Embroidering stories

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Servin’s husband Julio Flores Garcia explainng the scenes in a “tree” allegory design

The panels embroidered by Teofila Servin Barriga and her family are both simple and sophisticated at the same time. Most of the embroidery consists of highly stylized people, animals and plants which do not try to be realistic, but at the same time provide snapshots of traditional rural life in the Lake Patzcuaro area.

This particular kind of embroidery does not have a long history in Michoacan, and it is heavily dependent on the tourism trade in the state. Nonetheless, one of its goals is to preserve and promote tradtional culture and traditions.

This embroidery can be and is done on clothing items, but the bulk of the work are panels which contain one or more scenes, with motifs ranging from the pre Hispanic past, modern indigenous communities and life in the countryside. Specific scenes include, but are not limited to, patron saint’s day celebrations, fishing in Lake Patzcuaro, holidays such as Day of the Dead, folk dances and weddings. These panels are sold either to be framed as artwork or to be integrated into cloth items such as rebozos, tote bags and pillows. The latter has a number of these for sale in its store, but they do only the embroidery, contracting with others to do the sewing.

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Pillow with a depiction of Danza de los Viejitos
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Blouse with scenes relating to the importance of fish in the Lake Patzcuaro area

Some motifs depicts things that have since disappeared because of modernization such as certain folk dances and rituals such as the “kidnapping” of a woman’s clothes by a suitor whose father disapproves in order to push him to agree to the match. One novel concept done by the Servin family is a tree-based allegory pattern with themes such as love and family. Scenes are separated by branches with elements such as birds indicating the love of Christ. The images bear a resemblance to the trees-of-life created in Metepec, State of Mexico, where Servin’s husband is from.

The history of this embroidery extends back only to the 1980s. Previously, women in the Tzintzuntzan area did embroider, but it was limited to cross-stitching items such as napkins, pillowcases, etc. for family use. Outside of Patzcuaro proper, the Lake region is very poor, with an economy based on agriculture and very simple commerce of agricultural products. This has forced most men to migrate to other parts of Mexico and into the United States, leaving women and children behind to take care of houses and farm duties.

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Part of a large tapestry in progress

The figurative form of embroidery here is based off work done in San Juan Parangaricutiro, west of the Lake region. In the 1980s, functionaries with the Casa de Artesanias of Michoacan introduced the embroidery specifically to give women in tiny communities such as Santa Cruz another source of income. They taught the women modern embroidery stitches, along with design and marketing techniques. Since then, the women here have developed their own styles in both embroidery and commercialization. Lake Patzcuaro embroiderers favor figures that are filled in with color (generally done with a kind of backstitch or tied threads) and have a wider variety of motifs/scenes in their repertoire. Women in the Santa Cruz and other parts of the Tzintzuntzan area began forming cooperatives. In this way, members can spend most of their time home taking care of family and production duties, while traveling and sales tasks are rotated. Today, there are two main cooperatives in this area, with Servin’s family belonging to the Don Vasco de Quiroga cooperative.

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Inside the Vasco de Quiroga cooperative store in Michoacan

Servin was a child when her mother became one of the first in the community of Santa Cruz to work this embroidery. By age 12, she became interested in it herself, working ever since. Servin considers herself a “second-generation founding embroiderer.” The work has become popular with women in this area because not only does it allow them to earn enough to make a significant impact on their family’s finances, it also allows them to help preserve their culture and way of life.

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Teofila with mother (credit: Teofila Servín)

The embroidery is mostly done on a medium-weight cotton cloth called manta (similar to muslin), which the cooperative states is woven on pedal looms in Patzcuaro. Clothing items can be made of manta or other cotton fabrics. Despite the variety of items available, the techniques and motifs that are embroidered have not changed much in the past 30 years.

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Teofila and sister Bertha at the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala, Jalisco

The Servin and the cooperative use about 15 or so different modern embroidery stitches, but what really stands out on a number of pieces are borders painstakingly made with interconnected French-style knots that Servin calls Palestine knots. These give not only geometric shape but also texture to the piece. Embroidery thread is bought commercially, ranging from thick to thin and from a matte to a high shine. Which threads are used depend on the creativity of the artisan, as well as the final purpose of the piece. Those destined for the general market are usually done with matte thread as it is cheaper. Gloss and other finer threads are reserved for pieces destinted for competitions or for special orders. Most of the cooperative’s pieces for sale are small, as these are much easier to sell. Large tapestry type pieces are generally done only by special order.

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Servin’s mother worked in embroidery for many years, but today is retired at age 90+ because of her eyesight. Today, the cooperative is run by Servin’s generation (with sisters and sisters-in-law), with some of the third generation now also participating. All of the family participates in the cooperative and the store they have on the Patzcuaro-Quiroga highway KM15 (near the turnoff for Ihuatzio).  This includes some of the men. Both Servin’s sons know how to embroider although today they work in different occupations. Servin’s husband, Julio Flores Garcia does much of the design work and waxes quite poetic about it, connecting it to environmental awareness and social issues.

By the 1990s, Servin’s work began to be noticed and recognized, winning her first prize in 1996 in Patzcuaro. She has traveled to sell and exhibit all over Mexico, various locations in the United States and into Canada, sponsored by various government entities and other institutions.

In the 2007, her work was featured in the book, Bordados para ser contados by Carlos Jesus Gomez Flores, which was accompanied by stories of fact and fiction related to Servin’s panels. This book has led to other kinds of invitations to speak about issues related to rural women in Mexico and the United States. It also led to being one of 54 women in the short documentary Mi verdadera lucha, produced by the Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura in 2014.

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