What Goes Around Comes Around, and Around

Editing a book can take you in strange directions. I’ve been digging into the extraordinary layered and complex manuscript of Chip Morris’s next book on the textiles of Chiapas (no title yet; the first one I published was A Guide to the Textiles of the Chiapas HighlandsOne of the threads it explores is the evolution from woven brocaded patterns to running-stitch embroidered patterns that emulate woven brocade to cross stitch patterns that use the same motifs but a very different technique. This is not straight-line evolution. It’s as convoluted as the Maya long calendar.

I have a cape done in hand-worked cross stitch from the community of Zinacantan, known today for its extravagantly floral machine-embroidered textiles. Just look at these two details side by side.  Mother and daughter. Hand work, machine work, same exhuberant use of color and pattern. Same riff on the beauty of nature.

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A hand cross-stitched cape from Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico
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A machine-embroidered cape from Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico









I have some huipils from Chichicastenanga and from San Antonio Aguas Calientes in Guatemala (over the mountains from Chiapas) that are woven on backstrap looms. (Are you getting the idea that maybe I have more of this stuff than any reasonable person needs?) Flowers, flowers, flowers. And birds. Fish, sometimes. A riot of natural forms and uninhibited color. Some done in woven brocade, some in a careful woven counted-thread technique.

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A backstrap-woven huipil from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala
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A backstrap-woven brocade huipil from Chichicastenanga, Guatemala

I have it on good authority that the patterns used in this kind of weaving in Guatemala come from European needlepoint pattern books that were brought into the country in the 1950s, if not sooner. So where did the Europeans get their charted needlepoint patterns?

There was a wonderfully brilliant, cranky German woman, Maria Sibylla Merian, born in 1647, who loved insects. She studied them, painted them, is even credited with discovering metamorphosis by her careful attention to them. She went, with her young daughter, on an unlikely self-funded voyage to Suriname in 1699 so she could study insects of the New World. It just wasn’t done, but she did. She came home with malaria and a stunning portfolio of butterflies, lizards, snakes, flowers, vines.  But because she wasn’t supported by the scientific establishment, or by her troublesome estranged husband, she had to make a living by translating her paintings into . . . needlepoint patterns!

I can’t close this circle. This is just a tenuous ramble, the kind you get into when you dive too deep into a mind-bending manuscript.  I love my job.

—Linda Ligon


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