HILLARY STEEL: WEAVING ARTISTRY WITH TRADITION
Summers find Intermediate School Art Teacher Hillary Steel in the Mexican town of Tenancingo, focused intently as she weaves fine cotton cloth on a traditional backstrap loom. Hillary has been doing textile work for more than 35 years – in addition to her teaching career, she’s also a professional artist with a studio in Takoma Park – but her craft took a life-changing turn when she visited Mexico with her two daughters in 2005.
“A dear friend and colleague of mine, Virginia Davis, recommended that I look at rebozos while I was there,” Hillary recalls. “She had done her own research on them in the late 80s – she’d catalogued an important collection of notes and photos for the American Museum of Natural History’s archives.” Hillary and Virginia shared a mutual interest in the dye process used to make these garments. Intrigued, Hillary followed the advice of her mentor “to see what I could find.”
Rebozos are intricately dyed and woven shawls, traditionally worn in a wide variety of ways by Mexican women. They are famous for their artistry, cultural importance, and remarkable complexity – Hillary was immediately struck by the brilliant mathematical design system that is used to divide and group threads into units. Excited by what she’d discovered, Hillary returned to Mexico the following year with Virginia – and a goal in mind.
“We decided we wanted to learn the whole process ourselves,” Hillary explains. “I was most interested in the dye process – it’s a resist method called ‘jaspé’ or ‘ikat,’ which is found in a number of cultures all over the world. Instead of dyeing a finished piece of cloth, the way you would do with tie-dye or similar techniques, ikat involves dyeing bundles of threads so that the pattern is marked out before the cloth is woven.”
Hillary and Virginia traveled to Tenancingo in 2006, where they hoped – but certainly didn’t expect – that a renowned rebozo weaver, Don Evaristo Borboa Casas, might agree to teach them. To everyone’s surprise, he did. They began in earnest in 2007.
Since then, Hillary has made eight pieces with Don Evaristo over the course of 10 years. Potomac has supported a number of her trips through summer grants, the Green Grant, and the Fine Grant.
“I needed lot of help in the beginning, but much less with the last couple rebozos I’ve done,” says Hillary. “It’s such a privilege to work with Don Evaristo, because he’s an extraordinary artist – he’s unusual in the way he uses color and design. He’s also one of a handful of practitioners still making rebozos on the traditional backstrap loom, or telar de cintura.”
The backstrap loom is an immensely difficult tool to get used to. Unlike floor looms, on which most rebozos are made, it may take a lifetime before the hundreds of fine dyed cotton threads, and the meticulous concentration it requires become second nature. However, under Don Evaristo’s expertise and guidance, Hillary has come to deeply value her time with it.
“Learning how to handle the loom has been very humbling,” she says. “You have to stay incredibly focused, because if you’re not, you might lose control of the loom, or you might break the threads and have to take the time to repair them. You need to learn a lot of patience; you need to learn how to listen to the sound of the loom – the opening and closing of the sheds. If you’re good enough, you can actually hear a thread before it breaks.”
Hillary adds that her efforts have countless rewards when she returns to the classroom. “I think the biggest thing for the kids is knowing that I have a teacher just like they do, and that I have a great amount of respect for him,” she says. “They’re aware that I’m a perpetual student; they know that I study textiles from all around the world. It helps them understand that even into adulthood, you never stop learning.”
Students also frequently get excited about taking Hillary’s classes – because it means that they’ll get to do some weaving of their own.
“Everyone gets to learn basic tapestry weaving,” she says. “My students don’t use backstrap looms, but they learn many of the same lessons: that they have to be patient; that it takes time to make things well; and that they’re part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. That’s Don Evaristo’s legacy.”
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