The rebozo is an, if not the, iconic women’s garment of Mexico. Like other traditional garments, the designs indicate where it is from (with the exception of some modern designs).
Michoacan is one of Mexico’s main producers of traditional rebozos and other crafts, although it does not get the attention it deserves. Many communities are known for their manufacture along with certain designs.
The best known varieties of rebozo are the “Michoacan” or “Tarasco” rebozo. These are tightly woven, indigo/navy blue in color with thin stripes of black, other shades or blue or white running along the length of the garment, and come from the mountain or Purhepecha (Tarasco) areas of the state.
However, there are many other varieties from simple single-color pieces, to other stripe combinations to those with intricate ikat dyed designs to even more modern inventions. Another unusual feature of rebozos here is the use of feathers woven into the fringes.
Communities noted for their production include Tarecuato, Tangancícuaro, Angahuan, Turícuaro, Aranza, Tócuaro, Santa Cruz and Ahuiran. These are mostly indigenous rural communities where the use of the rebozo is more than just a fashion accessory, but rather part of a traditional women’s life, used primarily for warmth, carrying children and/or merchandise to and from market. When it is hot, it can be folded and worn on the head as a kind of sombrero.
Both backstrap and pedal looms are used, with the use of the former usually reserved for (indigenous) women and the latter for men. Although there is some commercialization, those made on backstrap looms are more likely to be used locally. Major commercial production is done on pedal looms, with the fingerweaving of fringes outsourced to women in outlying areas.
Video on the making of rebozos in La Piedad
The main center for the commercial production of rebozos is/was the small city of La Piedad, in the north of the state, very close to the borders with Jalisco and Guanajuato. Commercial production reached its peak here in the 1930s and 1940s, in particular with the introduction of rayon thread known locally as “artisela” (from Spanish for artificial silk). This thread all but replaced the use of more traditional cotton. These rebozos found their way to various parts of Mexico including Mexico City, Oaxaca and San Luis Potosi and even abroad. At one time, there were about fifty large workshops in the city, but several factors led to the decline of the trade by the latter 20th century. First, was the fall into disfavor of the rebozo in general among Mexican women, who still tend to view it as a sign of backwardness and indigenous. Another was the federal government’s push to enforce labor laws for worker’s entitlements, which many workshops could not afford. The economy shifted to swine production, which made the city dirty and its air fowl, discouraging any tourism that could be had from the rebozo industry, although the activity has abated and the city has cleaned up considerably since the 1990s.
Today there are five or six main rebozo producers in the city, with rebozos for sale not easy to find. The best known of teise is the Sociedad Cooperativa Textil Artesanal,(Emiliano Zapata Street, behind the Hotel Mirage) founded in 1963, with about thirty members, almost all senior citizens.
Despite the dire situation, there are efforts to conserve the rebozo and its making in the state. Michoacan’s largest handcraft event, the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos, has a fashion show specific to the rebozo, showcasing traditional garments from around the state and innovations, including smaller versions for men.
The municipal government of La Piedad has recognized the importance of the rebozo and economically and culturally. The local soccer team is called the “Reboceros” (rebozo makers), and it has applied for a trademark under the name of “Rebozo de La Piedad.”
Featured image: Woman weaving a striped rebozo in Uruapan, Michoacan. All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia