Understanding Mexico through Folk Embroidery

Whilst Indie Retail Month was a great chance to share some of my favourite Brighton spots with you, it's back to the world of textiles once again - and it has to be said I've missed it! Having completed a gorgeous hand embroidered jacket this week (take a peek in the window of the shop while it lasts) I was inspired to find out about the origins and traditions surrounding different styles of embroidery.

I've always been fascinated by folk embroidery and with the incredible Frida Kahlo exhibition going on at the V&A, the multitude of flower crowns floating around at Brighton LGBTQ Pride and the huge trend for 'Mexican' embroidery on the high street, I thought that Otomi embroidery might be a good place to start.

Photo by Larry Miller

Photo by Larry Miller

Otomi embroidery is probably the most famous of the Mexican embroidery styles. The home of this technique is the Central Mexican Plateau where the Otomi or Ñuhu people live. This particular culture is one of the oldest Mesoamerican cultures and greatly pre-dates 1000BC. Nowadays around 300,000 Otomi live in Mexico, mostly speaking Spanish but a few still keep the Otomi dialect alive.

This embroidery technique has undoubtedly been around since ancient times, but a terrible drought during the 1960's breathed new life into the craft - as the drought ruined all sources of income, the craft was revived to help feed struggling families.

Photo by Karen Elwell

Photo by Karen Elwell

 

It is widely believed that the animals depicted in these works take inspiration from ancient drawings in the region's caves and the smooth edged, simplistic designs seem to hold true to that. The smoothness of the embroidery has a special stitch to thank. Whilst many 'filled' embroideries use satin stitch, the Otomi embroidery uses a unique herringbone stitch, where only the right side of the fabric is filled. As well as using only half as much thread, this technique gives the embroidery its unique texture.

If you want to own an Otomi style piece then just head down to the high street! However, if you're after the real deal then they are a little harder to come across - and a lot more expensive. People often wonder why H&M are able to sell a dress for £10 with a similar design to a crafts-person  who needs £100. The answer is simple: time. Otomi textiles take weeks or sometimes years to be embroidered, whilst machine embroidery takes minutes.

Otomi Embroidery sold by Saatchi for £1550

Otomi Embroidery sold by Saatchi for £1550

There are many skilled embroiderers in this country offering pieces created using the Otomi technique, but if you happen to be passing Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo, then you should be able to pick up a sizeable piece of the real thing for a couple of hundred pounds.

For those of us who sadly aren't visiting Hidalgo any time soon, I'll be running an embroidery workshop next month! Although I can't say there'll necessarily be the Mexican weather, or wild armadillos to take inspiration from, I can promise that there will be unlimited thread, unlimited patience and, most importantly, unlimited tea and biscuits.