Making a huipil from San Mateo del Mar

30 September 2021

We have a small community of backstrap weavers here in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico that get together once a week to weave, share and learn. After the isolation and depletion of our ranks by the pandemic we needed an invigorating project. We selected this type of huipil and invited a young, very accomplished weaver from San Mateo del Mar, Noé Pinzón Palafox, to mentor us.

A huipil from San Mateo del Mar recently woven by Jazmín Azucena Pinzón Palafox

Noé comes from a family of masterful weavers . He learned to weave in his family starting at age five. His younger sister, Jazmín Azucena Pinzón Palafox, wove the huipil in the picture above. His mother, Francisca Palafox, is credited with reviving the techniques for weaving this huipil. The weaving of this huipil had all but disappeared by the end of the last century. His 8 year old nephew is already winning national prizes for his weaving. That is how one learns to weave here in Oaxaca.

San Mateo del Mar is an Ikoots (sometime called Huave) community in the hot costal lands of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is located on a narrow peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and a lagoon ( It is all about the sea.

The huipil itself is made of cotton, now a days commercially spun. The cool sheer cloth is nearly a balanced weave sometimes with heavier weft stripes, woven brocade designs and several warp stripes. The brocade designs feature marine and coastal imagery or geometric patterns. A curious feature is a tassel at the end of the center front warp stripe. The huipil is woven in one or three panels, each piece with four selvages. The neck opening is a woven slit.

Here is some background information on these huipils :

Traditionally the huipils are made with natural colored cotton with colored warp stripes and colored brocade. Local natural colored cotton can be either off-white or brown (coyuche). Both were hand spun on a supported spindle. Preparing and spinning the locally grown cotton is very time consuming and has been largely abandoned now. Off-white cotton is now available commercially spun. The color grown cotton must still be hand spun because of its short staple length.

The natural dyes available locally were sea snail purple (caracol purpura), indigo and cochineal. The sea snail is now extinct in this area. A small sanctuary for the sea snail exists farther west on the Oaxacan coast, harvesting the dye is limited to a few authorized individuals. Indigo is grown inland nearby in Santiago Niltepec. A few people still cultivate indigo plants, but the production of the dye can be effected by earthquakes which destroy the tanks used for extracting the dye and by drought. Cochineal, a highly prized red insect dye is native to Oaxaca. The insect grows on prickly pear cactus. It is not particularly good dye for cotton, it is hard to get the bright red known on wool, giving instead a pale or purplish color. The cotton must be meticulously prepared and mordanted to have a stable cochineal color on cotton.

Todays huipils have evolved and updated and are woven in all sorts of colors. The huipil is woven in 3 panels a center one and two side panels. The center panel has designs created with supplementary weft, i.e. brocade. The weave structure is nearly a balanced plain weave, the openness of this structure allows space for the supplemental weft. The supplementary weft can be continuous or discontinuous but the design is formed when the brocade weft is placed in the shed. The panels are sewn together in the stripes. If the huipil is narrow enough and the weaver and loom are up to the task, it can be woven in one piece thus eliminating the seams. Each panel is woven with 4 selvages. Four selvage weaving is demanding and time consuming but highly regarded, giving a special spirit to the cloth. The neck opening is woven as a slit. The huipil made from four selvage panels is finished by sewing it together, no cutting involved.

A unique feature of these huipils is the center warp stripe, that is called the umbilical cord. It is woven into the cloth for most of the length of the panel, then it is not. The unwoven ends of these warps hang free looking like a tassel. Weaving this is a bit a a challenge to us but also why we chose this style of huipil and why we have a mentor.

Noé suggested we weave a mini-huipil to learn all the techniques. He brought an example he had previously woven.

The back of Noé’s mini-huipil.

This mini-huipil is about 30cm long and 40cm wide. The cloth is sheer enough that you can vaguely see the designs and stripes on the front. He demonstrated making the warp using 16/2 natural cotton and a softly spun merino wool silk yarn in a midnight blue. Then we made our warps, we chose different colors. You will see various warps in this post. Care must be taken with the center colored stripe when lashing on to the loom bars, as it is not woven at the beginning.

Preparing the mini-huipil warp.

Here you can see the loom being set up. The heddles have been made. The far end has been lashed-on to the loom bar and a bit was woven before the loom was turned around. Note that the center colored warps have not been woven but pushed down to right side. The warps must be carefully distributed on the loom bar to weave a sheer cloth.

This end has been lashed-on and the 3rd beam is ready to be removed.

The distribution of the warps on the second beam must match that of the upper beam before lashing-on. The final distribution of the warps is done with the first wefts. The colored center warps are not woven initially but pushed down to the right side ( the cloth is woven with the wrong side facing the weaver).

Initiating the front body of the huipil.

The weaving continues for a bit until it is time to incorporate the colored warps in the center. These warps are raised and now woven with the rest of the cloth.

Bottom front woven without the center stripe.

Obviously the warps near the center will have to curve around the newly incorporated warps.

Center front with ground warps bending around the center stripe.

Once the center stripe is incorporated the brocade designs can begin.

Plan for weaving the mini-huipil.
Adding brocade birds with discontinuous supplementary weft.

At the right height the neck slit is begun and woven using two wefts. Also two more stretcher bars, temples, are added to keep the cloth from pulling in at the slit.

The start of the neck slit, with 3 stretcher bars in place.

The design may continue along side the slit. The slit in the back is shorter than the front slit.

Finishing the brocade birds and weaving the neck slit. You a looking at the wrong side that faces the weaver.
Loom protection.
Araceli’s hens from the right side..

Weaving continues with two wefts until the end of the slit in the back. The back may or may not have additional brocaded designs. Eventually the center stripe is dropped again. Finally one reaches the tedious weaving of closing the gap, or terminal area, that is part of four-selvage weaving. This requires smaller tools and finally a needle. But finally the entire cloth is woven.

When closing the gap, the final few passes of the weft are done with a needle.

The gap has been woven.
The wrong side,the side that faces the weaver, of the completed cloth still on the loom.

And the right side.

The cloth is removed from the loom, washed and finished. The under arm selvages are butted and sewn by hand. Nothing has been cut.

One completed mini-huipil.

There are no holes where the center stripe has NOT been woven.

Cloth under the front tassel.

Three of the five participants have completed their mini-huipils so far, different colors, different designs- Noé’s birds (not charted, done free hand), Karren’s dragonflies and diamonds, and Araceli’s triangles and hens. Two more participants are working on theirs.

Finished mini-huipils made by Noé (left), Karren and Araceli (right).

Now that we know the techniques we can tackle larger huipils.


One Response to “Making a huipil from San Mateo del Mar”

  1. Linda Sage Says:

    So interesting, Karren! I am forwarding it to my fiber-friends. Good to hear what you have been up to – looking forward to what’s next –

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: