When I started researching the possibilities of this project in 2017, the first back-strap loom weaving group I met was Mujeres Sembrando La Vida cooperative. We were connected by Natik, a US NGO that mainly focuses on helping the women implement community education programmes, but also facilitates new working relationships for the artisans, whom then take complete control. Yoli Hernández, the president, invited me to meet her at her house and showroom in Zinacantán– a textile and flower-growing community about a twenty-five minute minibus ride from San Cristóbal, where she lives with her sister (and colleague) Xunca and their mother Magdalena who founded the cooperative in the 1980s. She explained to me how the cooperative incorporates approximately 60 girls and women of the Tzotzil ethnic group aged 12-60, from the more remote communities of Jechentic, Nachig and Elambo, each specialised in slightly different techniques from brocade-weaving to cross-stitch embroidery in cotton, wool and synthetics.
It is important to state that the textiles of this small Tzotzil ethnic region has become somewhat diluted and convoluted in the recent decades, as their close proximity to San Cristóbal (an increasingly touristic hotspot) has meant that their local textile industry has succumb heavily to the cheap souvenir market and the influx of convenient industrial synthetics. However, there are still some distinct characteristics of the Zinacantán style, such as the floral-embroidered blouses inspired by their local flower trade. The colours are usually different tones of purple and blue, but unfortunately the materials are mostly synthetic now and most embroideries done by machine! On special occasions, such as weddings however, you will see the bride in a stunning white Huipil woven with patterns and rows of white bird feathers! The women do still master incredible skills and seem to be committed to reviving the quality and value of their product, as claimed by Yoli– they just need to feel reassured that there is a market out there for them, ready and willing to appreciate and pay for their work in its true integrity.
Yoli showed me the range of this work and I could see such quality and attention to detail, and ultimately a lot of potential for me to work with them. I was tempted by their cross-stitch embroidery, but it was simply too time-consuming and expensive to start the project with. I was also tempted by the 'deshilado' technique (see pictures below). But it was their 'brocade' technique that really got me excited, layered and slick patterns in raised textures over stripes- vibrant colours and what was most surprising was the clean finish! You'd expect to see the yarn ends from the brocade patterns on the reverse of the fabric, but they had such a way to completely seal the excess yarn– it was impressive! However, one issue was going to be the weight of the fabric, I was aiming for lighter garments.
Zinacantán is in the highlands and is most often cool and damp, therefore they use more compact and heavier fabrics using thicker yarns. So for the lighter garments I was aiming for, I asked Yoli if they'd be willing to experiment with a finer yarn and she agreed. It has been a lot of trial and error, and required a lot of patience from the weavers, who have responded with a lot of determination, as a cooperative they refused to give up! The challenge posed by the thinner yarn, is that it is more delicate and with the humidity it is susceptible to snags and breaks. Also, it requires a different level of physical manipulation, more delicate and more precise. We trialled at least 8 times before finally landing on the perfect finish!
As a result we have the beautiful Magdalena dress, named aptly after Magdalena González, the founder of Mujeres Sembrando La Vida. Depending on the artisan (all have a different pace) it is 100-120hrs of weaving (over many weeks)! The style of the fabric was completely inspired by the designs of Mujeres Sembrando La Vida, those patterns over stripes that I had loved on my first visit! But I put a little Anni Albers (the great Bauhaus textile artist) twist to it.
Mujeres Sembrando La Vida seem to be really happy with the result and the fact that they pushed themselves to try something new that could be offered to other clients. I am looking forward to experimenting with new designs now that we have perfected the fabric and exploring new weaves with Mujeres Sembrando la Vida! However, after many attempts, we have come to accept that there are only 3 artisans within the cooperative that can weave with this yarn to a high enough standard. I am intent on providing opportunities for the weavers to expand their skillset should they wish to, but it is also important that we (myself and the cooperative leaders) don't marginalise those that cannot yet weave with this fine yarn, therefore we are exploring other pieces and designs that more women can produce with the aim is to create work opportunities to more women!
We are currently assembling and embroidering a few pieces of the Magdalena dress available for purchase very soon! So keep your eyes peeled for when they go online! And should we sell out, we are always able to take pre-orders for this piece, so get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org!
A LITTLE ANNI ALBERS INSPIRATION, DRAFT FOR A TAPESTRY, 1926: