Hillary Steel on the Endangered Mexican Rebozo
On February 9, 2013,
Hillary Steel presented a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program on the Mexican Rebozo, a traditional Mexican shawl, woven in warp faced, resist-dye ikat, that is in danger of disappearing.
Hillary Steel is a handweaver. Her work has been featured locally in solo exhibitions at Glenview Mansion Art Gallery, Rockville, Maryland (2011, 2002, 1999) and in numerous group exhibitions in such venues as the Blackrock Center for the Arts ( 2013), Artists’ Museum, Washington, D.C. (2003), and Snyderman/Works Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania since 2000. Her work is also held by several public collections including that of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. and in our embassies abroad through the US State Departments “Art in Embassies Program”.
Hillary is involved with cultural preservation efforts with regard to Mexican rebozo weaving, the subject of her presentation here. More of Hillary’s work can be seen on her web site
Hillary: I am most interested in the passage of information and skill from one generation to the next and that is the context for much of my art work as well.
The film that followed my talk featured Don Evaristo Borboa Casas, master weaver and outstanding proponent of the “telar de otate,” a traditional backstrap loom that is rapidly vanishing.
In 2005 he was awarded the prestigious Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes award by then president Vicente Fox. He has received many other awards and honors. Don Evaristo certainly is the equivalent of a “living treasure” though Mexico has no such official program. Don Evaristo’s artistry and knowledge of technique are deep, rooted in years of experience as a rebocero (a weaver of rebozos).
The rebozo is a garment that has evolved through Mexico’s long history. These shawls figure prominently in the lives of women, men and children, and are a part of every stage of life from birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, death and mourning. Their importance is written into literature, music, poetry and history and popular culture.
The term rebozo comes from the verb rebozar which means to cover, or to cover ones face or mouth.
Long before the Spaniards made their way to the Americas, the women in the native population were the primary weavers and worked on their traditional back strap or belt looms. (These are called the telar de otate or the telar de cintura, and are a body tensioned loom.)
The jaspe or ikat dyeing method was also in use before the conquistadors arrived in Peru and, most likely in Mexico, too.
The Indians were known to use fringeless cloths called lienzos or tilmas; worn like a cloak, they provided cover, warmth and were used for carrying. Also they used smaller cloths that were folded and worn on top of the head.
After the Spanish conquest, men were conscripted into weaving workshops called obrajes and were introduced to the Colonial loom, on which most rebozos are still woven. Women, at home, continued to weave on the otate loom, keeping alive their tradition.
Along with the import of new looms and new weaving skills came a new religion, with edicts about dress codes to differentiate one racial group from another. Indian women, newly converted, were required to cover their heads upon entrance to the church.
Thus was born the rebozo, a garment that blends the traditional tilma, lienzo, carrying cloths, with the Spanish mantilla, imported ikat and embroidered fabrics from Asia and the beautifully fringed shawls imported from the Philipines.
Like most Mexicans themselves, the rebozo is a fusion of cultures and styles. But the real story of the rebozo and other textiles has everything to do with the richness of the weaving tradition in Mexico that was established thousands of years before the conquest or imported goods appeared. The rebozo, a symbol of national identity that some claim should be the flag of Mexico comes in different styles, sizes, colors and fibers.
There are two important parts to a completed rebozo – the lienzo, which is the woven cloth made on a loom, and the punta or fringe which is the warp left unwoven at the beginning and end of each lienzo.
The most distinctive and sought after are warp jaspe rebozos. Jaspe is a process which is more commonly known as ikat. For those unfamiliar, jaspe is a method of binding warp and/or weft threads before the cloth is woven. By doing this, one protects undyed areas, and introduces dye color to exposed regions, thus building color and pattern onto the threads through vat dyeing. After the process is completed, the cloth is woven and the pattern emerges row by row, as the cloth does. Jaspe is a unique resist process as it relies on a weaver.
The history of the jaspe rebozo is well documented and is still practiced today in parts of Mexico such as Tenancingo and Tejupilco, Santa María del Río, La Piedad, Chilapa, and Moroleón
Each jaspe design, too, has its own name that refers to the mix of pattern and colors: labor doble, caramelo, poblano, marvilla, de bolita , serpiente, llovisna, venido, greca, paloma, etc.
Rebozos are generally made in 4 sizes : raton, the smallest, medium, three quarter, and grande which might be up to 8 ‘ or 12’ long and 3 feet wide and totally envelops the body.
Fringes, or puntas complete the weavers work and help to make these garments famous. The knotting and tying of figures, letters and geometric designs into the unwoven ends of warp, the punta, after it is taken from the loom, is the domain of women. They are called empuntadoras and they often sell the completed pieces at the market Without a punta, a rebozo is not considered complete.
We’ve described the rebozo, above, but the rebozo is described variously.
Here is one other description:
The Mexican rebozo originated in colonial times,and is a piece of clothing extensively used by Mexican women today. The rebozo is square linen that is used to cover the upper body and head. It is used to carry babies in traditional Mexico, and more recently around the world. It is also a luxury garment used for special celebrations.
The passage above describes the rebozo as square, but, in fact, it takes a variety of shapes.
There are rebozos that are large enough to serve as capes.
These sizes are also used (as indicated above) as child carriers.
But some rebozos are smaller and can be shaped like scarves.
The cotton rebozos that Hillary is learning to make with master weaver Don Evaristo Borboa Casas are woven on back strap looms after the warp threads are marked, tied, dyed, untied. Once the threads are affixed on the loom they are finally woven into the traditional rectangular shawl ( this resist dye prepatory process produces a fabric called ” warp ikat”) with traditional patterns common to Tenancingo in the state of Mexico.
All of the pieces that Hillary brought to share with us were warp-faced jaspe ( jaspe is the same technique as ikat, which is practiced around the globe).
Here is a description of Warp ikat
Ikat created by dyeing the warp only is more simple to make than either weft ikat or double ikat. First the material, be it cotton, silk, wool or other, is tied into bundles. The bundles are marked with the pattern, wrapped tightly with thread or some other dye-resistant material- to prevent unwanted dye permeation, dyed and then untied.
The resist dye procedure is repeated, depending on the coloration desired of the warp bundle. In some traditions, multiple coloration is common, requiring multiple tying and retying.
The newly dyed and thoroughly washed bundles are then affixed as the warp (longitudinal strings) onto the loom. The patterns are usually decided by the weaver as the warp threads are tied. Warp threads are adjusted for the desired alignment for precise motifs.
Some styles of ikat favour a blurred appearance. Guatemalan ikat is quite famous for this. South American and Indonesian ikat are known for such high degree of warp alignment that it may resemble printed, rather than woven cloth. Weavers will adjust the warp repeatedly as the weaving progresses to maintain pattern alignment.
The skill lies in the weaver acting essentially as a selective heddle who selectively manually picks up warp threads before passing the shuttle through the resultant “mini- shed”.
Patterns result from a combination of the dyed warp and the weft thread colour. Commonly vertical-axis reflection or “mirror-image” symmetry is used to provide symmetry to the pattern- more simply: whatever pattern or design is woven on the right, is duplicated on the left in reverse order, or at regular intervals, about a central warp thread group.
Patterns can be created in the vertical, horizontal or diagonal.
There are a number of Mexican weavers making rebozos in traditional modes. Here is the web site for one:
Hilary did not talk much about the ikat dyeing in Mexican rebozos, but instead focused on the traditional modes of rebozo weaving,
and particularly on the work of one expert traditional rebozo weaver, who continues to weave rebozos in the most traditional ways.
Don Evaristo Borboa Casas is described as the “Maestro de Maestros,” something you can understand even if you don’t speak Spanish. His love of the rebozo as a symbol of Mexican womanhood and tradition, and his very high standards of craftsmanship, sense of color and innovation with the jaspe design process, permeates his work and is infused in his cloth.
Following her talk about the importance of the rebozo as a cultural icon, Hillary showed a film, “Master Weaver, don Evaristo Borboa Casas”, that she and colleague Virginia Davis made about their experience as students of this great maestro. It describes and illustrates the 15-hand process of making a warp jaspe rebozo on a backstrap loom from start to finish.
My impression is that, while there is 19th century rebozo material of collecting interest,
Hilary is interested in contemporary rebozo weaving that attempts to preserve traditional methods.
She brought a lot of such contemporary rebozos, some plain chalinas, some warp ikat.
The first piece on the board was the one below. It is a solid colored rebozo, also called a chalin
The next piece was the one below, another chalina in red:
Next was the third piece, a warp ikat with a wide stripe or fondo separating the ikat sections.
One more detail of H3:
Hillary modeled the next piece.
This one, a more complicated repeating pattern of warp ikat with a different arrangement of solid stripes separating the dyed pattern.
Detail images of H4:
Also, notice the whimsical design in the knotted punta ( fringe).
The piece below was the fifth piece, a red and white warp ikat with an engaging message knotted into the fringe. ” I am for you, my little love”.
Detail images of H5:
Hillary took us to the next piece, another complex work of jaspe warp designs and knotted fringe woven by Bernardo Jimenez of Tenancingo.
Hillary pointed out the deer figures in the end panels of this piece. The name of the empuntadora who did this work is unclear at this writing.
The next piece was this one.
An example of an unfinished rebozo cut from the loom but “sin punta” without the knotted fringe. One could take this to any numbers of accomplished empuntadoras and ask for the type of design that would best compliment the jaspe cloth.
Detail images of H7:
The eighth piece was this one.
A lovely yellow and white warp jaspe rebozo with a triangular punta.
Here is a closer image of this traditional “scalloped” edge.
The next two pieces are examples of more of the many jaspe designs that are tied and dyed onto warp threads prior to weaving the cloth.
Hillary modeled a colorful ikat shawl that was brought in by an audience member to share. Notice the difference in the scale ( length and width) of the warp jaspe pattern as well as in the solid stripe of warp that separate the jaspe designs, as well as the tasseled fringe.
Hillary answered questions,
and brought her session to a close.
The audience surged forward to get their hands on this material.
I want to thank Hillary for this interesting program and for her considerable help in editing this post in a new on-line mode.
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into an effort to sustain a traditional craft in danger of disappearing.
R. John Howe