The Huichol Spinning Wheels
Aruna and I arrived in Puerta Vallarta in June of 1991. It wasn´t long before we met a Huichol selling bead work in the street, his name was Rosendo. We rapidly became friends; we invited him to our boat in the marina and he invited us to visit his family in the Sierra. There we met his stepmother, Silvina, who was making beautiful double cloth pouches with many intricate traditional designs.
We found that she spun her wool with no more than a hand held spindle that she rolled against her leg. This is an extremely slow method of producing wool. On account of this very few Huichol weavers were now working with wool, nearly all were using store bought acrylic yarn. Weaving fine designs in double cloth is a highly skilled art that is unavoidably time consuming, but the result is worth the time and effort. As with any other craft where the cost of the input of time and skill is very large compared to the cost of the materials, there is a law that says “For the best returns for his efforts the craftsman must use the best possible materials”.
We made a plan to develop spinning wheels for the Huichol weavers using a wheel I had designed and made in England as a pattern. The use of wool, a local product and hence inexpensive, was fast disappearing. A good spinning wheel, simple and robust enough to withstand use in the mountain ranches, could play a key role in re-establishing the use of real wool. The finished woven articles would fetch a much higher price for the same amount of work with less or no material cost.
Spinning is the skill of drawing wool out in an even constant manner and then twisting it and winding up the twisted yarn. With a spinning wheel the wool is drawn out by hand as before, at the same time controlling the twisting, but now the spinning process is mechanized by the use of a simple foot powered treadle machine that leaves both hands free to work. That is how an efficient spinning wheel accelerates the process of spinning wool without changing the nature of the finished product which remains as “hand spun wool”.
We saw what a great potential the spinning wheel had for a people such as the Huichol. With that realization it was very easy to promise Silvina that I would make her a spinning wheel, but that promise, so quick to make, sealed my fate for the next few months.
The First Six Spinning Wheels
We moved to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, a small fishing village 30 kilometers north of Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Nayarit. The capital of Nayarit is Tepic, three hours further North. The state government in Nayarit has a department dedicated to the development of the crafts, and since the majority of craftsmen in this state are either Huichol or Cora, this department is mostly concerned with these two ethnic groups. It so happened that the person who ran this department was building his house in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and since this is a very small town, it was inevitable that sooner or later we would meet. When we did meet, he became interested in the spinning wheel idea and asked us to make 5 for his department, and even put down a deposit so that I could buy materials and get started.
With local help, I found a wood that steam bent well, and obtained enough of it to make the wheels. The design was very robust and simple; a front loading bobbin and a single turned wooden post with the feet solidly attached. The village carpenter lent me his workshop and lathe, and although the equipment was incredibly rough and ready, by dint of extensive improvisation in the space of about 3 months I made the 6 spinning wheels. Five spinning wheels went to Tepic and the sixth wheel I proudly presented to Silvina.
Naturally, we were very pleased to have managed to fulfill our promise, but when we realized how much time and effort and money was involved just in delivering these machines and training their new owners we saw that our work had only just begun. Making the spinning wheels was just the tip of the iceberg: handing over a spinning wheel to a Huichol woman is a bit like handing a car over to someone who has never seen one before. There has to be an instructor there with enthusiasm and patience to prove that the thing really does work and that it’s worth the effort.
During the next year and a half I was only able to get to the Sierra only 4 times, and each time there would be a problem with the wheel. This helped me to improve the design of the wheel, but it made progress intolerably slow. Meanwhile I made contact with some carpenters from San Cristobal de las Casas who were keen to learn spinning wheel construction and they became very enthusiastic and dedicated assistants.
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After having lived in Mexico for almost 3 years doing a variety of things but always orientated towards the Spinning Wheel Project we decided to build a solid base for ourselves from which to act with a larger degree of independence. We started a company called Hikuri Impresiones S.A. de C.V. Our first initiative was to print T-shirts. Working with a small group of very good Huichol artists we chose a number of their pictures and Aruna, who is a graphic artist, made the intricate colour separations. I made an eight arm silkscreen printing machine and a gas powered drying unit, and we started printing T-shirts. This company successfully financed the project with the Huichol over the next ten years. We brought a succession of weavers to the coast to learn to use the wheels and after a few weeks we gave them their own wheel to take home.
After the spinning wheel project we set up a sandal making workshop. The straps for the sandals, and also for belts were hand woven by Huichol women using the tablet weaving process. These skilled weavers took great delight in inventing new patterns. The three point sandals produced were the same pattern as is often used in the Huichol Sierra.
For more information please do contact us by e-mail, we have extensive patterns and records about the project and would be happy to assist in any serious developments.
For a detailed description of our project please read the full story here