Welcome to our new Textile Insight series, giving you some real insight and history behind the development of our textiles! The narrative behind every one of our pieces and fabrics is so rich that we'd like to share it with you. So, fiirst up is the gauze weave of Venustiano Carranza, which has given life to our Carmen Smock Dress and the Paraíso Night Set!
My love affair with the gauze weave from Venustiano Carranza dates back to 2015 when I visited the Museum of Mayan Textiles & Costume in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. I had spent hours observing every single garment and textile in awe from different Mayan regions of Mexico and Guatemala, all fascinating, most of which were heavier weaves representing the cooler highlands- and then the men's light blue shirt (pictured below) caught my eye. It then took my breath away- it was the most intricate yet delicate work I had seen in Mexican textiles! I had always known India to be the country for artisan-made cotton gauze and had also seen some beautiful examples in Guatemala, so to learn of something as accomplished in Mexico was very exciting! It was followed by some women's blouses from the region, equally is beautiful, but with simpler designs. I noted down as much information as possible from the descriptions, which explained that Venustiano Carranza was in the hot lowlands, giving reason for the airy open-weave. These notes would guide my future research.
CARMEN VÁZQUEZ & THE HISTORY OF THE 'PETET' TEXTILES OF VENUSTIANO CARRANZA
In 2017 I started intensely researching the possibilities to start this project, and as I still daydreamed about those gauzy fabrics I’d seen back in 2015, I knew I had to track down some weavers from the region, despite being told that it was one of the most expensive of Mexican textiles and that there weren’t many organised cooperatives left whom I could approach. A long online search led me to an oldish brochure by the Mexican Secretary of Culture/FONART for an awards ceremony celebrating the best textile artisans regionally, and prized for the Venustiano Carranza region was Carmen Vázquez. Some further online research into Carmen, took me to another brochure within which her phone number was listed. I wasn’t very optimistic, as telephone numbers change or are blocked all the time in Mexico. However, my pessimism was proved wrong as the call went through and was answered by a soft and curious voice- it was Carmen! I explained the reason for my call and generous in spirit, she agreed to meet me on my research trip in November 2017!
A 4 hour journey from San Cristóbal de las Casas took me to the fairly abandoned textile ‘parador’ (a centre for artisans to weave and sell) just outside of Venustiano Carranza town, where I met Carmen for the first time. A woman in her latter 60s, she was very warm and happy to share her story, well she is now very experienced in doing so as a celebrated artisan and as one of the leaders of the cooperative 'Chi-O-Ka-Nal', which from their dialect of Tzotzil roughly translates to 'Points of the Stars'. Its membership has fluctuated over the years, just like in any organisation there can be disagreements of illness, but it currently incorporates 15 women of between 20 and 60 years of age.
Carmen told me how she was taught to weave from the age of 10, firstly just plain fabrics for trousers, and then at 12 she learnt the ‘brocado’ technique for the blouses. She remembered a time in which her parents harvested and spun their own cotton, known as ‘Petet’ for its extremely fine quality and lamented that this culture had been mostly lost due to industrialisation and the convenient availability of ready-made yarns, as well as the government having ceased cotton-growing land for the building of dams. There are some artisans that still spin Petet yarn, but due to its rarity and time-consuming production it has become extremely expensive- a blouse or huipil in Petet (hand-spun cotton) can fetch up to $35,000 Mexican Pesos ($1,500 US). She believes that many of the artisans would love to revive the cotton-growing, however they don’t know how to start.
Carmen also spoke of the social tensions between men and women of her region, when women started experiencing new opportunities through their textiles, the men feared their empowerment and would often threaten them if they tried to leave their communities. In the 80s Carmen started winning accolades for which she was invited to collect her prize-money, her husband wouldn’t let her go. However, once the men realised the money that these prizes and sales of textiles could bring in, they started to put down their guard, and the women started experiencing more freedoms and respect. It wasn't until 1989 that Carmen left her community of Totik for the first time to travel to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas- the government were offering free fertilisers and her husband asker her to go on his behalf. Now, as a master artisan, she has travelled the world with the Mexican government and cultural organisations promoting Mexican artisanship, including Japan, Argentina, Chile and Barcelona. She has even woven the fabric for a Tsari gifted from Mexico to the Indian Ambassador! As much as she has cherished these opportunities, it has also presented its fair share of challenges- the specifics, I am not at liberty to share!
Carmen enjoys weaving so much, and is also very proud of the embroidery culture of the region which is used for the their ‘enaguas’ (wrap-skirts), for which the traditional colours are fuchsia, yellow, purple and green. However, she is unable to weave as much these days due to her age, so she now spends more of her time teaching her skills to new generations in local schools in the hope that they will live on and be cherished. Unfortunately but understandably, this has also meant that Carmen herself has been unable to weave for Rose Moreno, but perhaps this is better for the fact that she is able to spread the work to other artisans that are extremely talented, but more in need of the work! So Carmen has acted as a facilitator between myself and her weaving friends and family! Since early 2018 we started trialling small pieces of fabric, which have required practically no intervention from me! And eventually we settled on one design, which is now the aptly-named Carmen Smock Dress.
I am now working directly with several artisans from Carmen’s extended family in the remote community of Paraíso de Grijalva - Angela del Carmen Gómez (in video), a real cracker and the wife of Carmen’s nephew, and her niece Malena Vázquez. The design of the fabric is the artisan’s own modern interpretation of traditional patterns from the region, in the colourful version, I just played with the colour and we very slightly altered the composition, but really the design must be attributed to the artisans! The resulting fabric is truly stunning, everything I'd ever dreamed and the piece as a whole is so easy to wear.It has been such a joy to work with the Vázquez-Gómez family, they are very open and warm considering I am a complete outsider! I have been privileged enough to be invited to spend some time with them at their gorgeous home, including a delicious fish dinner with fresh homemade tortillas from their wood-burning ‘comal’. I truly hope that we can continue this collaboration for a long time to come, and that their art is increasingly appreciated by the Mexican and international community- their skill deserves to be celebrated as much as their Indian counterparts!