Sliding a rebozo through a wedding ring

The rebozo is one of, if not the most, visible element of traditional Mexican women’s dress. Despite the fact that it has almost disappeared in daily use, Mexican women own at least one, and these are almost always pulled out to celebrate Independence Day, if nothing else.

The rebozo is made in various localities in the center and south of the country, but perhaps the finest rebozos are made in the northeast.

Santa María del Río is a small town close to city of San Luis Potosí in the state of the same name. Despite colonial era buildings reminicent of towns and cities further south, the natural geography is definitely “norte” with mezquite, cactus and a dry riverbed. The town was established in 1589 by the Franciscans as the Spanish sought to push their control north, out of Mesoamerica and into areas where hunter-gatherer tribes still dominated. To do this, towns like Santa Maria were established and often populated with “more civilized” indigenous people from former Aztec Empire lands. In this case, the migrating people were Otomis. The town was established with a parish, a Franciscan monastery and two neighborhoods, one for the Otomis and one for the native Guachichils. The town is still unofficially divided into “upper” and “lower” based on this division, but the population is now mestizo.

Perhaps the most lasting cultural element from the past is the introduction of weaving rebozos on backstrap looms using ikat dyeing techniques. These are still made much the same way as those made in the center of Mexico but with one important difference, the use of silk (and today, imitation silk).

This development came later in when haciendas began to experiment with the raising of silkworms. The material makes for a much finer and delicate piece than those made of cotton. Silk weaving requires a more precise and delicate touch, so these rebozos became a favorite of wealthing women of the city of San Luis Potosi.

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Today, silk rebozos are still made and can still be bought, with prices starting at about $7,500 pesos (roughly $350 USD). It is said that the finest of Santa María’s silk rebozos can slip through a wedding ring,and was used as a way to test that the garment was of 100% silk.

There are essentially two types of rebozos made and sold here. Single color ones (also called “chalinas”) have no pattern and come in a wide array of traditional and modern colors, including a shocking pink. The other consists of rebozos with patterns, still made by dying the threads before weaving.. ikat. These patterns have changed very little since they were introduced to Santa Maria. There are seven basic designs that can still be had. All had names but today all are numbered with a few retaining their names. Number 1 is the bolita, the most famous of the Santa María rebozos as it is seen and referenced in a number of songs and movies. It has two colors, generally small black lines/dots on a white background. Number 2 is called “caramelo” (candy) and is noted for having seven distinct colors. Number 3 refers to those with S-shaped fretwork,. Number 4 is also called pinto abierto (also a black and white design). Number 5 refers to a style with a sword or arrow pattern; number 6refers to a design with birds and number 7 to one with wide fretwork. One that seems to missed being numbered is “barbilla,” but this term refers more to a brown coloring that used to be obtained using local plants.

The ikat designs here are comparable to the rebozo work still done in Tenancingo, State of Mexico, but there are some differences. Tenancingo’s designs are more varied and are still evolving, but are still made of cotton. The knotting of the fringes on those from Santa María is finer.

Silk is no longer produced in San Luis Potosi. Weavers today use silk imported from China as is affords the best quality for the price. The main innovation to Santa María’s work has been the introduction of rayon thread, an artificial silk to make a version that is more affordable. Dyes used to be natural, using local resources, but today this is no longer possible. Many of the plants are extinct or endangered, and rayon cannot take natural dyes anyway.

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White and black bolita rebozos in rayon (above) and real silk (below)

The rebozos typically made today are a bit shorter than those of the past, again because of affordability. Most are about two meters long and about 60cm wide, although some can be as long as three meters with widths of up to a meter. Rayon rebozos have a thread count of 3,000, with the silk ones coming in at 3,800.

The fringes are tyed of using complicated knotting techniques, similar to macramé, but much finer. These numerous knots create patterns which are complicated and creative. Traditional ones have names such as duck tail, pine arch and even “make me if you can.” But talented fringe weavers (exclusively women) can made just about any kind of personalized image. These fringes when finished vary from 7 to over 30 cm long.

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It should be noted that the most traditional and best of Santa María’s rebozos are still made on backstrap looms, but cheaper versions are made on pedal looms and even some with more modern technology. But the local weavers’ association demonstrates that the results of these are inferior to those of the backstrap loom, mostly because the ikat method requires precise placement of the threads. A single rebozo can take between one and two months but generally not longer as a rebozo left on the loom too long can warp.

Like other notable handcraft towns in Mexico, Santa Maria attracts tourism with visitors coming to buy rebozos here. While it receives visitors from all over the world, the biggest time for the town is the traditional Easter week vacation period (Semana Santa). The negative to this is that many stores have opened in the town offering rebozos, which are not authentic and not even made in Santa Maria. In some cases it is not difficult to spot the fakes, ridiculously cheap prices being a big clue, but in others it is not as clear cut.

Escuela de Rebozo (left) and the Cooperativa (right)

For those who are not expert but still want to buy an authentically made piece (rayon or real silk), there are two reliable places to go: the Rebozo School (Escuela de Rebozo) off the main plaza and the Taller Escuela de Rebocería (often called the “Cooperativa”) on Ocampo Street, one block from the main plaza. The first is better known. Established in 1953 by state and federal agencies, its purpose is to preserve the craft, promote it and assist both students and established artisans with commercialization. It has a store, but there isn’t a hugely wide selection. Most rebozos are sold through government agencies such as FONART. The store also carries other handcrafts from the state, most notably inlay pine and cedar boxes in which many keep the rebozos. The Cooperative dates from the 1980s and has the same mission as the Escuela. In fact, it owes its existance to a split among Santa María artisans at that time. It also sells rebozos, located at a counter inside the building just off the courtyard. Both places offer visitors the opportunity to see what is going on at that moment. The Escuela has more fixed exhibits, but if your Spanish is good, the cooperative can give an explanation of the processes.

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Store inside the Escuela de Rebozo
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Threads being tied in preparation for dyeing

To shop for a rebozo, it is recommended to check both shops to see what is available. Both take special orders as well. The best time to visit is just before the Easter vacation as they stock up for this vacation period. Another possibility is the annual Rebozo Fair during the first two weeks of August.

While the craft receives support from government agencies, press, intellectuals and more, its survival is not assured. Weaving the garment is a time-consuming process and while weavers can spend 10 hour days for weeks on a rebozo, a single garment may earn the artisan only $1,000 pesos. Since Santa Maria is near a major city with industry nearby, there are other options for work.

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