“Rebel” with a needle

When you think of a rebel, you think of someone who is against something or somebody, someone with an angry attitude, or a hippie-wannabe eschewing as many modern conveniences as possible.

Leticia Albalat is neither angry nor pridefully signaling to the world that she is different. She simply lives life on her own terms.

Her focus is sewing, something traditionally associated with a subservient domestic role, but in this case, her passion shows a respect for women that maybe even feminists cannot muster.

Albalat comes from a family that became creative out of necessity. She was born in Argentina during the political strife there. Her parents were attending university, but were forced to flee the country when the dictatorship came to power, heading north.

Money ran out by the time they got to Central America, but the situation there was not much better than in Argentina. They needed to get to Mexico, where they could get asylum. So, they walked. Needing money to eat, they took sewing and other domestic skills learned from their families, they fashioned a puppet theater from what they had. With this, they performed shows from town to town as they walked with 1.5-year-old Leticia in tow.

When they arrived in Mexico, they found that there was a community of puppeteers in the country doing shows large and small. One of these was Mireya Cueto, who took the family into the home. Albalat’s parents continued their career in this field, traveling all over Mexico.  Albalat says “…I, as a child, was quite impressed seeing that dolls had a life as “workers.” Dolls have their own personal histories. Watching people make them was also incredible as they thought about what materials to use, the size…”

In addition to the puppets, Albalat became the owner of a collection of dolls from all over Mexico. Her parents traveled a lot, and as she got older, it became too difficult to travel with them. But her parents always brought her dolls from wherever they traveled. These dolls would form the basis of her life’s work.

Her love of sewing comes from grandmothers and great-grandmothers who sewed, and she is fortunate to have inherited a number of pieces that there done by them, along with their talent. Doll-making began in earnest when she was a teenager, when she began making them for her mother’s friends.

Albalat used the dolls her parents bought for her as models, but her goal was not to copy them, but rather learn the techniques in their making and create her own versions.

She has interest in all kinds of sewing and related skills, in particular those techniques that are in danger of disappearing because they are very old-fashioned, difficult or both. Although she does use a sewing machine for a number of projects, she is particularly drawn to hand-sewing. Although she never uses the word, it was obvious from her description of her work that she finds it Zen-like, with a meditative quality.

She rightfully calls her work research because she has spent many hours at the homes of many women, listening to their stories, learning what they do and seeing their best work. In many cases, this work is dresses or other outfits made for special occasions for themselves or for another. This work is generally done without patterns and are one-of-a-kinds.

On a practical level, she makes a living by making items to sell, principally dolls, along with other sewn items and even silver jewelry. She also teaches classes in the various skills she has mastered. But both are done on her own terms.

Although she sells her dolls, she does not simply think of them as merchandise. Her dolls include brides, workers, gentlemen, mermaids, children and more. Some have subtle features that identify them as Mexican (like a Cantinflas-style mustache), but most are generic Western. Most have realistic skin colors but not all. The style of the embroidery is definitive, as is the use of tight coils of shoemakers’ thread for hair and unrealistically long arms and legs. All dolls are 100% hand sewn, with the different aspects done in different sessions.

A number of dolls are set and sold in decorative boxes, an innovation sparked by customers’ questions about how to display and protect the dolls they bought. These may be made for the purpose, but more often than not, they are scavenged wood cigar and wine boxes. The dolls are set up in scenes often with other things Albalat makes such as fabric collage. The scene and position of the dolls often tells a story, often a relationship between two characters. It could be as simple as two people in love, or have complicating elements such as one dressed more modern than the other.

She sells her dolls herself, locally, in Jalapa and wherever she travels.  Her creations are not cheap, running about 800 pesos for a 20cm tall doll. In fact, because of the extraordinary time it takes to make the doll and even more to make the outfit, they are not really commercially viable. They would be more so if they were bigger, which could command a higher price, but she is not interested in making larger dolls. Smaller sizes present larger challenges.

Her attitude as a teacher is similar. She gives classes to make a living but is very selective about who she teaches. She looks for student with a passion for sewing, especially by hand. She also prefers students with a good idea of what they want to create and why. The reason for this is that she does not want to teach people who will simply forget what she shares with them. This limits the number of people she can teach. She works with her students, encouraging them and “feeding” them, because she knows she does not have the time to teach everyone who believes strongly in this work.

Despite all this, she manages to support herself completely with the income from these activities and fund her personal projects. She is dependent on no one. One reason for this is that she lives in the small town of Coatepec, Veracruz, in a very simple neighborhood on the edge of town. She owns only the basics, and her choice of apartment depends more on how it functions as a studio rather than a place to sleep and entertain. For this reason, her current place is boxy, but with great light. Although she was born in Mexico City and more easily sells her dolls for her asking price there, she has lived in rural Veracruz for most of her life and has no desire to return to the big city. The noise and chaos are not conducive to her work.

Her personal projects run a wide gamut but almost all have some link to working with needle and thread. When she began making dolls with and for her mother, she made small ones out of cotton. She has since moved on to more and more challenging types of materials such as linen for the dolls’ bodies. Dolls remain the center of what she does, but over the years she has branched out into embroidery, appliqué, patchwork, making of clothing without patterns, upcycling old clothing and lacemaking. 

The goal of all of this work is not to simply conserve was done before (although that is part of it), but to take the techniques into new directions. She has even worked to learn how to make her own bone, glass and silver buttons (which branched out into jewelry making) with the aim of being able to make everything from thread to zippers.

She combines heritage techniques in new ways. For example, she has invented a kind of scrap collage, with the pieces joined by stitching. They are purely artistic, representing her surroundings and what has happened in her life. She has combined patchwork and Mexican traditional dress to make quilted sarapes. Much of the fabric for these projects come from her own scraps as well as those donated by seamstresses, along with vintage clothing that can no longer be worn.

Lace making. Albarat says that it is not possible to recreate that which was done 100 years ago because the extremely fine thread needed is no longer available

Eyesight strain is the most worrisome part of the job, especially as the artisan gets older. To conserve her eyesight, she restricts the number of hours she dedicates to dolls and insists on working only in natural light. In this way, she believes, she can still be making dolls when she is ninety.

Other difficulties have to do with the working of different materials and tools, some of which take time to master. For example, she uses shoemakers’ thread to create the tight curls seen on almost all of the dolls. The thread is stiff and the coils tight, requiring pliers to pull the needle through the doll’s head as she makes each loop. One the other extreme, working with silk is so delicate and fine that it takes an exceptional toll on the eyesight, instead of the fingers.

She has absolutely no idea how many times she has pricked her fingers although a number of instances scared her for being so deep.

As an artist, Albalat’s main concern is to have her work interact with the public in some way. Unlike purely commercial doll makers, she welcomes people taking photos of her dolls, or just seeing their faces change when they see them. It does not matter if a doll is bought or not.  Elements of her embroidery style have shown up in other doll artists’ work.

Although Albalat never studied fine arts, she grew up in an artistic household, surrounded by artists, musicians, poets, etc. She still has a network of professional artists on whom she relies for feedback on her work. It has been positive, and she had her first exhibition of dolls in 2004, and hopes to exhibit her collages and other works in the near future.

But the center of Albalat’s world is her quiet workshop and whatever piece she is working on at the moment. Albalat believes that doll-making is an art as well as a craft. She also feels a responsibility to each doll she creates.

She has been told that her work is “…a waste of time, but it is not a waste of time, for me they are very important spiritual moments, to be calm, to take care and do.”  “I had to decide to take the bull by the horns and make a space in my live to do what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was research sewing techniques and traditions. You must be calm in order to do this. There is no other way.”

Her attitude towards the work and the products comes from those same housewives, many older women which whom she had contact as a child. Often with arthritis and poor vision, they still managed to create dolls and more for their families. She would buy dolls from them to analyze. She could see the makers’ lives in them. The dolls spoke to her; she understood their makers’ dress, what they dreamed when they were young, how their lives played out. So much of the person is reflected in those dolls.

In her own work, she has found that she needs to love what she is doing because “…I had to confront them (the dolls), because one day they would ask me Why did you make us? What did you make us for? … I talked to my dolls and told them Be calm. I love you, making you with all my love and I just do what I have to do….”

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