Here at Relativity we #bringtheworldhome and our adventurous eye this week has lead us deep into researching Mexico.
Whether it’s the incredible capital, Distrito Federal aka Mexico City D.F., or its elaborate and complex national history, or the masterful and ancient crafts that have become symbols of Mexican culture around the world — we are absolutely swooning.
But right now lets talk about four of the major Mexican textiles, each of which are known for their impeccable craftmanship, delicious patterns, and fascinating social implications.
A rebozo is a woven textile that functions somewhere between a shawl and a scarf. It takes the shape of a long rectangle, with complex knotted fringe work on the ends. Rebozos vary in their use and style — some are used for work and labor and are woven out of durable materials that allow for heavy lifting, especially in the context of motherhood where the rebozo is used to aid birth and then carry a child after. There are also very glamorous rebozos made from delicate materials for the famous, rich, and powerful and are used for special occasions like national holidays and weddings. Rebozos because of this context have become a symbol of femininity and are a part of every stage of life including birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, death, and mourning.
Rebozos are woven on either a backstrap or floor loom, and are an incredibly labor and time intensive process, often taking months to complete a single one. They are made in three general steps: the first is the binding and dyeing of the fibers, the second is the weaving and matching up of the pattern, and the third is the complex finger weaving and knotting that finishes the rebozo. The dye technique is called ‘ikat’ which means the fibers are grouped and bound to create a resist pattern, and then dip dyed (this step can be repeated to create layered dye patterns). Then the fibers are unbound, and woven by a skilled artisan who has to precisely line up the resists to create the often blurry pattern that rebozos are known for. Once the weaving is finished, the fringe is knotted in an incredibly complex way to create another pattern and finish off the textile.
The largest number of reboceros, or the people who produce rebozos, are found in the municipality Tenancingo, Mexico, located Southwest of D.F. Mexico City. There are also weaving workshops across the country, often in more rural regions. While the rebozo is still used in the everyday culture of Mexico, it is also important to note the modern uses. A major show at the London Fashion & Textile Museum showcases the history of the rebozo as well as Mexican fashion designers use of the traditional textile in their modern collections — both of which aim to stop the rebozo from becoming a lost art form. The usefulness of the rebozo as a birthing agent has also gained popularity among doulas and midwives as the textile is incredibly helpful for relieving pain, pressure, and adjusting the position of the child to transition to an easier birthing process.
Otomi is actually the name of an indigenous group of people who live in the central plateau region in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico. The craft of creating these brightly colored contrasting embroidered nature motifs, called tenangos (which means stone neighborhood) in reference to the cave paintings they are inspired from, was not even sold until 50 years ago. In the 1960s there was a massive drought which decimated the agriculture economy of the Otomi people, which pushed them to develop this traditional craft into a product for the market. They adapted their techniques to become more efficient and have had great success selling their embroidered textiles, known simply as Otomi, across the globe.
The textiles are created by first freehand drawing the motifs — like the local birds, armadillos, and flowers — directly onto the fabric. Then with brilliantly colored thread, the motifs are hand embroidered using a satin stitch. The traditional tenagos were made using more complex stitch work, but to adapt to the need to transform these textiles into a profitable product the local Otomi artisans pivoted to the satin stitch, which is a foundational and wonderfully simple way to actualize their vibrant designs quickly.
These textiles have a quality of magical realism, finding a balance between the mythical and the real. The motifs used in the embroidered textiles are said to have been inspired by the Otomi cave paintings. They depict plants, animals, and natural forces in a slightly abstracted style, all of which are shown in a profile perspective. Organized in a delicious contrast of positive and negative space, these lively images appear over a bright white background, allowing the colorful embroidery to really pop. Although the images are often an idealized and fantastic version of reality, that magical sense is paired with the original purpose of these textiles, which is to narrate the life of the maker.
In the lush valleys of Southern Mexico, the traditional embroidered dresses of the Oaxacan women, called Tehuanas, exude power and femininity. The feminist in me is just gushing over the social implications of these incredible garments — they are designed both in their exquisite craftsmanship and detail work to accentuate the power of the matriarchy of Oaxaca, and when the Tehuanas dance, they say for a moment the men become smaller. Important things to note about this matriarchy are that the women often make more money than their husbands and are also in charge of managing the finances of their family. The women dress up in the Tehuana costume for special ceremonies called velas, which often center around a patron saint and include a procession and a crowning of a queen.
The traditional Tehuana costume is known for its’ two parts, the dress called a huipil, and the cascading fan like crown called holanes. The dresses are often made from dark velvet, which is then filled with freehand drawings of dreams, magic, and stories. The huipils are very personal, and what is depicted on them is a passionate example of the powerful futurity of the individual and communal matriarchy of Oaxaca. The velvet is embroidered either by hand or machine, and also references the traditional Zapotec designs, specifically the flora of the lush valley of Oaxaca.
The Tehuana costume has inspired many artists including photographer Tina Modotti, print maker Claudio Linatti, as well as legends like painter and muralist Diego Rivera and painter and fashion icon Frida Khalo. Frida is known for her quote, “Mi vestido soy yo (my clothing is me)” which is clear in the way that the garments she chose to wear were heavily researched and chosen for their symbolism and importance to Khalo as a Mexican Woman. It is said she was fascinated by the Tehuanas and the way that the women adorn themselves in these elaborate dresses, fantastic jewelry, and organize entire community events that focus on the power of the women — where they dance among themselves creating a moving magical garden of life.
An incredibly versatile woven textile, the serape (also spelled sarape) is a blanket that can be used for lounging and having a picnic, keeping you warm while you sleep, protecting your horse, keeping your home shady, or even as a statement piece of men’s fashion which allows them to play the peacock. Their origin seems to be an amalgam of ancient Aztec techniques where they were woven out of cotton and agave fibers and dyed using natural materials like insects and fruits, as well as evolving from the Spanish overcoat called a capa and the introduction of the pedal loom and domesticated wool, creating an object that exists somewhere between poncho and blanket. Serapes are known to have come from Saltillo, the now capital of the Mexican state Coahuila, located in the Northeastern tip of Mexico.
The counterpoint to the rebozos and huipiles that are icons of Mexican femininity, the Serape was a staple of men’s fashion and had variation that denoted various social and economic factors. Serapes were useful textiles for cowboys and workers but also were made in lavish fibers for the rich and powerful men such as hacienda owners and gentlemen attending parties in D.F. Mexico City. Even the color choices are sources of information, as the neutral toned variety often come from the rural mountainous regions of Mexico where durability and the use of local resources trumps the flashy colors and delicate fibers of the symbolic wealth of the peacocks of the cities. However, western dress was beginning to deeply influence Mexican culture, and the weaving of serapes started to diminish until an exhibition of Mexican Folk Art happened in Los Angeles in 1925, spurring a new wave of tourism guided by the invention of snapshot cameras. Thus the serape joined the ranks of the sombrero as a distinctly Mexican symbol fueled by a massive resurgence in weaving fueled by the booming tourist industry.
However this resurgence comes with a caveat — the traditional methods of producing a serape, specifically the process begins with shearing the sheep for their wool, spinning it into yarn, then dying it, and then the complex weaving process known for the intricate designs, especially the focal medallion in the center — takes months. Many Mexican families stopped producing serapes because the cost of producing them exceeded the demand for authentic high quality serapes, making the ones left either historic artifacts or cheap neon tourist traps.
After this learning all these juicy details about these incredible Mexican textiles, I’m hungry for more, so stay tuned for future research about Mexico.
What can I say, #ihavethisthingwithtextiles