I have been looking for a hand woven huipil to buy since I’ve arrived in Oaxaca de Juarez in December 2014.  I finally found one! 

black cotton three panel huipil with coyuche and purpura pansa brocade

I found it at the Festval of Artisans that the state organized just above the Santo Domingo Church for Holy Week. 

I do have my criteria:

  • Back strap woven
  • Good craftsmanship 
  • Three panels
  • A colorway that I would wear
  • A size that I feel comfortable in. 

The size has been the stumbling block. Most are made for Señoritas, I need twice as wide to feel comfortable.  I did a turn of the whole festival and came back to an Amuzgo booth. She had many beautiful, well woven huipiles. Mostly on a natural or off- white ground, which looks lovely with their black hair but I don’t much like with my all white hair, too monochromatic.   She did have a pale pink one that looked a little greyed and a Mexican Rose one with black brocade. I love Mexican Rose but the craftsmanship  of this one wasn’t top quality, particularly in the construction. She had an elegant black on black  huipil, sized for a small señorita. 😟

She hung up a very beautiful  huipil in a cinnamon brown with natural colored brocade.   It was very fine brocade and the colors were spectacular, the brocade almost looked golden. Very elegant and special. When she got it down so I could see it closer I recognized the color as that from nanche, a tree that has an edible fruit and the bark can be used for dyeing. Unfortunately the nanche color had already stained parts of the natural colored threads that were used for brocade and construction. Yes, it was natural dye but it was not well dyed. 

Reluctantly I left that booth and went to a booth that had some lovely small utility cloths with brocade style I associate with San Juan Colorado, but wasn’t from San Juan. There were several styles of brocade in the booth, which I think was a coop. Some pieces had women’s names on them, which I thought was the maker’s name. She began showing me huipiles too and some were lovely but small. She finally showed me a “large” three panel black huipil with brocade in coyuche, that is always hand spun, and purpura pansa, the seashell violet. Excellent workmanship.  Price I could afford. Perfect except it was too small. She thought it was big enough, but I insisted that it was only as wide as the top I had on and the top had slits from the waist down. The black huipil was ankle length and I had to convince her that it was going to catch on my hips so I wouldn’t wear it.  As I was ready to walk away she said she had a very large one.  I said let me see it, she had to root around a bit to find it and when I saw it it was perfect. Big enough, well made, black ground with Leno and coyuche and purpura pansa brocade.  It is now mine!


detail with purpura pansa dyed yarn used for brocade and construction

The ground cloth is 16/2 black cotton in plain weave and leno. The cloth is light weight and drapes well. Not hot because of the open work, leno. Each panel has a few warps of purpura at each side selvage. The panels are joined by hand with a faggoting stitch in the same purpura.  The neck edge is carefully made and decorated with the same purpura dyed yarn. 

The purpura dyed yarn is commercially spun yarn that is taken to the seaside. The wet yarn is held in the hand and the sea snails are pried from the rocks and their excretions rubbed on the yarn. The snails are returned to their rock. The secretions slowly change color, in the sun and air , until the yarn is a pale red- violet color. 
The coyuche is a brown cotton that grows here. It is short staple and thus hand spun.  Both colors are from prehispanic times. 

The brocade technique is discontinuous inlay. This inlay is done with the weft turns on the top making tiny scalloped edges around each motif. 

  • detail of the brocade with coyuche and purpura

This brocade style has a neat backside that is only slightly different from the front. 


here is the fourth selvage carachteristic of back strap weaving and the neat backside of the brocade

 Blessing on the weaver that made my cherished huipil!


I’m testing the loom set up, threads and other variables for Huave( also called Ikoots) style weaving.  This is an indigenous group in Oaxaca that live in the Istmo region to the south of the city and at sea level near the coast.  I have only seen their textiles in Oaxaca city, and the huipiles look very similar to the Zapotec huipiles that my teacher makes.  I’m the bigger one in the pic.

We both wear huipils, she made hers, it is beloved and authentic Zapotec.

We both wear huipils, she made hers, it is beloved and authentic Zapotec.


Here is a detail of one of the common motifs she taught me.  This is my first Zapotec style weaving done on a back strap loom.  Technically it is discontinuous inlay.

The Huave huipiles are very similar in technique, all cotton, inlay  and share some of the same motifs.

Part of a Huave huipil

Part of a Huave huipil

Huave huipil

Huave huipil on display at MTO.

At the bottom you can see a similar motif.  The other horizontal bands are very original, obviously beach scenes with coconut palms, pelicans, turtles, etc.  Another distinctive features of the Huave huipils is a center stripe.  At first I thought they were 4 panels but no, the stripe in the center does not hide a seam and at the bottom both front and back it comes out of the cloth to become a tassel. So I think it is a supplementary warp. The neck opening is also a woven-in split, occurring with in this stripe.   The Zapotec huipil is woven whole and the neck opening is cut and stitched.  This huipil does have a very low contrast inlay design that does not show in the poor quality photo but you can see the stripe become a tassel at the bottom.

Both style of huipiles are fairly sheer plain weave cotton woven on backstrap loom, embellished with heavier opaque stripes and discontinuous inlay.

Huave cloth, geometric and figurative -2-

Huave cloth. Photo by Karen Elwell

The Huave also make textiles that are not sheer and made as cloths to keep tortillas warm (bread cloth?), napkins, table decoration etc.  These interesting textiles have a continuous brocade weft, that is the supplementary weft goes from selvage to selvage.  When the brocading weft is not on top, making the design, it is buried in the regular shed and only slightly visible.  If you compare the plain weave at the end with the background of the butterflies  you can see the difference.

Brocade P I.5

My continuous brocade, inlay/overlay, woven on RH loom.

I have made things with this very technique, continuous inlay/overlay that look quite different, the brocade weft being much more visible in the back ground.   This is plain weave done on a rigid heddle loom.  The Huave work looks to be more warp dominate  and thus hide the pattern weft in the inlay areas. Could also be the proportion between the size of the warp and weft yarns.


Huave backstrap loom weaving a round cloth. Technique: continuous brocade, inlay/overlay. All cotton.

Here you can see the Huave work on the loom and the pattern weft looks fat, made up of three strands of singles.  And the weft looks fine.

Notice that the tie-downs in the overlay help to  define the riders on the back of the horses.

So how can I get this effect? What size yarn for the warp? sett? what to use for pattern weft?  I have been doing inlay/overlay on rigid heddle looms (RH) with 8/2 cotton doubled in a 10 dent heddle. I was flipping through a recently acquired book, Tejido Huave and Beyond by Erica de Ruiter,  and she suggests 8/2 cotton sett at 20 epi.  So that’s what I’m trying. You can get 20 epi on a RH loom by using two 10 dent heddles .


Here is my set-up: I had a Leclerc Bergere loom empty with a 10 dent heddle and found another 10 dent heddle from a narrower Ashford loom.  I held the two heddles up to the light and the eyes seemed to line up.  So this is mint green 8/2 cotton warp sett at 20 epi.   Since both heddles move together, I don’t need a second castle, I used cable zip ties to fasten them together and they move as one unit.  The sheds don’t open as cleanly as when I use 2 Leclerc heddles( the eyes aren’t the same size) so I put a dowel under the warps in the slots and pushed it to the back beam.  I can use it to help clear the shed. The dowel does have a security tie on it since it travelled to a workshop and back.

Then to see what pattern weft would work, from my previous work with inlay/overlay I know that two strands of embroidery floss will cover the surface of the 8/2 cotton  in the overlay areas.   I tried a soft beige and white and then the yellow and the yellow worked. I’m quite pleased with how little of the pattern weft is visible in the inlay areas.

The challenge of making this pattern work is the beat.  For the bottom of the diamonds I wasn’t beating hard enough and the diamond is elongated.  I got out my sword from my back strap loom and started beating hard with that. Even so I have to brace the little table I have the loom clamped to, with my legs and tummy and beat after I change the shed.   But you can see the top part of the diamonds is more compact.  I expect it to contract even more when off the loom and washed.

So now I’m ready for a project.  Maybe something like this.

Huave geometric cloth

Beautiful Huave cloth with geometric design. Photo: Karen Elwell


Photo by Karen Elwell

Photo by Karen Elwell

This is a huipil from Tehuantepec is for sale in a vendor’s booth.  This is machine embroidery on velvet.  And I decided that one of these would work for New Year’s Eve in Oaxaca, outdoors in the cool night.  So I went shopping for one for me.

Now I am not the size of most Americans, I am short and with time I have gotten wide.  But I am not the size of the tiny women from Oaxaca either.

So I went to the Artesian’s Market one evening and was looking at this style of huipil– they have many kinds of glorious flowers.  But the first thing I asked was did they have any bigger ones, because I didn’t think I could fit into any of them.  As with all huipils these are rectangular garments, not fitted ones, but I needed to be able to get inside it.  The sales clerk, as  are all good sales clerks are, was reassuring, we will make it fit she said.

She showed me that each seam and hem had about 2″ turned under that she could release.  So when I found one with pink flowers that I said I would buy if it was big enough, she took out the side seams and released the part that was turned under and took out the hems. So now the piece was 8″ bigger around and 2″ longer and it looked like it would fit.  So I bought it and took it home.

At home I basted the side seams, leaving more space for the armholes  and tried it on.  It was fine  except when I sat down.  The bottom would slide up.  I could have left the bottom part open but instead I added a gusset with the crochet technique I had learned at the class at the Museo.   The class was on joining together panels of cloth  with crochet.  This is a sample with a narrow join, by adding more rows of crochet the join can be much wider. All rows can be the same color or the center can be a contrasting color.

teacher's sample

teacher’s sample

I decided to use my new skill to join the sides of the velvet huipil and to make the bottom wider with more rows of crochet, in effect making a small gusset.  The crochet is quite elastic.


At the under arm there is only one row of black crochet arches on each side but at the bottom there are four. Then they are joined together with the pink crochet . Another problem was that my crochet hook would not penetrate the velvet and backing.  So I started with a row of button hole stitch spaced at about 1 cm.


The top went over my long black sleeveless dress nicely , did not ride up and kept me warm for the evening.

The lesson learned here is how to make a garment that will fit many people.  The seams were 2″ from the edge, and the wide seam allowance was basted down on the inside.  This garment is lined sort of, another cloth  was attached to the inside before it was embroidered and then the two cloths were turned under and hand sewn together all around the edge. So all the edges are finished. Here you can see the inside and the gusset on one side before joining. IMG_3187

Japanese kimonos are also sized by the width of the seam.  So for a hand weaver who has unique cloth and can not make another size, this is an interesting concept. We all know that one size fit only a few.

Today we were invited to see some textiles from a collector in Dayton. I was told that he had some Central Asian ikats. He does, including a velvet silk ikat. But after a few rugs and some costumes he took up upstairs to see the real textile collection. There were too many pieces and too little time. I will share a few with you today.

The first piece he pulled out was a huipil from Central America, probably Guatemala or near-by.

Huipil with natural brown cotton

The brown color is from a brown cotton still grown in parts of Mexico and Guatemala and considered special. The huipil is a woman’s tunic of Maya origins and still made and worn by indigenous women today. My guess is that the brown cotton is hand-spun. The huipil is woven in two equal panels on a backstrap loom. It is folded over the shoulder and sewn together in the center front and back and under the arms. The round opening for the head is finished with a commercial ribbon and the seams are sewn on the inside. The piece appears to be recently made and in pristine state.

Here is another huipil with brown cotton, warp stripes and brocaded. Again I would guess that the brown cotton is hand-spun. It has been woven in two equal sized panels on a backstrap loom. You can see the terminal area of weaving at the bottom of the second picture down, you can see the stripes get a little jagged. Brocading is sort of embroidery done on the loom. It uses a suppelementary weft and the design is pick-up by the weaver. The neckline is also finished with commercial ribbon.


This is a close up to see the brocade detail. The color scheme of the ground cloth is very similar to the first, unbrocaded huipil, which would lead me to the suspect that they both were made in the same community. This also appears to have been made recently and unworn. I hope this weaver is wearing an even better huipil.


This is another piece with stripes of the natural brown cotton but in a very different color scheme. This appears to be a corte, which is a tubular skirt that is worn with a huipil.
You can see the seam in this piece.

In this close up you can see what might be a hand-spun texture to the brown cotton stripes. You can also see that white dotted stripes are ikat stripes, possibly indigo on natural white cotton. Ikat is a resist dyeing of the threads before it is woven. Most ikat textiles are hand-woven.