In the mountains of rural Chiapas, 120 Mayan women from five local municipalities are quietly weaving a world of enchantment. Upon visiting the Mexican weaving cooperative El Camino de los Altos, frequent HAND/EYE contributor Laura Aviva felt instantly that its center in San Cristobol felt like a place “where magic happens.” Home to twelve indigenous groups, the Chiapas region of Mexico is renowned for its dynamic and vibrant textile tradition. Here, each village (pueblo) is distinguished by its own woven colors and patterns that together form the region’s panoply of unique symbolic languages. Long involved with and inspired by the incredible diversity and artistry of the Chiapatecan textiles, French textile designer Veronique Tesseraud gathered together a group of seven fellow designers and began working hand in hand with Mayan weavers in an effort to both preserve their ancestral art and improve their living conditions.
El Camino de los Altos is no ordinary weaving cooperative. The care with which they approach everything that they do sets them apart from countless other initiatives and is a part of the ‘magic’ that one feels. Over the past fifteen years, each of the French designers involved has spent significant amounts of time living amongst the weavers and learning the intricacies of their techniques and traditions. The resulting designs each draw inspiration from the visual language and particular heritage of a specific village. The weavers from that village are integral to the design process, working alongside the French designers to refine the product and ensure its authenticity. They also work diligently to establish a color palette that will afford them the freedom to choose their own color combinations for certain designs, thereby giving each weaver the opportunity to infuse their work with a unique voice. Though the French and Mayan women come from starkly different backgrounds, “as textile designers, we all speak the same language in front of the cloth,” remarks El Camino de los Altos co-founder Maddalena Forcella, “and that is very important.”
Beyond these collaborations, the ultimate goal of the cooperative’s founders is for the initiative to be self-sustaining. The center in San Cristobal -- which was funded largely by a grant from French Elle Decoration -- houses foot looms, sewing machines and computers for the women to learn how to manipulate textile design software. Dormitories house women from neighboring villages who travel to San Cristobal to learn new skills. The center has also worked to train women with entrepreneurial skills and is currently seeking grants to enable them to provide their entire weaving community with language and writing skills. But it is not only the weavers that el Camino seeks to educate.
“Our biggest challenge is to teach the public to appreciate this quality of weaving not merely as handicraft but as true art,” explains Maddalena. With the market flooded by poorly made, inexpensive change purses and water-bottle holders, this is no mean feat. To that end, the cooperative sells their products in only the most discerning of environments. Recently orchestrated sales at the Parisian couture Atelier Caraco Canezou as well as the Textile Museum in Oaxaca are proof that El Camino’s textiles are gaining support from the most sophisticated audiences.
Laura Aviva is a frequent HAND/EYE contributor. Beginning this month, Laura is excited to be the first to offer these exquisite textiles to an American audience at www.lavivahome.com. Fair warning to all those susceptible to Mayan magic: you are likely to be spellbound.