Yarns and skills: A museum promoting textile production

Cotton wool illustration
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A museum in Oaxaca is acting as an intermediary between yarn producers and indigenous artists – a fruitful intervention that is increasing public appreciation for the value of handmade textiles.

​Indigenous textiles from Mexico are famous for their beauty and diversity. Among these, textiles from Oaxaca are particularly treasured because they represent distinctive communities, each with their own historical backgrounds and their unique languages. An increase in demand for indigenous textiles during the second half of the 20th century also triggered a decrease in prices. What is the theory of value behind this system? A rise in demand leads to a rise in prices, surely? Not quite. This reaction happens with ‘high-end’ pieces for museums, galleries and collectors. However, almost simultaneously, a vast market for tourism unfolds, as more people want a blouse or a shawl. To meet this demand, and given their need for income, families and workshops produce ‘in series’, resulting in economic and quality depreciation. Regrettably, when low-quality materials are used, the ratio between quality of materials and hours of labour is not profitable. A fine weaver might spend months weaving a shawl whether the materials are high or low quality. While the ultimate price may be low because of the use of low-quality materials, what really needs to be considered is the amount of labour that goes into the weaving process. 

The Museo Textil de Oaxaca (MTO – Textile Museum of Oaxaca) was created by the Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú Oaxaca in 2008. It is conceived as a forum of exchange, open to traditional and contemporary textile practices, with a soul that speaks directly to weavers, dyers, embroiderers… in a word, artists. The museum’s exhibition design aims to present local textiles as works of art – not just as ethnographic or anthropological objects, but a means of expressing a body of knowledge, tradition, innovation and taste. The purpose of this artistic approach is to change the perspective that most people have when they look at indigenous textiles. We want to shift people’s mindsets so that these textile creations are appreciated as much as, or even more than, any other ‘fine art’. 

At the museum’s shop, we are aware of the need for fair compensation for weavers and have promoted the production and appreciation of good-quality textiles. In the creation of such textiles, the quality of the materials is just as important as the skills of the artists; therefore, good-quality yarns are essential. However, accessing such yarns is not easy. Only a few companies in Mexico produce good yarns with fast colours. Since these companies usually sell to the industry, and selling in small quantities is not in their best interest, the MTO decided to step in as a mediator between the yarn producers and indigenous artists. 

The museum’s exhibition design aims to present local textiles as works of art – not just as ethnographic or anthropological objects, but a means of expressing a body of knowledge, tradition, innovation and taste

The idea was first explored by Remigio Mestas, a cultural promoter who started a renaissance-like movement around Oaxacan textiles in the 1990s. The success of his enterprise derives not only from his personal charisma, but also from his ability to incorporate luxury yarns into the local textile traditions. Over time, his gallery has offered textiles made out of silk from Tibet or fine hand-spun Oaxacan yarns, among many other materials. The name of the MTO’s project was coined in one of our conversations: hiloteca, a place where you look for yarns (a pun in Spanish with biblioteca, a place where you look for books).

The MTO began this project in 2015. The initial step was supplying industrially spun cotton of different gauges and colours for weaving and embroidery. Our patrons provided the seed money to get the project started. The museum was not expected to profit from this project, but it was fundamental that it could create a dynamic process where the investment could be constantly transformed into a reinvestment. Shipping and administration costs are added to the final price of the yarns. Unlike a wholesaler, the museum does not set a minimum weight per order, which has proven to be crucial for this project.

In 2016, an agreement was established with our patrons: we would add additional funding each fiscal year to
incorporate new yarns into the programme, while the acquisition of yarns already in the inventory would be solely maintained by the income obtained through
the sale of such yarns. This agreement has provided two main benefits: 

1. We have been able to incorporate unusual yarns from industrial manufacturers, as well as unique, local yarns. For example: hand-spun native silk from the northern mountains of Oaxaca, or hand-spun locally grown cotton from the Mixtec coast. This provides income to local spinners, dyers, and silk/cotton producers. We have also been able to follow Remigio Mestas’s example by importing speciality yarns (such as reeled silk or bamboo) and having them dyed in Oaxaca with local natural dyes. Such a mix of goods is far from being a contemporary practice: it has existed for centuries and the introduction of wool (and its quick adoption by different peoples) in the American continent is a remarkable example.

2. After these first five years, the amount that has been reinvested in the project is three times more than the seed money. This situation gives us great flexibility in maintaining a constant turnaround of products. The resulting textiles usually find an outlet in the museum’s shop and pop-up sales. 

While most of the people who purchase yarns through this project come from communities in Oaxaca, we also supply yarns to weavers and embroiderers from other regions in Mexico, even from abroad. The active role of the museum in bringing people together for conferences, lectures, workshops and other training opportunities has created a wide network of awareness and interest around this project. Weavers who receive special funding from government projects immediately invest that money in the yarns that we supply. Recently, we started incorporating fabrics that are difficult to find in Oaxaca (both hand-woven and industrially made), so that embroiderers have a wider array of options for their work, moving away from the over-saturated market of polyester fabrics. Slowly but steadily, artists use more and more of the yarns and fabrics found at the MTO, because the general public has also become more sensitive to the use of good-quality materials, with an increased appreciation of the value that these handmade textiles represent. This is a milestone, where the general audience begins to have a broader understanding of value, over and above a price tag. 

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