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Otomi Tenangos – A Rich History of Women and Embroidery

The Otomi people are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the central plateau of Mexico, predating even the Nahuatl speaking populations that would eventually give rise to the Aztec Empire. Textile weaving and embroidery design among the Otomi people far predates colonial contact. However, the elaborate hand stitched designs did not become available outside of the region until the 1960’s when a severe drought threatened to destroy their traditional subsistence farming life.

Searching for a new source of income, the Otomi women returned to their roots and started stitching. They began by selling the embroidered goods to nearby villages and soon expanded to the markets of Mexico City. It was not long before the hand-drawn and embroidered designs were being sold internationally. For centuries the designs were reserved only for women’s clothing. But as they reached out to new markets the Otomi women began stitching the elaborate and colorful designs onto all sorts of décor; wall hangings, lampshades, handbags, and quilts.

As they are hand-drawn, and hand-stitched no two pieces are alike. Some are symmetrical, others are not. But they all share a characteristic play between positive and negative space. The plants, animals, natural and supernatural forces depicted in the motifs are said to be inspired by ancient cave drawings. Translating to English as, "stone neighborhood," Tenango is home to several caves bearing drawings with similar motifs. Other influences may include a shamanistic practice involving paper made from cut tree bark called, "amate".

Otomi embroidery is just one of the amazing techniques we will be exploring in our professional development series, The World of Needlework and Embroidery. Registration opens September 1, 2020. Be sure to sign up early as space is limited!

The photos below show the front and back side of Otomi embroidery as well as an amazing piece from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection in Sydney, Australia.

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