Documenting the Lives of Textiles

An Interview with Sheri Brautigam

Textile expert, Sheri Brautigam, shares with HAND/EYE Online, her experience as a documenter of "living" indigenous textiles. 

HAND/EYE: How did you first find yourself in Mexico and documenting "living" indigenous textiles?

Sheri Brautigam: I went to the university in Mexico City in the 60’s and that was the beginning of my lifelong relationship and many in-depth experiences with Mexico. This time, I was training Mexican English teachers through the English Language fellowship with the U.S. State Department—sort of like the English Teachers' Peace Corps. My location was in a small town in the State of Mexico—Atlacomulco, surrounded by many different indigenous villages. When I went to a nearby village Mazahua ‘Saints Day’ festival and saw the amazing garments the ladies were wearing, I started my documentation.

H/E: How did you first get into becoming a researcher/ textile collector?

SB: I had a textiles design studio (surface design textiles) in San Francisco for about 18 years, so I had been collecting world textiles since the 1960s. That was when they were readily available from world travelers. I have loved and been involved with textiles most of my life and always want to know how these beautiful things are made ... and now in Mexico, it’s even more exciting to see them in context. 

H/E: What sort of future do you predict for the world of traditional textiles? What changes have you noticed over the years? 

SB: I’m very hopeful that many traditional Mexican textiles will survive and become even finer. This I have seen in Oaxaca and Chiapas. When appreciation comes from the outside world and the artisans can earn money, they have an incentive to keep producing. The more money they can earn from superior work also encourages some artisans with higher skills to train their children. The more affluent indigenous people become, the more pride they have in their own culture and the continuation of their textile traditions.

Certainly some of the indigenous will leave their village and go to the towns and cities to work and wear jeans and t-shirts—but when they come home they will wear a huipil for the feast day. It’s their cultural identity.

H/E: Is your goal to revive traditional textile traditions?

SB: Textiles never died in Mexico. Perhaps a few techniques are too laborious to be viable in today's culture, but generally MesoAamerican textiles are very evolved. In some communities, traditional techniques are being revived and pieces are of an even higher quality than those produced in the past. The best textiles are made for personal use in the people’s festival/ceremonial cycles. A tourist will most likely never see them, but I will. My job is to record these situations. 

H/E: Can you tell me a bit more about your work with "Living Textile of Mexico"? What new perspective has this project given you? 

SB: My work is very synchronistic. It starts with my attraction and curiosity about a particular textile that I have seen worn on a native person—either in a market place or at a festival. Then I pursue finding out more and travel to the village. Sometimes I have an introduction, but mostly I’m on my own. In some cases people are rather startled that I have shown up and mistake me for a missionary (not necessarily a good thing). If they are open and willing to talk (if they speak Spanish, too) or show me their process and I get invited back—then a relationship starts. If they have shared with me (and I take a lot of pictures) then I try and find out a way to help them. What do they need? For example, the ‘material prima’ (natural dyes) in my last project. I try to locate a grant for that specific need. I don’t feel that I should take any of the money for my expenses, as I have other ways of supporting myself.

The Museo Textile de Oaxaca is very supportive of textile artisans and invited the revitalization Mazahua group from central Mexico to present their process of making their costume in a lecture. I was then able to set up an exchange with some Zapotec rug weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, who were also using natural dyes with their wool products. Very seldom do Mexican artisans have a chance to share processes with each other. These secrets are well guarded. This visit was sponsored by the Museum and also from personal resources. The Mazahua revival coordinator was very impressed with the Zapotec work ethic and organization.

H/E: How do you feel about the merging of traditional and modern design? 

SB: Being a previous textile designer/ artisan myself, I understand the market and the need to keep evolving products and designs. But I’ve also seen the downside where whole communities get on board making a product, saturate a market, and then no longer have sales. This is tragic. The more innovative groups survive and move into other products, but most are at a disadvantage, as they don’t have access to information about what the market wants nor experience with changing design concepts. The problem with indigenous communities is that change is slow and they don’t have access to information from the outside world.

What I liked about working with the Mazahua from Santa Rosa de Lima was that they were reviving their costumes for themselves and not as a product to sell. It was an important part of their ceremonial cycle and self-identity in an increasingly American-influenced Mexico. The finer traditional ‘revived’ textiles being made in Oaxaca and Chiapas will always have a ‘collectors’ market, even if production is very small and very precious and can only be bought by foreign collectors or Mexican socialites. 

H/E: What surprises you most by this field?  

SB: What surprised me initially while living in a rural area near Mexico City was that the traditional costume was so alive—albeit hanging by a thread in some instances. I wanted to get the story. That turned into a yearlong project of photographing a Mazahua village's laborious process of spinning the wool, dyeing the yarn, weaving the two 16 foot panels that went into their eight pound skirt, and that was only the beginning. The woman of this village had initiated their own revitalization project as their costumes, which are worn for important festivals several times a year, were threadbare and disappearing. Then, as I was invited to their Santa Rosa de Lima Saints Day festival, I took along the Artes de Mexico's photographer and editor - who were truly overwhelmed by the beauty and color of this sacred procession and event which was only one hour from Mexico City. That was part of the recognition of the diverse Mazahua textile tradition and the Artes de Mexico—Textile Mazahua issue May 2011.

H/E: Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming "textile documentation adventures"? 

SB: Projects usually take at least a year. First there is making contact: developing trust, getting the story, and then finding out what will help their continuing process. Each group is different and their accessibility to markets, needs, and politics (always present is varied, so you have to go with their flow and be invited in. I never impose my thoughts on them, but appreciate their work, the experience, and the friendship.

I’ve also recently found a project that interests me in the lowland Chiapas with correlations to another textile tradition in Guatemala. These weavers are very innovative and in the local ‘fashion flow’ which seems to be supported by a larger community. Why are they so successful? They still have their traditional weaving with the back-strap loom but they are modern in form. Are they demonstrating a new model for sustainability? I want to know all about it!

H/E: Do you have any feeling that the revival/improvement of indigenous textiles comes with the recent wave of political awakening in Chiapas? Sometimes where there is a need for a stronger sense of identity (who ARE we?) visual symbols become very important. 

SB: The Zapatistas have helped but it actually starting happening before. In the 1970s, several Ivy League schools had Anthropology study centers and then a lot people were interested in their culture/textiles which had the effect of making indigenous more 'self-aware'. The first textile cooperative which emphasized quality and traditional styles was Sna Jolobil. This was set up by Chip Morris and Pedro Mesa and made a huge impact in the 1970s. Now, there are probably about a dozen co-ops. I feel that as one becomes more affluent, this improves self-esteem and interest in costume. Zinacatan is a prime example. Their costume makes a fashion statement and the color-ways change twice a year.

H/E: Anything else you would like to add? 

SB: Living Textiles of Mexico is really about capturing what is happening with traditional Mexican textiles today and then making the information accessible. Why is tradition strong in some places? Where is the innovation going? Nothing stays the same, but it can change for the good, and that is true for textile traditions in Mexico.

For more information: http://livingtexitlesofmexico.wordpress.com.

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