Enjoy this guest post from Oaxaca Stories in Cloth author Eric Mindling.
When I decided to commit to this project I call the Living Threads Project—this grand task of photo documenting the people of traditional dressways in Oaxaca for the book I was dreaming into being for Thrums Books—I had to consider exactly what I was taking on. After all, my calendar was already full with my day job!
Oaxaca is big and broad and deep. How many villages are out there where people dress traditionally? That would tell me how long I’d be travelling, roughly how many portraits I’d be taking, and about how little or how much of my life this project would consume.
Who do I go to for the answer? Well, I figured I was a great place to start. After all, I’ve lived in Oaxaca twenty odd years, have made a point of learning about traditional textiles, and run a tour business proud of offering trips to the fascinating textile villages of remote Oaxaca. I’ve spent long, long hours traveling to those villages to learn about them and create the tours. Indeed, if I didn’t feel like I had at least a decent sense of the scope of it all, I wouldn’t have considered writing the book in the first place. In other words, I ought to know.
So I sat down and made a list of every village I could think of in Oaxaca that had traditional dress. Several of them I knew well and had visited many times. Others I only knew of through legend, old photos, or hearsay. I wrote names, scratched my head, walked around a bit to see if something else would come to mind, and then did it all again.
“All” the Oaxacan Textile Villages
When it was all said and done, I had 13 names. However, I thought, there were probably more because some of those names I had were based on vague knowledge. Usila, for example. For all I knew the tradition didn’t exist there any more . . . or maybe it did and there were other villages in the area with rooted dressways as well. There were several cases like Usila—places where maybe there was traditional dress, maybe there wasn’t. So in the end, doing the kind of math that my mind does using complex algorithms, hypothesis, and artistic delusional equations, I came up with the number 15.
Fifteen. That’s how many villages in Oaxaca have traditional dress.
Now, if in each village I make five portraits, I’ll have 75 portraits. A fabulous body of work. And if it takes me four days to make those portraits in each village (including travel time) it will take me two months of field work to get this project photographed. A big time commitment, but achievable.
With this solid bit of knowledge stored away, I prepared for the job. And in the mean time I consulted some friends who also knew about textiles in Oaxaca. They came up with the same list I’d worked up, plus two more villages. Suddenly it was 17.
Then I headed into Mixes (MEE-Hays) to photograph the two villages I knew about there and asked people in Mixes if there were more villages. Yes, yes of course, they said, and they named five more. 22 villages. Goodness!
Maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did!
Then I met a woman who knew the Usila region (Papaloapan) quite well. Yes, she said, there is still traditional dress in Usila. And she went on to name a long list of other villages in the region with traditional dress as well. Eight more! Thirty villages!
Wait, wait, wait! What have I committed to?
I’m gonna eat some humble pie and make a long story short. Between one thing and another, not the least of which was the publication of an insane map midway through my work by the Museo Textil de Oaxaca (in which they show every known village in Oaxaca with a textile tradition that once existed, currently exists, and currently may or may not continue to make textiles), my list swelled to 57 villages!
There is so much more out there than I’d ever imagined, and I had no idea. With things like this, I LOVE being wrong. How exciting to learn that the world of textiles in Oaxaca is a magnitude greater than I thought.
And it only took me two years to get to them all.
HEAR MORE: Join Eric Mindling on his speaking tour at these venues throughout October:
OCT 14. The Textile Museum. Washington D.C.
OCT 16. Pratt Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Brooklyn, NY
OCT 17. Fashion Institute of Technology. NY, NY
OCT 19. Ibu Movement. Charleston, SC
OCT 21. Textile Society of America Symposium. Savannah, GA