Written by Lee Owlsey of Latitudes Fair Trade
A few weeks ago the managers from our three Latitudes Fair Trade stores had the delightful experience of visiting Oaxaca and the MZ artisans.
MZ's Creative + Marketing Director Hannah met us in Oaxaca City and we traveled about 40 minutes through the desert landscape, enjoying the cacti, small towns, mountains, and the warm Mexican sun.
On the way to Teotitlan del Valle, Hannah explained that the Zapotec people have some of the most preserved indigenous culture in Mexico in part due to their knowledge of natural dyes and weaving. We were intrigued to find out that one of the reasons that the culture has been preserved is due to the cochineal insect, which lives on the local cactus and is used for red dye. Hannah explained that it was a highly prized commodity in Europe before commercial dyes were available and the Europeans imported it from the smart Zapotec people.
Weaving had traditionally been a man’s job and the women did the dying, washing, carding, and spinning of the yarn. Now women are weaving too, and there is typically a loom for each adult in every home in the village. (Like our American homes with one car per driver, I thought!).
When we entered the town, it was clear that people here love to weave. Sure enough, every house seemed to have a loom in the front yard or on a porch. Every house even looked like a small store with rugs and bags hanging on fences and in stalls and store fronts in yards. Hannah explained that there is a huge saturation of supply and repetition of patterns here that makes it hard for people to actually sustain themselves with their weaving.
It was so exciting to enter the home of some of the weavers. The patriarch of the family, Porfirio, showed us how he cards and spins wool. Of course, when we tried it we found that something he made look easy was practically impossible for us!
We got a tour of the dying area while the family sheep, about 12 of them, bleated their welcome in the background. The women explained that the dying process is very specific. They have to allow a certain amount of time for the dyes to set in the sun.
“Sometimes we are almost finished, but the sun is setting so we tell ourselves we have to stop and continue tomorrow,” they explained.
We could tell they had very high standards of quality and much pride in their processes and products. The family rooster, Señor Adulto (Mr. Adult) kept us entertained while they gave us a demonstration of how weaving is done on the large bi-peddle loom.
I asked the women how their lives are different because of MZ and they were eager and animated as they explained that MZ came at just the right time as tourism was down and they were desperate as to how they were going to continue. Now they have consistent employment and can help many people in the village. Rocio, Antonia, and Malena explained how they get to design and now manage others. It was clear they felt very empowered and excited about their part in MZ.
And we felt so embraced, welcomed, and bonded to them in just the short few hours we spent there. I think this was my 10th artisan visit and I can confidently say that in all this time and through my travels, this was my absolute favorite group of artisans. I felt that if I lived there we would be best friends.
A second home/workshop we visited was that of Ludivina and Faustino. They specialize in natural dying and gave us a fascinating demonstration of how that is done.
My favorite part was seeing how the cochineal bug is squished in the palm, lime juice added, and a flaming red dye produced. It was like magic.
The highlight of the whole trip, however, was when I asked Ludivina if we could have little snippets of the natural dyed yarn to make a small display for the store to put with our bags and she handed me a huge hank of all colors of yarn and told me to just take it. No, she wouldn’t take any payment! It’s in my store today as part of my MZ bag display and I love telling customers that story.
Thank you, MZ and Hannah, for a fabulous time of learning, growing, and forming new friendships. Our MZ bags are so much more precious to us now and we almost hate to see one leave the store, except that we know that with each one that leaves many lives have been touched for the better. Keep it up, please!