We are often asked about the inspiration behind many of our designs. The design process is often slow and can take several months, and many times designs never make it off the table and into production. Otomí Temoaya has been a design that has been in development for over two years and we imagined it, with Bethanne Knudson of The Oriole Mill, as a way to honor the tradition and history of Otomí art and the too often anonymous women who create it.
As a wedding gift, my family gave me an incredible and beautifully embroidered coverlet for my "matrimonial" bed, which had been embroidered by friends and family in Pátzcuaro. Otomí Temoaya was based off the embroidery for that coverlet. We struggled to find the right name for our jacquard interpretation of the art of Otomí. We wanted to give the respect and recognition to the women who create these magnificent pieces of art and while there is an Otomí community in Pátzcuaro, where I was first introduced to the art form, it seemed a better fit to give recognition to the cultural center of Otomí culture.
As a child and into my adult years, I travelled regularly to Pátzcuaro in Michoacán to visit family and friends and it was here that I was first introduced to Otomí embroidery (see note 1). I was in awe of the freehand embroidery designs drawn by women so fast and so quickly before they embroidered; I was captivated by the bloom of brightly colored embroidery threads as women quickly pierced their needles through the cotton, giving those designs movement and life with every stitch (see note 2). But then, such magic as the gorgeous embroidered coverlets and table coverings were turned over. Anyone who has embroidered will know that one of the marks of exceptional embroidery is that the back side of the work will be just as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than the front or “right” side of the work. Most of Otomí embroidery is sewn using what is called a “fake satin stitch,” where the thread is kept at the front of the fabric instead of being threaded through to the back. The result is an amazing, tight outline of the design in tiny, tiny stitches. The “wrong” side is just as beautiful as the “right” side. The embroidery is an incredible piece of nuanced and complex art and I still feel that same excitement and awe I felt as a child when looking at Otomi embroidery for the first time. It has been a part of my family, a part of my visual culture for over twenty years now and I never tire of it. I am so deeply grateful to have been introduced to this craft and to be able to admire its beauty in a deep and profound way.
I come from a family where the women sew and they sew damn well. I do not. No matter how hard I tried, the end of my threads would become tangled and knotted. My simple work routinely ended in a mess of stitches that had been pulled taut or stitches that were loose and waiting to be snagged and ripped. Despite my ineptitude, I did develop one very important skill: the ability to discern exceptional needlework and careful craftsmanship. I can almost catch a vague snapshot of the women in my family from the carefully folded quilts and embroidery I have stored in my cedar chest. Loose quilting stitches tell me of a quilting bee with a lot of laughter, gossip and joking. Tight angry stitches tell me of someone upset over a morning argument with a husband or sister. Careful, perfectly aligned stitches tell of the love and patience that went into the making of embroidered pillowcases for a new bride or a carefully pieced quilt for a new baby. The stitches are anonymous, but they tell the story of women, a story and a history that is often dismissed as insignificant, because the story of women’s work never makes the pages of history texts. These are the stories I look for when feeling older textiles between my fingertips. I want to learn their story. I want to know the women who made them; I want to hear the whispers of their dreams.
If you are considering buying Otomí embroidery, we strongly encourage you to buy fair trade Otomí pieces where the artisans, who are predominantly women, are fairly compensated for their work (see note 3) Casa Otomi is a good place to start.
Note 1: (Otomí is not an "Otomí" endonym. The Otomí people identify themselves by their respective dialects, of which there are many. Hñähñu has been proposed as an alternative to Otomí, but it only represents one dialect, hence its lack of use). See David Charles Wright Carr. “Lengua, Cultura, e Historis de Los Otomís”. Arqueología Mexicana 13 (73): 26–2 and Jorge A. Suarez. The Mesoamerian Indian Languages for a more in-depth discussion of the intricacies and preservation of the Otomí language. This is a large and complex topic. The resources listed above are just a starting point.
Note 2: Many Otomí women turned to embroidery to support their families after a series of droughts made sustenance farming untenable. The history of the Otomí people’s conquest and resettlement, as well as that of other indigenous peoples in the Americas, and its long reaching effects are documented in Alfred Crosby. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europa, 900-1900; James Lockhart, Ed. We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico; Miguel Leon-Portilla. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico; and Robert Ricard, trans Lesley Byrd Simpson. The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Note 3: It is of significant importance that indigenous women, regardless of their geographical location, receive fair compensation for their work. Indigenous women in Mexico face many legal and cultural barriers to economic and social empowerment. Think carefully before you buy. If you are interested in learning more about the difficulties faced by indigenous women in Mexico, these works provide a good starting point: Soledad Montes Gonzales "Violence Contra las Mujeres, Derechos y Ciudadanía en Contexts Rurales e Indígenas de México." Convergencia: Revista de Ciencias Sociales 17(50): 165-168; Paul Liffman. Huichol Territory and the Mexican Nation: Indigenous Ritual, Land Conflict, and Sovereignty (general examination of the political struggles of indigenous peoples in Mexico with discussion of its impact on women); Cami Taylor. "The Struggle for Women's Rights". DePaul Journal for Social Science 5 (2);