Quechquemitl – a totally unique Mexican garment

Exhbiti - Museo Textile de Oaxaca

Even thought this exhibit ran four years ago (Spring 2011) at the Museo Textile de Oaxaca, it was a splendid opportunity to see MTO’s superb collection of historical, refined, elaborate, colorful, and precious little shoulder and chest covering garments. Please, don’t call them ponchos! The quech-que-mitl (I’ve broken the Nahua word into syllables) is a garment unique only-to-Mexico and has been in production for easily over two thousand years. The story told is that quechquemitles were first observed historically in temple frescoes and ceramics of the ancient Olmec and Oaxacan cultures and later in codices.

Quechques in Codices

Quechques in Codices

In pre-conquest times it was worn as an upper-body covering by the priestesses and high born women who had access to the most sumptuous textiles. After the conquest this garment became widely used in the indigenous communities who adapted it, embellished it with their sacred symbols and made it their own. Although currently it is seen in only a few communities of central Mexico – Nahuas, Mazahuas, Purepeche, Hustecos, it is thought to have been worn in most villages in central Mexico after the conquest and before the European peasant blouse became common. It was encouraged by the Spanish, so that women would be covered to enter the churches and their group identity could be recognized. It is one of the first garments worn exclusively by women along with the enredo (wrap around and tube skirt) which I will blog on later.

Pre-conquest garments were woven on the back-strap looms and the full web was used. A web could be woven in various widths and lengths specific for enredos (wrap skirts) quechquemitles (capelets)  and manteles (large coverings). These webs were then joined together. To cut a hand woven cloth was to destroy its integrity or soul and spirit that went into its making. I managed to photograph the exhibit on several visits to Museo Textile de Oaxaca and following is a slide show of my favorites. In future posts, I will write about the two areas that I’ve explored that still use the quechquemitl: the Nahua of Cuetzalan, Puebla and the Mazahua of the State of Mexico.

The shortened pronunciation “Quech-que” is acceptable but don’t call it a poncho!! That’s a larger and more blanket-like garment.

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Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya – San Cristobal de Las Casas Chiapas

Returning to Chiapas after two years, a NEW world class textile museum was waiting to be explored. The Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya is located in the Convento Santo Domingo in San Cristobal de las Casas, which underwent extensive renovations to accommodate Guatemalan textiles from Formento Cultural Banamex Collection and the Pellizzi Collection of Chiapan textiles. Excellent state of the art lighting, displays and investigative opportunities await the visitor. Signs are in English and Spanish and many of the textiles are from the 1970’s – 80’s considered a renaissance period for Mayan textiles. As a collector I certainly was happy to see excellent examples of ceremonial garments from Chiapas, Guatemala and three perfect cross-stich embroidered huipiles from Yucatan. These are included in the following slide show. If you are ‘doing textiles in Chiapas’,  don’t miss this museum as well as the Sergio Castro Collection – open evenings by appointment and explored in a past post.

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Quechquemitles Today – Lecture Museo Textile de Oaxaca

For those of you in Oaxaca – May 11th, 6pm – I am giving a lecture/chat at the Museo de Textile de Oaxaca on the ‘living’ quechquemitles of  Mexico.  It’s an introduction to two communities that still use this unique-to-Mexico-only garment; the Mazahaus of Santa Rosa de Lima, Edo.Mexico and the Nahuas ofCuetzalan, Puebla.  Also I will be showing the garments in context and their production.

This ‘charla’ or talk is is in conjunction with the exhibit ‘Quechquemitls‘ at the Museo Textile de Oaxaca – which currently is showing their large collection of rare historical quechquemitles mostly from Central Mexico where the quechquemitl is still worn in a few communities.

Museum of Regional Costumes/ Traje Regional Chiapas

Museum Regional Costumes of Highland Chiapas Calle Guadalupe Victoria #38  near \ Av. 12 de Noviembre – San Cristobal call for appointment around 3pm (967) 678-1609 or show up at 6pm at the door. Donations appreciated.

While you will have many opportunities to buy wonderful textiles in San Cristobal you might not have the time to thoroughly research things. I’ve found that the best strategy is to get an over -view of high quality pieces first and perhaps Sergio’s local textile collection is the best way to get oriented.

Sergio Castros’ collection of Regional Costumes is a great way to see the many complete outfits of the Highland Maya, the outfits in use daily in many communities as well as those used in ceremonies and weddings. Costumes have been donated over the years from his grateful patients who come for treatment of burns. Serigo is a well respected healer and will take the time to give lots of information while he tours you around this wonderful collection located in his home. You will need to call ahead to make an appointment.Tours usually start at 6pm and last about an hour. You can take pictures too. Donations are happily accepted so that Sergio can continue giving treatments without charge to the indigenous people.

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If you are interested in hearing more about Sergio’s humanitarian work here’s the official website with instruction on how to get there  and where you can make donations. http://www.yokchij.org/directions.html  and a blog http://sergiocastrosc.blogspot.com/

Inter-Artisan Exchange – Zapotecs and Mazahuas

“Mazahua Week’ at the Museo Textile Oaxaca was very dynamic time for Regina Torres, revitalization project coordinator for the Santa Rosa de Lima, Edo.Mexico. Besides a full schedule of presentations, demonstrations and teaching a small workshop at the museum, she also visited the Bii Dauu weaving co-op in Teotitlan del Valle, several times. While sharing natural dye recipes and weaving methods she also brought her spectacular wool skirt enredo and quechquemitl (cape like top). The skirt alone weighs 7 lbs. and is 16 feet long. These garments are made with hand-spun wool yarn, naturally dyed with indigo, cochineal, and wild marigold, woven on a telar de cinta (back-strap loom) and finished with fine wool embroidery, taking almost a year to produce.

Several young Bii Dauu Co-op member tried on the costume apparently enjoy its warm thermal quality. Santa Rosa de Lima lies at 9000 feet above sea-level so it’s climate is very different than warm Oaxaca. Regina’s visited the Bii Dauu Co-op’s huerta (country plot) where they are growing the dye plants and mordents crucial for the natural dye processes they use on wools yarns for their beautiful carpets.

Mazahua Week at Museo Textile Oaxaca – Jan 20 – 24th

At last the Mazahua ladies of Santa Rosa de Lima the Edo de Mexico will be visiting Oaxaca. Specifically they will be staying in the Teotitlan del Valle weaving town in the Valley of Oaxaca. At the Museo Textile de Oaxaca they will be visiting and demonstrating some telar de cinta techniques for finish braids from their brilliant quechquemitles and perhaps the weaving of one their heavy woolen skirts. Because their village project of revitalization is about preserving their traditional traje their visit is about cultural information exchange, specifically natural dyes information, with other indigenous artisans. So we hope  their visit to the Oaxaca Textile Museum and Teotitlan will be interesting for  them as it will be for us. Stay tuned for more details about their adventure in Oaxaca!