My journey with weaving officially began this past January, merely 9 months ago, when I had started the graduate program for Textile Design at Philadelphia University (now Jefferson). That was not the case, however, in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I had spent the month of August 2017, researching embroidery and weaving in Mexican textile history.
In Oaxaca, knowledge and skills of the sacred and spiritual craft of textiles have been passed on from generation to generation over centuries.
Although some of those skills and knowledge have been lost throughout the years, many individuals, families and villages today still practice the ancient traditions, which at times sustained an entire village’s economy. In our day and age, when artisanal textile-making is growing in popularity, it was awe inspiring to witness first hand the efforts being made by communities to preserve their history and heritage through textiles.
Cathedral Santo Domingo in Oaxaca
Oaxaca City is the capital of the region and houses the textile museum, which exhibits both contemporary and traditional Mexican textiles. At the time of my visit an extravagant exhibition was on display: “Almas Bordadas” (Embroidered Souls), showcasing a variety of embroidered costumes that differed in style and motifs according to the outfit’s purpose or origin within Mexico.
About 30 Kilometers outside of Oaxaca City is Teotitlan Del Valle. A village that houses numerous family-operated weaving workshops scattered along a base of a mountain. Walking along the village roads, we were welcomed into courtyards where multiple looms had been stationed, some as 4 yards wide. Each weaving family holds a distinct style, use of symbolism and their own recipes for using natural colorants. Frequented by foreign tourists, many of the village’s residents speak English and will happily demonstrate their pride and joy of weaving.
Having deep respect to the earth, weaving houses that maintain the traditional techniques use natural materials exclusively. While natural dyes and wool fibers are mostly sourced from outside the village, many of the families will handle every step of the process from processing the fiber, to spinning the yarn, to weaving the final pieces of textile.
On my last weekend in Oaxaca I went to visit a Cochineal farm to learn about the source of the strong red pigment being used in many of the region’s wovens. At the Cochineal farm the tiny beetles are grown and harvested for the production of a natural red colorant. Feeding off the prickly pear cactus, the bugs are grown on the plant’s leaf and at the end of their life cycle, at around 6 months, are bring dried and crushed into a powder that is the pigment. The saturated red originates in the acid the beetles produce from feeding off the cactus, and not, as many would think, by the insect’s blood.
My trip had been an inspirational and visually rich journey through Oaxacan and Mexican textiles, yet a month was hardly enough time for any person to explore and uncover all it has to offer – so much history and tradition is embedded in the region and its people, waiting to be unfolded. Going back to my studio practice in Philadelphia, I hope to bring with me some of the dedication and devotion that I had witnessed into my own weaving and embroidery, and perhaps inspire the same among fellow weavers and artists.
Sivan Ilan is a textile artist and graduate student at Philadelphia University. She creates fine art in the media of fiber, yarn and fabric and specializes in hand weaving and embroidery.
Follow her to see #beautyeverywhere on Instagram @sivanilan