Sometimes the best discoveries come with effort. Last week I traveled a “short” 3 hours from Oaxaca to the Mixe region of Oaxaca in pursuit of some unusual bags and luscious shawls from a pueblo called Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec (“Tlahui” for short, thankfully!)
The inhabitants of the pueblo are part of the Mixe ethnic group, which is located in the northeast corner of the state of Oaxaca and is composed of about 85,000 people. It is an area that is generally mountainous, which at least partially explains why these people were never conquered by the Spaniards, Aztecs or Zapotecs.
After 2 hours of twisting and turning roads (sorry about the car sickness Mary!) we arrived at the fog enshrouded mountainside pueblo. My friend Arturo, who knows the area and the weavers of Tlahui well was waiting for us there, and after a quick greeting, we set off, up into the upper reaches of the village for our “insiders” tour of the artisans of the pueblo.
Finding any of these workshops would have been utterly impossible without a person with local knowledge. Fortunately, Arturo was a teacher in Tlahui years ago and still knew his way around. We climbed up and up on criss-crossing foot paths until we arrived at the home and workshop of Fernando Gutierrez, where skeins of recently dyed cotton were hanging above his home to dry.
In a word, his shawls are spectacular! These soft, luscious 100% cotton rebosos are hand woven on a pedal floor loom by Fernando and finished by his wife, who ties the intricate patterned knotted ends. Their dyes are natural and come from plants such as banana, marigold, and tree bark.
After making our selections, we worked our way over to another workshop farther into the village which was of a completely different nature. The women we visited were busily sewing blouses and bags with very modern sewing machines. The interesting part is that they were using the machine as they would a needle and thread, in that they were hand feeding the clothing through the machines, twisting and turning the fabric to create unique designs. The result was fascinating as each blouse and bag was a one-of-a-kind work, with a distinct style, unique to the pueblo.
As the story goes, members of Tlahui more than 50 years ago were in a different pueblo where huaraches (Mexican rustic sandals) were being made. They noticed how quickly the machine could do the work and decided to bring some machines back to Tlahui to use in their own crafts. The pueblo has since become known for this distinctive textile style.
Before leaving, we made one more stop at the studio of Bonifacio Vasquez, where we purchased several of his beautiful shawls made in the same style as those we had seen earlier.
As we concluded our visit with Arturo and were making moves to head back to Oaxaca, he insisted we stop by the wedding he had been invited to for a bite to eat and to meet his friends. This is what I LOVE about Mexico! Plans are only ever general guidelines and life is mostly very fluid. Of course, we stayed, ate, met the happy couple and ultimately left Tlahui feeling that we had made friends, established long term ties with the artisans, and planted seeds for more visits.
Please do visit the “Shawls” page for a closer look at their beautiful work and the “Accessories” page for samples of their unique designs on bags.
Coming soon, photos from Festival of the Radishes and recycled paper jewelry.