A Textile Journey – Q&A with Writer, Traveler, and Textile Enthusiast, Sheri Brautigam

I am currently planning a trip to Mexico and while I was on the hunt to determine where to go in order to see the most textiles and rich culture I came across the blog, Living Textiles of Mexico. After checking it out I realized up to this point in the creator’s, Sheri Brautigam, life this woman has done so much of what I want!

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Sheri recently published a book, Textile Fiestas of Mexico (image below), and since reading it I realized how incredibly original it is. The book is truly a “guide” and something that belongs in the front pocket of anyones suitcase while traveling to Mexico in search of great culture and textiles. It has knowledge and tips that only someone who has experienced it first hand (and many times) would know; from the markets to shop, festivals to attend, and the best locations to sleep, visit, and eat, Sheri provides invaluable insight and knowledge between two covers.

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Even though Sheri is on the road promoting her book she took the time to answer a few questions as well as provide amazing pictures about her life and book. I wrote the questions in a way that will appeal, most especially, to those in their twenties; millennials (including myself) seem to be a generation that wants to travel as much as possible and live the life of their dreams and I think Sheri’s answers are inspiring.

When you were in your twenties did you know what you wanted to do with your life?

I thought Advertising / Journalism would be an interesting career (sorta like MAD MEN) and it was the 60’s so it was glamorous. I should have gotten into Journalism part because that’s more or less what I’m doing now, documenting and storytelling. But when I went to Mexico then my focus totally changed.

Did you have any idea you would be on the amazing traveling and culturally immersive path you are on?

No idea! I hadn’t traveled anywhere until I lucked into a ‘winter quarter’ in Mexico City. It was so cosmopolitan and exotic that I decided to stay. I earned my BA degree in Latin American History/Art History. This set the course for great adventures in Mexico.

With everything you have experienced over the years between traveling back and forth to Mexico (as well as living there!) and seeing the change in the fashion industry (especially in the US and Europe), what do you believe would allow indigenous groups to become more affluent?

Indigenous women want to stay home and care for their families and so the development of coops for marketing/selling purposes has been successful. Now Mexican designers and fair-trade design groups are working with these artisans – helping them with product development so it is getting better for the artisans and coops.

Do you believe there is a mutually beneficial collaboration that could occur between the indigenous textile artists of Mexico and the American fashion industry?

You do have to have a cultural orientation with the artisans you are working with. Designers that are successful have taken time (years) to develop relationships and created ways to support their artisans beyond just buying and reselling their stuff. It’s much more than just ‘showing-up’ and trying to source materials. You need to know how their culture works and the constraints they live with (i.e not having the money for the base materials: threads, dyes etc.) or the rainy season that makes it impossible to get into the commercials centers, etc. It’s much more complex than just ‘sourcing’ things.

What advice would you give to someone (especially those in their twenties) if they want to pursue their passion of textiles/culture?

First, learn the language of the culture you are wanting to work with. Live there and immerse yourself. You’ll be trusted more after you develop relationships and show yourself to be culturally sensitive and trustworthy. It’s not about just ‘showing up’ and buying things!  Although this can work on a beginning level while you are learning the ropes.

Are there any books, websites, mentors, influential figures, etc., that helped you along your journey or were a great learning tool for you?

Honestly, there was no internet/google to gather information when I began this journey. I’m a very inquisitive person so it was all the adventure of being given a tip or seeing some amazing embroidery the ladies in some of the remote village were doing and jumping on a truck carrying mangos to the local market and hitchhiking up there. This was in the early 70’s in Guatemala. I found the ladies and their embroidered 10 lb huipiles/garments  and the whole village showed up to sell to me. Scary but true. Follow your intuition – ask around (read my book! hahaha) get online. The information is out there if you really want to know. I had to figure it out before there was internet, blogs, and electronic tools. Also remember there were BOOKS! Chloe Sayer did research in the 70’s in Mexico on artisania/textiles but the earliest explorers were the Cordry’s who went out on horseback in the 40’s to explore textile culture in the remote indigenous villages.

What is one of your favorite experiences or moments to date?

WOW…that would be difficult to answer as there are many. But since I’m in-the-moment — I’d say ‘what ever I’m experiencing NOW’  is my favorite.

While I am sure all of the textiles you see have stuck a chord with you in some sense, what textile or garment continues to blow you away the most?

Since I myself was a textile artisan/designer for 20 years in San Francisco, I’m constantly amazed and impressed with the amount of skill, workmanship, and focus it takes to make some of these beautiful textiles. The best back-strap weavers in Mexico are the Amuzgos of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Their work is exquisite and very fine. Then, there are older embroidered Tehuana costumes of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec which must have taken months to complete. Frida Kahlo loved them too. These are my favorites but there are many many more wonderful items.

What work do you see yourself continuing to do? What are your goals for the next 5 or 10 years?

My job, as I see it, is to educate people about the wonderful world of traditional textiles that are alive and well in Mexico. I will continue to explore different groups in remote areas and tell their stories the best I can. The goal is to support the artisans so they will continue to do their beautiful work and pass their skills onto the younger generation. Bringing the world of Mexico to appreciative collectors and travelers, one reader at a time. Oh, and bring your friends with you!

Now that your book is for sale and you are promoting it, what is the biggest takeaway or hope you want someone to get from reading it?

Go to Mexico and explore the traditional culture and artesania/arts and crafts. Feel safe!! It’s such a beautiful place and the people are so gracious and kind and especially talented. It’s a place to expand your heart and develop appreciation for a more complex and older culture than your own.

How did you know it was time for you to write this book?

I had been documenting textiles for about 10 years total and I had about 40k images on just one computer. I had done this for myself. The images were about to seize up my iBook! I had to do something with them! I explored the possibility of publishing by talking to friends in the business, who told me how difficult it would be to find a publisher for my idea. They said I’d have to publish it myself.  But I just kept an open mind and discovered my publisher THRUMS was ALL about ethnic textiles. I finally got their attention! It took about 2 years of exploring the publishing world. Keeping an inquisitive open mind is the key. Don’t stress about it either! The publishing business is in transition right now and it’s really a crap-shoot for them to take on a new author or project.

It’s super expensive to publish these books. If you think you are going to make money on a project like this – forget about it! It’s a service project really – for the love of textiles and Mexican culture!

You mentioned in a different interview (with Hand/Eye Magazine) that writing books like this is, typically, for a niche market. How did you know your idea for a book would interest people to pick it up?

There was no way to know anything!!! Honestly! Since I was a textile designer in my past life, I’m very project oriented. So I made a small iBook with some of my best images which showed my visual concept….how the story would read etc. My publisher saw this and immediately called me to make a contract because she was looking for someone to do a guide on Mexican textiles. It was a meeting of the minds. Being in the right place at the right time. Pure and simple. If you know what you want to do and can articulate or show an example – that’s 1/2 the work in writing a book or developing a product. Living in Santa Fe, NM – I personally knew a lot of people who love Mexico and visit often and they are thrilled to have a guide to take with them and share with friends. I think the timing is right.

 

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Sheri’s first documentation project with the Mazahuas of Santa Rosa de Lima

 

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Mazahua ladies in the process of weaving an 8-pound skirt on the back strap loom.

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This image and the one above are of ladies in their traditional handwoven huipiles up in the Chinantla area of Oaxaca. This area of Oaxaca is very remote.
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Sheri wearing one of the unique quechquemitl garments of Cuetzalan, State of Puebla Mexico

Talking with Sheri was truly a pleasure and her book is available on her Etsy shop as well as Amazon. The information inside is one of a kind and truly invaluable and the quality of the images is incredible. I recommend it to anyone interested in textiles or anyone who will be traveling to Mexico.

If textiles interest you as much as me since they are an incredible way to learn about the history and different cultures all over the world then make sure to follow Sheri’s blog Living Textiles of Mexico!

For extra reading options check out the blog and online site, House of Wandering Silk. They do a series of blog posts titled, “Around the World in 80 Textiles” which talks about different textiles; it is definitely worth checking out!

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