Monday, 29 September 2014

A life dedicated to textiles

The major exhibition showing at the textile museum while we've been here is 'Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson – A Life Dedicated to Textiles'. I think I've been to see it three times!

Irmgard was an American who first travelled to Mexico with her anthropologist and linguist father when she was quite young. While she followed in her father's footsteps, she gradually began to focus her studies and life's work on the traditional textiles of Mexico. She realised the enormous amount of cultural change the country was going through from the time of the 1910 revolution and began to not only collect textiles where the techniques for making them were at risk of being lost, but recorded the method of making them, the materials and dyes used in their construction, and also drew very detailed patterns of the motifs and designs contained in the pieces.
Irmgard's notes accompanied each piece in the exhibition.
Pictured below is the first piece Irmgard ever collected. It's a traditional top that would have been worn with nothing underneath. It had a very practical purpose in that women could still breastfeed without the need to undo or remove the top. What's amazing is that it's woven in a single length. The community known for this type of weaving had a way of turning the warp threads into weft threads – and vice versa – half way through the piece to change the direction. I have no idea how they did this!
While the work in the exhibition is truly beautiful, it wasn't until we had a tour of with Eric Chavez (the museum's education director) that the real nature of what we were looking at became apparent. The example below was one I certainly didn't pay much attention to the first time I visited. The borders on the pieces are manufactured lace, but the main body of the work is a type of plaiting, a bit like the child's game of cat's cradle. Irmgard did her MA on this technique, as it was disappearing even at the time of her writing. Her notes were so detailed that the museum is able to have experts trying to relearn the craft. The hope is that they will be able to return these skills to the communities they originally came from.
The pattern on the skirt below was created using a resist dyeing technique. It's a wool woven skirt in a natural colour that would have been dyed with cochineal and then over-dyed with indigo. For anyone who has ever done resist dyeing, the sharpness of the shapes on this piece are astonishing. Despite Irmgard's notes, scholars are still at a loss as to how the patterns were created with such precision.
The curator of the exhibition here at Oaxaca has chosen pieces that specifically illustrate special techniques and the largest room is dedicated to items from Oaxaca. The image below shows a traditional huipil (pronounced wee-peel or wee-peel-es for the plural form). It is created as three lengths on a backstrap loom, which are then sewn together. The patterns are created using a supplementary weft. This is the exact technique we learnt during the residency so it was wonderful to see so many examples of it. The purple dye on the huipil shown here is from a coastal sea snail and was greatly prized. It is now endangered and only certain people are licensed to extract the dye.
The huipil below isn't exactly a huipil. You can see how the head hole has been cut out at a later stage. This garment would have previously been worn with the arms still going through the armholes but the rest sits around the shoulders and over the top of the head. It is only after death that the hole is normally cut and the body is dressed in it as a standard huipil for burial.
The items in the exhibition also record changes in fashion over time. The following three huipils are all from the same area or community – Chinantec. The first was from 1934–5 and shows a traditional red and white huipil with the coloured embroidered centrepiece over the breastbone. The placement of these motifs held special significance.
The second huipil below was from 1942–3. You can see the style has changed in that they've now over-dyed the embroidery in the centre with indigo. It's not quite known why they did this – maybe to prolong the colour of the dyes. To be honest, that seems a little pointless to me when it's covering them up entirely, but who knows?
The last huipil in this series is from a little after the second, and still shows the use of indigo, but instead of covering the embroidery, it's used to over-dye the white areas of the huipil. I think it's interesting how we often think of these traditions as being static, but of course they were just as influenced by new techniques, materials and fashions as we are today.
In a sad twist of fate, the entire Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson collection is actually owned by the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands and is on loan for this exhibition. Irmgard needed to sell the collection a number of years before she died in 2011. The Oaxaca Textile Museum was only just starting up and they put in an offer for the collection just after the deal with the Netherlands had been done! It's a real shame, and I hope one day they find a way to bring the complete collection home.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Reflections on weaving

My weaving lessons have now come to an end, and I realise, while I've shared a lot about what I've been seeing, I haven't shared much about what I've been learning here.

For me, this time has been a slowing down, a time of accepting that what I'm creating is not going to be perfect and a chance to develop a daily practice.

As it was a new skill I was learning, in a foreign language no less, I decided early on that I was going to keep the weaving pretty simple, leaving the more ambitious or experimental project to the weeks of embroidery. I think this was a good move. It made me less precious about the work. I didn't worry too much when my first attempt had a section of uneven weaving. It's something that I probably could have prevented if my teacher and I spoke the same language, but instead I learned from my mistake and my second attempt is much more consistent.
Wonky first attempt.
I'm also letting go of the fact that there's a rust stain repeated throughout the cotton on my warp and weft – something I also would have discussed with my teacher had we had a common language, but again, I've just let it go and I'm treating my pieces here as samplers and preparation for trying new things at home.

I'm not even particularly concerned about whether I remember how to warp the loom or finish off the piece. YouTube has so many tutorials to set me straight and I will be taking a semester of weaving at some point, so I'll be able to do a refresher then.

Eufracina, our teacher, specialises in a type of backstrap loom weaving that involves a supplementary weft. This means adding in additional threads in each row to create your pattern. It's taken us a little time to get our heads around this – a time-consuming process with patterns not created on a square grid, but rather on a brick grid, as pictured.
During the first week, Eufracina taught us on looms that were already warped. Our challenge was to understand how to get a consistent weave and to try out a bunch of different patterns so we could plan our own piece for the following week.

On the Sunday we went to visit Eufracina's house where we learnt to warp the looms ourselves. I was really keen to weave something using the coyuchi cotton, but we weren't able to get our hands on some in time (thankfully I have now secured about 450g, so that will certainly be coming home with me). Instead I chose to use the natural cotton again and some brighter colours for the pattern. I've also kept to simple geometrics and tried out a series of stripes. I think, for me, the bigger issue has been keeping the weave consistent, so I wanted to keep everything else fairly simple. Plus I'm always a fan of stripes!
I'm pretty happy with my final piece (pictured at top) and already have plans for my coyuchi cotton. I'm also interested to try the type of backstrap loom weaving the Navarro sisters did, where they had multiple warp colours and a single weft colour.

I'm certainly more conscious now, looking at the types of woven fabrics I'm seeing (in stores, markets and the textile museum), of how the weave might have been created and the huge amount of work that goes into each piece.
Backstrap loom weaving by the Navarro Gomez family.

Monday, 8 September 2014

En Via – changing women's lives

En Via is an organisation that, in part, blends tourism with the provision of interest-free micro loans to Oaxacan business women. When you sign up for a tour with En Via, which I did recently, you travel to the villages around Oaxaca to meet with women who have recently received loans, see their businesses and talk with them about their plans, and often, how these loans have changed their lives.

I have to say the this trip was very humbling and will stay with me for a long time. When a woman wants to join the program she has to sign up with two other women so they act as a support network for each other and ensure that they each repay their loans. They start with a 1,500 peso loan each – that's approximately $150 AUD! Marcelina used her first loan to buy an additional gas bottle for her restaurant. Now with two gas bottles she doesn't have to shut the restaurant at night when the gas bottle runs out, she can switch to the back-up and keep cooking, and there's no down time while she gets the first one refilled. Such a small thing, but it made the world of difference to Marcelina and her business.
The cathedral at Teotitlan del Valle.
Isabel was the first woman we visited in Teotitlan del Valle. She made lunch for all of us at her restaurant – she was such a sweetie. She and her husband run a weaving business, but during the off season for tourism she decided to start a restaurant to support the family during these times. All of these women's businesses are run from their homes. Along with the loans, they have access to small business training and other one-off courses. Isabel recently participated in a branding course that was run by graphic design students from Mexico City, so she now has a brand new logo for her restaurant. This may not sound like much, but to be able to paint it on the side of her house means that people can now recognise it as a business and it's made a world of difference for passing trade.
Dried pomegranate and the yarn dyed with it.
After lunch we went to see a family that make woven rugs on a treadle loom. Teotitlan del Valle is famous for its woven rugs. There we met Maria and her son and daughter-in-law Irene. Maria put on the most amazing display for us. She took us through their whole production process, from washing and carding the bundles of wool, dyeing the yarn and finally to weaving it.

She had each dyestuff on hand, and a matching skein of wool that had been dyed using that colour. She ground cochineal and showed us to add lime for oranges or bicarb soda for purples; she had marigold for yellow, indigo for blues, pomegranates for browns; a plant they grow locally for the greens (I didn't catch what it was called) and a root that grows in the mountains that they use for washing and softening the wool. It was an absolute treasure trove.
The ground cochineal.
Dyestuffs fermenting.
After stepping us through the dyeing process we then got to see the treadle loom and a demonstration on how the rugs are made. Below is a sample of the bobbins they use to make the coloured patterns. There was no way I could walk away from here without buying a rug to take home. You can see the one I chose at the bottom of this post – cochineal-dyed by Maria and woven by Irene. In fact they had to finish off all the ends while we were there as Irene said it had only just come off the loom.
After Teotitlan del Valle we went to the village of Santo Domingo Tomaltepec to meet a number of other women – all amazing in their own way – but the one that really got to me was Gloria. We sat around a table in her backyard that was covered in pieces she had sewn. Gloria is the local seamstress, called upon to do a lot of mending. People come to her to get zippers and buttons replaced, hems fixed etc. Before Gloria became part of En Via's program customers often had to wait a long time until either Gloria, or they, could travel into Oaxaca to get the replacement zipper or button. With her first loan Gloria bought a box of zippers and a variety of buttons. Not only could she buy them cheaper, meaning she could make a mark-up on the cost, but it also meant she could fix people's clothing on the spot – increasing her production.
Rugs for sale at Maria's place.
Gloria is onto her third loan and hidden underneath the items on her table was what she really wanted to show us – her pride and joy – the thing she has purchased with her latest loan – a brand new sewing machine! Now Gloria has started to make clothing to sell to women of the village and her dream is to one day have a little space of her own to work from.

It is almost shocking to think about how much we have in life when these women have so little. If you have the time, go on over to En Via's website and learn a little more about what they do. The afternoon I spent with them was really a highlight of my trip so far.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Down on the cochineal farm

I'm becoming quite obsessed with cochineal. For those who have no idea what that is – no worries, neither did I a few months ago (beyond it being a red food colouring). It's an insect, as well as being the name of the dye colour they produce. The insect feeds off a certain cactus and releases carminic acid to deter predators.
While the dye on its own produces a rich blue-red, when mixed with an acid or alkali it can produce one third of the colour spectrum – from golden yellow to the deepest purples.

Oaxaca is the centre of cochineal production in Mexico and was once responsible for the second highest grossing export for the country behind silver. In fact, during colonial times, the Spanish forced a monopoly on cochineal production. If you were caught smuggling it the penalty was death.

While farming cochineal lessened dramatically following the introduction of synthetic dyes, the move to sustainability, and issues with allergies to synthetic food colouring has seen a resurgence in its production. So, given we are in the cradle of cochineal and are all interested in its use as a textile dye, we took ourselves off to a cochineal farm to see how it all works.
The tour of the farm was completely in Spanish, so I've filled any gaps with Wikipedia. That little cylindrical basket in the photo above is called a zapotec basket, and it's used in the controlled method of cochineal farming. The big leaf shapes are removed from the cactus and brought into a greenhouse (for want of a better term) because they need to be kept at a certain temperature. The baskets contain the fertile females, who leave to feed off the host cacti, waiting to be fertilised.
The white you can see all over the cacti is the new baby cochineals that can be harvested when they are 90 days old. They need to be manually brushed from the leaves and then dried and processed – it's pretty labour intensive. To use it as a dye you need to crush the dried cochineal and mix it with water as well as a mordant to fix the dye.
It takes an enormous number of insects to produce a kilo of dye, somewhere in the order of 80,000–100,000. It's been very hard for us to buy plain-spun yarn or cotton that is dyed with natural substances, it seems most weavers dye it themselves or buy synthetic-dyed materials. It's a bit of a shame as it means we can't use natural-dyed thread while we're here.

Below is the cochineal farmer's dye recipe chart. It's important to keep records like this if you want to achieve consistent colour each time.
Last, but not least, this is the rug I bought on a tour we did. I will write about the tour next, as it was a really wonderful experience, but I wanted to show the rug here as it's completely dyed with cochineal – amazing isn't it?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Finally on the loom!

Woo hoo! Today we finally started weaving. Eufrocina is our tutor and thankfully she's very patient with us. These are our little backstrap looms – they're very portable, as you can see. You basically unroll them and strap one end to a pole or a tree and tie the other end around your back. I was way too busy concentrating today, but I'll make sure I get a photo of us in action sometime soon.
We first did a few rows of plain weaving before we started a simple geometric pattern. The pattern we chose is a motif that's based on the lifecycle of maize. Mia and I thought we'd be better starting with the same pattern, that way when Eufrocina isn't there we can help each other along. Here's the first colour being added in. It's all in cotton and the colour is just embroidery floss.
Here's the second colour being added in. This type of weaving isn't really like the backstrap weaving the Navarro family were doing. If you go back to that post you can see that their warp is a number of different colours, the weft is a single colour and they make all the patterns by passing the weft under and over certain warp threads.
I obviously don't have the slightest idea about why you would choose one type of weaving over another, or what patterns you can do with one form over another, but I'm sure I'll learn! At the end of three hours, this is what I had managed...
As well as a very numb bum.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Oaxaca Textile Museum

The most fabulous textile resource exists for us here in the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. It's only a small museum, but it has a large collection – some 7,000 pieces – mostly from Oaxaca, but also from around the world, and a great reference library for research.
There are two exhibitions on there at the moment, one I've written about on Instagram and the other is 'A Cotton Thread – A Path to Freedom'.  This exhibition tells the story of a Zapotec community in San Sebastián Río Hondo that was losing its livelihood. The village is located in the southern mountains of Oaxaca and weavers there had previously made their living through the sale of handmade woven woollen products. Wool is not native to Mexico and was introduced by the Spanish during colonisation. Due to the loss of pastures over the years, farming sheep is no longer viable, and with that has gone the supply of wool.
Mark Brown, who is a long time resident of San Sebastián Río Hondo, as well as having spent years in India, thought that introducing the khādī movement to the community might enable them to return to self-sufficiency. This movement was developed by Ghandi, and encouraged Indians to resurrect old traditions by learning to spin the cotton they had grown and weave it themselves rather than ship it to Britain where it was processed, returned to India as cloth and sold at much higher prices.

Mark began with one family and a couple of spinning wheels (known as charkhas) and the women brought their knowledge of spinning wool to the task of spinning cotton.
Now there are more than 45 families involved in the enterprise and the quality of the cotton has increased exponentially over the last few years. The fabric is woven on both backstrap and treadle looms and a number of the pieces are embroidered. Much of the cotton in this exhibition is the organic Prehispanic coyuchi cotton which the villagers are acquiring through exchange with another community on the coast of Oaxaca. It has a beautiful natural colour.

The work is being so well received that the community is really working together to figure out how to manage their next steps and the museum is also talking with them about how they can transfer this sustainable success story to other communities.

Everything about this exhibition was beautiful and I just love hearing stories like this, of communities coming back to life through a tradition that is sustainable and was theirs all along.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Watching the master weavers in action

To get prepare us for weaving ourselves next week, we visited a family in Santo Tomas Jalieza who are masters in the art of the backstrap loom. The mother, Crispina, and her three daughters – Mariana, Margarita and Inés. Not to be left out, their brother Gerado is a painter. Crispina has won many national weaving awards and we were lucky enough to be able to watch her at work.

First Inés showed us how she makes these very fine bracelets. The family always works in cotton, and these are the smallest pieces they do. Inés makes three bracelets in a long row and then cuts them apart and plaits the ends.
The cotton they use is from a local supplier and it's synthetic dyed to get the range of bright colours. Crispina told us she prefers working in the brights and when she does designs in browns or naturals she calls them sad colours. A woman after my own heart!
Today Crispina was making a man's belt to wear with the traditional costume. First she has to thread the loom. She knows all the designs off by heart, so she knows how many threads to wind before she starts.

Once she's thread them all she then attaches two wooden rods through the loops that are currently on her arm. The wooden rods are then attached to a tree. The other end also has a rod passed through it (you can see it two photos below) and this is attached to a strap that is belted around Crispina's back – hence backstrap loom.
Crispina doesn't know in advance which motifs she'll weave – it's whatever takes her fancy at the time. The same goes for the border pattern you can see being worked up either side. Crispina is starting a motif design here so her left hand is counting the number of threads she needs to move to get the particular design.
I asked her if she ever makes mistakes, they all laughed and said of course, especially when the chatting gets carried away, but she's showing me here how easy it is for her to see if something has gone wrong and she can just undo it straight away.
We weren't watching Crispina for very long, but in that time she managed to wrap the cotton, thread the loom, and weave this rooster pattern. She said the whole belt will be finished some time tomorrow. The family weaves everyday and have such a reputation that they don't have to sell at markets, but rather people come to them to buy.
As well as the traditional belts, they also do table runners, placements and bags. I think I'll be lucky if I can just manage a bracelet of stripes!