We've had almost a week in Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. Oaxaca is heaven for textile fanciers. Everywhere you turn there are beautiful textiles to lure you - people wearing them, shops and markets selling them, hawkers showing them, and museums displaying them. We began by visiting the Museo de Textil de Oaxaca to get an idea of the traditions of the region. It's a relatively small museum in an elegantly restored colonial building. Over our visit I was delighted by the way the street facades of these old buildings open to tranquil courtyard spaces - but that's another story. The museum displays only part of its collection at any one time, but displays it beautifully. There's much to examine and admire.
All the older textiles, and many of the modern ones are hand-woven, using either backstrap or pedal looms depending on the outcome that's needed. Often the fabrics are then elaborately hand-embroidered. An earthy red colour predominates in the fabrics that originally, and still sometimes today, are dyed with cochineal - the tiny beetle that produces the deep red dye that was so desired and traded during the colonial period and brought much wealth to this area.
Upstairs in the museum there was an exhibition of modern huipil (the name of the simple sleeveless garment, whether short or long), still displaying exquisite hand-embroidery:
[I bought a fine handwoven checked pink and yellow reboso - a scarf or shawl]
We went to a huge local market in the village of Tlacolula; the kind of market where you could have bought almost anything you wanted or needed - fruit and veg, meat and fish, hardware, underclothes, children's toys, cups of the delicious local hot chocolate (yum). Many of the women traders were dressed in local style - brightly coloured longish pleated or gathered skirts, often in shiny fabrics, a blouse with puffed sleeves and a lace collar, an apron decorated with embroidery, and a reboso. Many had their long plaits intertwined with ribbons.
A cross-street of the market was lined with stalls selling woven and embroidered huipils, blouses and dresses. Even though the quality was not as fine as the work we saw in the Museum and the Museum shop, it was still of good quality and the riotousness and inventiveness of the colour combinations was astonishing. There were also amazing bargains to be had.
[I bought a cream calico dress with vibrant multi-coloured hand embroidery. I hope I have the courage to wear it.]
In town there are shops selling handcrafts on almost every corner - grey pottery characteristic of the area, tinware, brightly coloured wooden fantasy animals (alebrijes), and of course the woven and embroidered textiles and clothes. One day we happened upon a group of older women selling their work in the entrance to the public library. It was at another level of excellence altogether.
As the maker proudly pointed out, the dresses combined four techniques - the flowered embroidery, elaborate drawn-thread work, crochet borders and inserts (the red in the first picture above), and a small line of smocking, incorporating the tiniest embroidered human figures, at the join of the yoke and body of the dress. All of the women were working as they waited for customers - this woman was crocheting the neck border for a dress at extraordinary speed:
[I resisted an bought nothing for myself here. But I did buy a bright yellow dress covered in just as bright blue embroidery for my grand-daughter.]
Some of the higher end shops in town displayed their work like cameos of loveliness. Of course it helps if the store is located in a restored colonial building and you have antique furniture in which to store and display it.
The shop in the photo above specialised in weaving, rather than embroidery. I was astonished at the variety of the hand-weaving techniques still practised and available for sale. Where it's appropriate, some of the fabrics are still made using back-strap looms and then the narrow strips of fabric are sewn together with decorative stitching to produce huipils or ponchos.
[I bought a hand-woven striped huipil in what are relatively subdued colours for Oaxaca. I returned the next day to buy a long skirt to go under the huipil, having been seduced by the sight of elegant women in the streets wearing this traditional combination.]
Oh, and I forgot to mention the rugs and carpets, often dyed with the natural dyes that are so characteristic of this region.
Textile heaven, indeed.