"Rebozos" from Tenancingo, Estado de México
Tenancingo in the nearby Estado de México is famous for its rebozos, typical Mexican shawls.. and rightly so. Tucked away in crowded back yards or semi-open terrazas on rooftops are an unlikely band of craftsmen clattering away at their looms, creating delicate shawls of great artistic quality.
I had the opportunity to see some of these men and women at work and what truly stunned me were the magnificent works of art created in small, dusty hideaways. Here homemade wooden looms vied for space and attention with naked light bulbs and unruly wires, solemn religious artifacts, fading posters of Mexican boxers or cars, cardboard boxes overflowing in silence, barking dogs straining on chains, chirpy birds in cages and jungly plants. Throw in the odd kid's bike, some old wooden chairs, well-worn metal tools and views of the neighbors' multi-colored washing hanging upside down and you have an idea of the type of place I'm talking about. The unassuming locals, whether or not they were aware of it, were actually master craftsmen whose nimble fingers transform masses of fine colored threads into one of Mexican women's classic accessories... the rebozo. I would never have thought that such homely-looking contraptions and humble families working together would be responsible for such elegant artwork, expressed in exquisite patterns and intricate knotted fringes.
First, a bit about the Mexican shawls. Imagine a cross somewhere between a shawl and a scarf and you have the rebozo, which is basically a long rectangular woven cloth, anywhere between 1.5 and 3 metres long, with a fringe on the ends. It can either be part of a woman's outfit, keeping her warm or covering her head, or adding an elegant touch. Or it can be used for carrying babies or other items, especially by indigenous women. That makes it a highly versatile item, one that most women in Mexico, regardless of their socio-economic class, are sure to own and are proud to wear. Frida Kahlo, Mexico's famous artist, wore them prominently and so does the President's wife on special occasions. With this in mind, it would seem that this town is assured of its collective trade for a long time.
Being such a versatile accessory, there are an indefinite number of colors, designs, and fabrics. Basically rebozos are made of cotton, wool or silk and more recently of synthetic materials. Silk rebozos are the most expensive, and the finest ones can be distinguished by the fact that they can be passed through a wedding ring. I saw this with my own eyes. Incredible but true. Indigenous shawls may have traditional designs and colors, while single-coloured ones are known as chalines. Look out for them everywhere in Mexico, thrown over the shoulders, the head or bulging with a baby on someone's back. They are as ubiquitous as the Beetle Bug. And now I know how they are made and will never look at one again the same way as before.
At the first stop on our visit, we literally walked through the family home up to the terraza on the top floor. Emerging through the door, we immediately bumped into wooden frames, threads, shuttles and spinners... the whole works. This was indeed a family business, including the small dog who was determined not to let anyone near the looms at first. They showed us how the entire process works and then passed round a couple of examples of the finished product. It was an eye-opening start to say the least.
Next we wandered down between some concrete houses into the back yard to meet Adolfo. He had been weaving for many years and was unmistakably a master of all the stages, including dyeing the thread using a traditional tie-and-dye process. The artist's streak in him had whetted his appetite for exploring new colors and combinations and creating innovative designs. On the wall were faded certificates proving his craftsmanship. He had won all sorts of prizes and awards for his creations and yet for all his achievements and high-level distinctions, he looked just like any other grandfather in the neighborhood. He may have had his certificates on one wall, but the opposite wall was covered in all kinds of religious items clearly showing a vibrant faith in the Divine Giver of his artistic talents. This artisan also had his heroes in the world of boxing. A large dusty poster of one of his idols had been framed and hung on one of the brick pillars near where he worked. Adolfo was an affable man, happy to answer questions although he seemed slightly bewildered as to why I should want to take photos of him.
Almost next door were a couple more men who showed us how the weaving is done. They too worked under a simple roofed area behind their houses, in the back yard. The older man worked at an incredible speed, the shuttle flying from one side to the other as he moved the loom parts back and forward. Under a bare light bulb, his face was a picture of intense concentration. Maybe he was hoping to finish his quota of rebozos for that morning. The younger one seemed slightly bemused at all the attention he was getting. I don't expect he often gets a bunch of people coming into his back yard to watch him do his work.
These homemade looms and the skilled weavers create the fabric but skillful fingers are needed to knot the fringes into elegant patterns. This time, we visited a workshop where three women were fringing and tying knots to produce the elegant patterns at the ends of the shawls. I can't understand how they do that intricate job for hours on end. I was seeing double and my eyes were unfocussing after a few minutes.
These women were working in a workshop stuffed with old bandage-making machines ingeniously adapted to make long thin strips with the colors of the Mexican flag. These are popular items especially when celebrating Mexican Independence Day. In fact, I have some of these at home and will now appreciate them more having seen how they are made.
So what do the finished rebozos look like? We went to a small store that sold a wide variety of the shawls made in Tenancingo. Their prices ranged from about MX$ 100 to MX$ 2000, depending on the quality. You may think it's rather expensive to fork out up to 100 euros on some shawls but I can assure you that having seen all the work that goes into making them, you may even be getting a bargain!