Embroidery in Oaxaca is as diverse as the region itself. Starting with big designs fully embroidered of birds and other fauna from the region (like the one found in Jalapa) to other small and detailed embroidery, they all differ depending on the region they come from. On this week’s blog we would like to highlight one of the most intricate embroideries that is also one of the dearest to our hearts: San Antonino embroidery.
Located about 20 miles south of Oaxaca City, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, San Antonino for short, is a small municipality famous for its unique floral embroidery. It is also famous for its gastronomic delicacies such as empanadas de amarillo, handmade corn pies folded over and stuffed with chicken and yellow mole, and chocolateatole, a pre-hispanic drink considered exclusively a beverage for the gods that was later consumed by people only on Sundays (for the special meaning behind it).
Here in San Antonino several groups of artisans have gathered to form cooperativas (autonomous associations who set their price willingly and democratically) with the purpose of recovering, diffusing, and conserving their traditional embroidery techniques, which they all learned through generations before them.
The intricate and beautiful design for which San Antonino is so famous for and that we have been building on is made with a delicate process behind it. In only one of their artworks one can appreciate a variety of techniques implemented carefully to represent their immense vision and appreciation for their culture. Each one of these techniques carries a name and special meaning that reflects its Zapotec ancestry as well as their worldview and traditions.
The step-by-step process of a traditional San Antonino blouse begins with the pen tracing on the fabric of the piece it will become; then the cutting of the fabric; then deciding which techniques the piece will have; another pen tracing that now includes the designs it will have throughout. Artisans can take up to five hours alone tracing the designs, which are usually taken home to be embroidered by women in the cooperativa, which can take weeks. Finally, all pieces are returned to the warehouse to be machine sewed together. It is also important to mention that, at another moment, all threads that will be later used are dyed naturally with seeds and bugs found in the region.
Although a simple process to narrate, this process takes important consideration and planning, as it will have to be carefully placed and included to make it the outstanding piece it later becomes. Furthermore, as we mentioned earlier, each one of the techniques used for embroidery and weaving of the figures that each blouse includes carries a different meaning and interpretation, depending on the artisan who is envisioning the blouse.
Some people call San Antonino the town of flowers, and with many reasons to do so. Although there are many more, today we wanted to focus specifically on the most common techniques found in only one blouse, with the future hopes of being able to highlight even more and with more detail the hard work that is put into these wonders.
The “traditional embroidery” technique is used for the intricate small flowers, such as carnations, that extends through the chest, back, underarm, and sometimes sleeves as a representation of the main economic activity of this town. In this same area, the “pensamientos” or “thoughts” technique is also used and it can be appreciated with the combination of different colored threads in one single flower, giving the impression of a painting. Some artisans include a butterfly or birds instead of flowers in their designs.
Below, in the chest and sometimes in the waist area of a blouse, one can be lucky and find the “hazme si puedes” technique which literally translates to “make me if you can” and, as its name suggests, is distinctive for the difficulty in replicating and typical of the region. This technique shows tiny men and women lined together and holding hands that represent the family’s union and a strong united community that works together to achieve the same goal and maintain their customs and traditions. This particular embroidery technique takes years to learn and is distinctive to very few artisans in the town.
One area of the fabric is “deshilado”, which consists on unraveling or removing threads to create small hole-like perforations that give texture and design to the blouse. In this area, one can again find traditional embroidery that form spirals or other distinctive decorative figures to represent traditional celebrations of San Antonino Castillo Velasco and of the country. Lastly, the “punto semilla” or “seed stitch” embroidery can be found here as a technique representing the community’s efforts for a good harvest.
With the many techniques one can see this community’s vision and efforts to reflect what they know: cultural values, love for the community, and efforts to flourish. So, there is no doubt as to why the focus that each product from this admirable community is set on a beautiful intricate floral work.
With their efforts, cooperativas in San Antonino have successfully made their work more and more famous, together with the special meaning behind their traditional embroideries. As traditional as they are, they are also highly innovative incorporating their embroidery into face masks, shoes, belts, necklaces, other fashion garments, and home decoration textiles, among others.
They all learned these ancient techniques by generational knowledge passed down from their mothers and/or grandmothers or from other teachers in the community. However, they recognize that with the passing of time, some techniques have been lost and with them the meaning behind each embroidery. One of the reason behind this is from a generational gap but a bigger one comes from the time and work needed to complete added to the difficulty and cost to sell. Even more, as years go by, artisans in Oaxaca are rarely supported to consolidate places to sell their work and, when they find someone willing to buy their products, they encounter unfair treatment and a lack of willingness to pay fair prices. At Lolo, we are seriously committed to fair trade practices and justice. Which is why we pay all artisans 100% of their asking price. By working mostly with cooperativas, we assure not having any involvement in setting the price for these products and recognize their autonomy at setting prices. In particular, Lolo works with one cooperativa led by “La Maestra” who has done an admirable job at helping younger generations learn the traditional knowledge of embroidery as well as helping the community with community kitchens, natural medicinal treatments, and opportunities for education (you can read more about this cooperativa here. If you would like to read more about our practices, click here).
So, what do you think? We would personally call this art work and believe it deserves more attention! If you would like to check out some San Antonino products, be sure to check out our section dedicated to them. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our emails where we send exclusive offers and more of this content of interest!