-Originally appeared in Black Purl Magazine, Winter of 2006
(Photo below shows a doll dressed in traditional Purépecha dress laying on a human sized striped rebozo)
Two weeks after Christmas nearly 5 years ago, I found myself surrounded by black and indigo pinstripe shawls. It was one of the most unexpected and exhilarating encounters with traditional needlework I had ever experienced, not because of the quality of the craftsmanship or the vibrancy of the pattern, but because of the way the fabric transformed the familiar landscape of the small town I was standing in. It was a powerful reminder of the transformative power of the cloths we knit, weave, embroider and choose to wear in public spaces.
My husband and I had gone to visit the church at Atotonilco, about a 15 minute drive outside of our home town in central Mexico. The small jewel of a church has attracted thousands of pilgrims every year since it was built in the mid 1700s. It had recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was in the process of undergoing extensive restoration and preservation of the elaborate murals on the interior walls during our visit.
But on this day, I was most impressed by what was to be seen outside the cathedral walls. The streets were filled with female pilgrims from the state of Michoacán. They spoke amongst themselves in Purépecha, one of many indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico. Each woman carried her own traditional rebozo, a rectangular woven shawl with fringe on either end, bearing their traditional regional pattern: thick black stripes, separated by thin indigo stripes split by even thinner white lines.
Some women wore their shawls draped over their shoulders, while others wore theirs modestly drapes over their heads as well. Others wrapped theirs turban style, while the majority put their shawls to use as carryalls knotting the ends and slinging the cloths over their back and shoulders. The rebozos were filled with everything from food to children to a large gilt framed poster of the crucifixion I saw one woman hoist onto her back as a souvenir. As with all the best travel gear, the rebozos served many practical purposes, at once a bag, cover from the elements and a visually unifying force for the pilgrims; a sisterhood of shawls.
The basic blue and black stripe pattern remained constant on all the shawls; only the quality of the yarn and the weave betrayed the difference in circumstances for these women. Many also wore fancy black aprons trimmed with lace and ribbons, simplified counterparts to the laboriously cross-stitched aprons still produced in other parts of the region.
I do not know the symbolic or historic meaning behind the distinctive pinstripe pattern of the Michoacán-style-rebozo. The pattern dates back to at least the colonial period, and is in fact, worn by women of diverse backgrounds in many parts of Mexico. I purchased my own version of such a shawl, hand woven on a treadle loom in black cotton with shiny blue and white rayon stripes, in a small workshop in Moroleón, Guanajuato never imagining that someday I might have the opportunity to wear it amongst a sisterhood of pinstripe shawls in the plaza of Atotonilco. Perhaps next time…