oaxaca. The artisans we visit in San Pablo Villa de Mitla not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they will discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522 and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

We pick you up at 9:00 a.m. at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there by 6:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour.

Our first stop is to Santa Maria del Tule where we will see the massive, 2,000 year old cypress tree known as the Arbol de Tule, considered to be the oldest in the Americas. The mother tree has given birth to numerous nearby offspring and this is a sight to behold.

In San Pablo Villa de Mitla we meet Don Arturo at the Panteon Mitla, the cemetery where his family is buried. We will accompany him to the tomb, participate in honoring his family, and observe how other families memorialize their loved ones. We then return to Arturo’s weaving studio where he explains the traditional altar, the history and cultural significance of the celebration.

Arturo is a famous weaver who works on the traditional back strap loom with wool. This loom is primarily used by men here because it is wider and heavier than the looms used by women to weave cotton fabric. He is also a master at creating natural dye recipes, and uses the flying shuttle loom, an industrial revolution innovation of the mid-1800’s designed to make large scale lengths of cloth for tables, bedspreads, and curtains. His workmanship is so outstanding, he has been invited to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market repeatedly. We will have a traditional Day of the Dead lunch, including homemade Mole Oaxaqueño on the patio of his home studio, prepared by his wife who is an excellent cook!

Don Arturo has a traditional altar. He uses only pre-Hispanic fruits and vegetables to decorate, and the mural behind his altar, featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, is a sight to behold. This is a time for reflection and understanding of pre-Hispanic traditions blended with Spanish Catholicism that is known as syncretism.

Our final stop is to the home of antique dealer Epifanio who has an amazing presentation of traditional pre-Hispanic decorations. You will have a chance to discover many hidden antiques at reasonable prices –off-the-beaten path. We return you to the city by 6:00 p.m.

Registration

Tour cost is $148 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, cemetery visit and a traditional Dia de los Muertos lunch. A $40 non-refundable deposit per person will reserve your space.

Final payment is due in cash (either dollars or equivalent pesos) on the day of the tour.

Deposits can be made with a Zelle transfer (no service fee), or with Venmo or PayPal (with a 3% service fee). Please tell us by email which payment method you prefer along with your intent to participate, how many people will be in your party, and we will send you a request for funds. Thank you.