About Adele Hammond
Artist, traveler, and social entrepreneur, Adele Hammond divides her time between Hood River, Oregon and the home where her heart is, Oaxaca, Mexico. The raw texture and color of Mexico became a part of her life when a year abroad with her family in a small Zapotec pueblo outside the city of Oaxaca gradually evolved into an extraordinary five.
Adele blogs about the culture, the crafts, and the people of Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico as well as her experiences in working with indigenous artisans there. Her travels take her down the back roads and into the workshops and homes of these people, where their diverse, ancient traditions and crafts are still being practiced today.
Her business, Latin Threads Trading, showcases and brings to a world market the work of these talented artisans while encouraging enterprise and empowering individuals to flourish independently and through their communities.
Latest Posts by Adele Hammond
It is an interesting conundrum building a business in a world where seasonal colors, tight delivery deadlines and demanding standards for consistency collide with the alternate reality of tradition and rural life of indigenous artisans of Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo shown is of Chaipan women showing their handiwork for Abrazo Style.
As Abrazo Style grows we have confronted challenges that would make any ordinary fashion apparel company lock their doors and throw away the key.
After all, it would be so much easier to just go to China to produce a blouse that would have convincing embroidery, consistency, and proper sizing. But for anyone who knows what we do, the process, the mission, and the result are intimately tied together.
Since my last post, we have taken on several very large customers whose names I don’t think I’m allowed to mention.
One of them understands our mission and has been absolutely amazing in their patience while we “figured out” how to adapt the handmade blouse they chose for their catalog into a “production” blouse with 4 sizes and a consistent embroidery design.
How hard could that be, right? Well, pretty hard, as it turns out. A different customer chose one of our totes for their high end apparel and accessories line and we were faced with reproducing EXACT designs for them on a very tight deadline. Fortunately, we were successful and the tote even made it into this month’s InStyle magazine.
As you might guess, Abrazo is evolving. Though our passion remains traveling the backroads of Mexico to discover the one-of-a-kind treasures our customers love, we are also inspired to reinvent tradition with an updated process and a line of clothing that is machine sewn, hand embroidered, and designed in 4 sizes for American bodies. So far, the ladies in Oaxaca and Chiapas love it and so do our US customers.
Our process may be evolving but women still work in their homes and their lives remain fundamentally the same with the exception that they are becoming more economically stable.
We, along with our artisans are challenged to make intimidating and unfamiliar changes in the future in order to grow, but so far we are making good progress (with the exception of some occasional VERY large bumps in the road .
Straddling two worlds, centuries apart, with a shared goal of success requires perserverance and above all, a great sense of humor.
Author Svetlana Aleksandroff of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, has recently produced a visual delight of a book that identifies and celebrates the flora, legend and craft of the Mayan culture. “Plants in the Mayan Culture” covers everything from coconuts to incense burners in its richly designed pages, walking the reader through the use and traditions surrounding plants in the region of the Maya.
A couple of weeks ago, Celina, my assistant in Oaxaca, informed me that a shipment of blouses we had been waiting for from Chiapas, Mexico had arrived. This was exciting for two reasons:
First, the women who make them live in a very remote pueblo where there are no phones and so our contact with them is difficult.
Second, we had asked them to make the blouses in a special way for us.
By “special” I mean we asked for them to NOT sew certain parts of the blouses together. I know that sounds odd but we
had been having such challenges with consistency in the construction of the blouses that we had decided it would be easier to finish them in Oaxaca with women we trained.
So, these blouses were to have the basic box shape, neck hole, and embroidered front with sides unsewn. Well, the blouses did come in as we had ordered with a little “bonus”…..what looked to be a large bite taken out of the sides of each blouse (maybe done with a knife?). When asked, it turns out they were trying to “help” us in determining where to stitch the arm hole…..sigh…..
That little added “detail” to the blouse altered the way we had to finish it, but in the end, we came up with something beautiful.
Consistency in sizing and patterning remains a huge challenge in these regions. In reality, these concepts are very foreign to indigenous artisans in Oaxaca and Chiapas, which seems especially odd considering how textile traditions have dominated these cultures for centuries.
So, we take the hard part out of the equation and deliver blouses that are sized and well adapted to our American bodies for them to embroider. Easy, RIGHT?
If you read this blog you are familiar with my stories of the challenges involved in doing business in a foreign culture, especially in a developing country. Communication with the indigenous artisans we work with is often fraught with misunderstandings and assumptions about time, quality standards, commitment, and trust. The results are often comical, and in the end, we almost always compromise and move on with faith that we are all learning.
However, there’s another ongoing, rather curious challenge: our quest for new information and people’s willingness to share it.
Question: “Have you seen this blouse before?”
Answer: “I couldn’t say.”
Question: “We were told Rosita Ortiz made it. Do you know her?”
Answer: “Ah, I don’t know.”
Question: Do you know anyone who could help us find her?”
Or: “Have you seen this fabric before?”
Question: “Do you know where we can buy this fabric?”
Answer: “No idea.”
And so it goes.
In general, the artisans we work with in Oaxaca and Chiapas communicate well with us in all matters concerning the work we do together except when it comes to sourcing materials or the maker of a new product we have discovered. Of course, this complicates our work immensely, as one cannot just pick up the yellow pages or Google the things we need in these rural areas. So we spend weeks tracking down the meager scraps of information we are provided, only to find, for example, that Rosita, the woman who made the blouse, is the sister-in-law of the person we originally asked, and the new fabric we are searching for is being sold only a block away behind an unmarked door.
I realized, eventually, that these roadblocks and detours are created in the interest of job security. They are driven by the understandable fear that comes from generations of poverty and the insecurity of not knowing what tomorrow may bring.
We have learned to respect this, and to expect the extra time it takes to earn the trust of the people whose skills we value highly. Working together, we can create more long-term opportunities for everyone.
A Few Great Things to Do in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas:
1. Wander. It is such an amazing city, well preserved from colonial times with high points to climb to, back streets to explore, and unprecedented people watching…The indigenous people (the majority of the population), especially the women, still dress in traditional clothing of their villages. Men from the warmer lowlands walk the chilly high altitude streets bare-legged in hand woven tunics, and those from high altitudes walk the same streets in furry, sheep felt rugs that look like bear skins. —very fun and challenging to sort by their costumes, (see http://bit.ly/yBfkUg for a fabulous lo res pdf book about these people and their textiles by Chip Morris, currently only available at Na Bolom museum/B&B in San Cristobal).
2. Eat French pastries. Not to be missed on the Real Guadalupe, made by real French people!
3. Cruise the markets… WOW! Santo Domingo (every day though the government is threatening to relocate it), the Mercado de Dulces (an indoor sweets and craft market, great on any day but especially rainy days) are the two big ones.
4. Slurp frozen yogurt sticks at the creamery (right) off of Real Guadalupe where there is also a daily vegetable market, hmm, near where the walking street ends).
5. Visit the locals market. (You can find it in any guide book) Huge and full of interesting things to see, but, like any market, be vigilante for pick pockets, etc. and be careful about taking photos. Many people take great offense at taking pictures of them or even their wares. Ask (you will probably have to pay) but even if you just wander through, it is fascinating.
I think it’s time to weigh in on taking buses in Oaxaca and Chiapas. First, this information isn’t necessarily true for all of Mexico, I’m just speaking from personal experience living there.
Compared to the US, Mexico has traveling by bus totally dialed. The buses (first class) generally run regularly, service lots of cities, are clean, new (ish), and offer many levels of service to choose from.
When was the last time you were on a bus and the driver, dressed in a suit, came into the passenger compartment to give a welcome speech describing their services, itinerary, and offering to be of service if there were any concerns?
One bus company that I love and use regularly which I also find reasonable is ADO, www.ado.mx They basically control the market in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and I am guessing the rest of Mexico. You can check schedules online and if you’re lucky, buy a ticket online if their system is working (this rarely works for me). I LOVE the Platino service which is like riding business class on a plane – pretty darn good: personal video, cushy reclining seats, etc. The GL service is also very comfortable. Cost isn’t bad either. I can take a bus RT to Mexico City from Oaxaca for about $90.
As for safety (everyone’s concern) all I can say is that I have never had a problem, ever. This may seem like a commercial for this bus company but seriously, I have ridden the bus (different first class companies) during times of strife, even all night buses by myself during times of strife and believe me, the bus doesn’t leave the station if it’s not safe on the road…
I regularly take the night bus to and from Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, and for those of you wanting to visit both cities, it is perfect. The bus leaves around 8:30 in the evening and arrives around 8 am, either way.
Something that I find wonderfully unique about the bus experience in Mexico compared to the States is that is on long trips when two drivers are required, one crawls into a little cubby under the bus next to the luggage and sleeps while the other drives. The drivers switch every 4 hours or so. When you wake up at your destination, they are there, in their suits, wishing you good travels…
Recommendations? Buy your ticket ahead of time for better seat choices (trust me, it will matter when you are at the back of the bus for hours of curvy roads and smelly toilets), Dramamine, sleeping aids if it’s a long trip, long pants and a fleece jacket as they are always over-air conditioned, and ear plugs/buds. (If you are on the economy first class buses, movies (often gory ones) are played constantly over the sound system so there is no escape.)
Down side? At the end of the day, it’s still THE BUS.
Preparing for my upcoming 6 week trip to Oaxaca takes no time at all compared to the amount of time I spend explaining the weather there. Yes, that’s right, the weather. When I mention to friends that I will be spending a healthy chunk of summer in Southern Mexico, they almost invariably gasp and stare at me incredulously… “How could you spend summer THERE? it must be blistering hot!” Well, I will let you in on
a little secret: summer is one of the best times to travel to Oaxaca. The inland area has pretty much the most perfect climate I have ever experienced with year ’round temps ranging from 45 to 90 degrees and very low humidity.
So, instead of staying in Oregon where it is hot, dry and windy (Hood River), I love to travel to Oaxaca where everything is green, green, green, flowers bloom in the fields and on road sides, and the short, sometimes daily, and often fierce, rain storms clean the air and wash the dust away (until the mud that flows onto the roads dries and turns to dust, that is). That leaky roof that hasn’t “needed” to be repaired for the last 7 months will have to wait until the dry season, the dying of fabric grinds to a halt because nothing dries when it is raining, and the ladies will get lots of embroidery done indoors.
If you haven’t ever thought about Southern Mexico in summer, you should, but bring an umbrella, just in case.
I received a text from my assistant, Celina, for the third time that day: “me hablas?” our code words for “call me asap”. I dialed her right away, knowing there would be yet another challenge awaiting us. She was in Chiapas on a break-neck, 3 day trip (two nights on the bus, one in Sn Cristobal) to collect the blouses we had ordered and to deliver more to the ladies.
She begins our conversation with: “Es que” which, roughly translated, means “it’s that” or, “there is a complication”… I sigh, and we dive into the particulars. It appears that some of the ladies (a group we fondly refer to as “The Baracudas” for their tough negotiating style) had decided that they should be paid more for the blouses we had contracted for (after agreeing to a price) because a man from Guadalajara had offered them more for the same (our) blouses. (The “bird in hand” principal always seems to rule.)
I groan, and we begin to work out a plan to acquire our blouses and still keep these talented ladies working with us….welcome to our world.
Whether it be the exploding cost of cotton, harvest time, or the weather, this business is an uncontrollable organism that morphs and mutates on a daily basis. We have to be flexible and fast on our feet to anticipate the unexpected and be willing to roll (to some degree!) with what lands on our doorstep. (Seriously, can we tell stories! Never mind that my new client REALLY REALLY NEEDS THIS MONTH the blouses that didn’t get done or that the ones we did pick up had sleeves the length of a pro basketball player. We run around in a panic for awhile, then revert to”Plan B”, which always includes more women, a beautiful thing. Poco a poco, we are refining and tweaking, learning and teaching, and creating more beauty.