It's Sunday morning just before dawn. A vaquero (cowboy) in his best jeans and sombrero swaggers into the courtyard of the hacienda. His boot heels click softly on the red clay tiles of the patio. As the sun breaks over the barn roof, the mustachioed vaquero chooses his best saddle from its wooden stand and carefully cinches it around the belly of his favorite mount. He's off to town, both he and his horse dressed carefully for their day off.
Let's take a closer look at the cowboy's boots, his belt and his saddle. Each of them is hand-embroidered using an ancient Mexican technique called piteadao. To understand the process of the embroidery, we travel to the southern jungles of Mexico, to the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, where the tall trees grow, where coffee is grown, where the air is steamy and thick with humidity. Under the shelter of the jungle trees, the smaller plants grow away from the glare of the sun.
The thread used for the embroidery is processed from a bromeliad plant called ixtle. The plant, grown as undergrowth in tropical jungles, eco-forests, or coffee plantations, takes approximately eight years to grow to maturity. Usually the entire plant is harvested, allowing better and faster growth of the young plants which have sprung up much like baby spider plants. However, only the longest and healthiest leaves of the ixtle plant are used to produce thread.
The preparation of pita, the ixtle thread, is time consuming and arduous. The long leaves are scraped, either manually or using a hand-cranked machine, to free the ixtle fibers. The fibers are then washed several times and hung in the sun to bleach. Once they are bleached, they are combed and braided into bundles called muñecas (bunches), which are sold to talabarteros(saddle makers and artisan leather goods workers) working primarily in the town of Colotlán, in Los Altos—the northern highland region—of Jalisco.
Colotlán is considered to be the world capital of piteado. There are more than 40 workshops producing pita-embroidered leather goods in the town, plus 200 private micro-businesses producing the work. Nearly 2800 townspeople dedicate their daily work lives to this art. Their hand sewn products include belts, boots, sandals, briefcases, wallets, purses, and their crowning achievement, saddles. The work from this village is so well known that several belts from Colotlán are exhibited in the renowned Prado Museum in Madrid.
The practice of the art of piteado, which has given this town and the region international fame, dates to the last decade of the 19th Century. This craft has been passed from father to son through the course of generations. Today, approximately 10,000 belts are produced in the town each month. The belts are sold everywhere in Mexico and are shipped to international destinations such as the United States, where a piteado belt is a hallmark of many Mexican men.
These handmade goods are not inexpensive: you'll find less expensive imitation piteado, sewn by machine using cotton thread, but almost all of the hand made work is still done in Colotlán. Expect good quality genuine piteado belts to cost several hundred dollars.
There are many individual steps that lead to a finished product. Traditionally, piteado artisans have worked individually in all of the different stages of production, from design work to marketing. In some respects this has limited the development of piteado as an industry, but it has ensured the continuing tradition of the work.
Piteado is worked only on leather, most of which is brought to Colotlán from León, Guanajuato or from San Luís Potosí. The original designs came from Aztec traditions, but those designs have gradually been modified over the years and have lost some of the flavor of that culture. Today, many of the designs include Huichol elements due to the influence of that indigenous people in the area of Colotlán. Some of the commercial workshops have more modern designs, such as flowers and horse heads, adapted to the requests of the customer.
The production of belts is the bread and butter of the piteado artisans in Colotlán. Most of the belts are sold at fairs and in stores throughout Mexico. In my travels around Guadalajara, I sometimes see ambulatory vendors selling piteado belts. If you make a trip to the Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara's Centro Histórico, you'll find hundreds of belts, boots, huaraches, and every other sort of piteado leather goods. Be aware that when you're shopping for piteado and the price seems too good to be true—and the dealer swears that his products are the real piteado, hand-sewn from pita fiber—you're probably hearing a sales pitch for inferior goods sewn with cotton. Most of these pirated imitation piteado items come from the Guadalajara area.
It's difficult work to hand embroider a belt. The production of each one takes a single worker a full week to complete. First, the size and shape of each belt are traced onto the leather; then the leather is cut into strips. Each strip is then shaped and polished. The design or drawing for the embroidery is hand-cut into the leather with a chisel. Once the leather is ready, the most difficult part of the work begins: the embroidery. The mesquite wood needle is punched through the leather using a hammer and an awl.
Using a heavy duty sewing machine, the embroiderer sews the lining to the back of the belt, cuts it, and hand-finishes it. Finally, another person adds the buckle, the closure, and the loops that hold the end of the belt when it's fastened around the buyer's waist. Any leftover leather is used to make brooches, earrings, pins, and other small goods. It's all a question of not wasting any costly materials.
The most difficult work is called alamar doble, a term that has no adequate translation into English. The work is complex and baroque and so specialized that almost no one outside the town of Colotlán tries it. In the rare instances when it's copied, a buyer in the know will recognize that the work is done with cotton thread and is a poor imitation of genuine piteado from Colotlán.
In Colotlán, Armando Gaeta Loera is one of the acknowledged maestros of piteado. He began to study the art when he was barely eighteen years old. For two years he worked as an apprentice with Rafael de León. Later he and his wife opened their own shop. With time, he hired assistants and as the years passed, his three sons have entered into the family business. Today he has two workshops, one in Jerez, Zacatecas and the other in Colotlán.
Maestro Gaeta designs and makes bags, belts, holsters for pistols and knives, cases for machetes, boots, chaps, and sombreros of piteado, along with other smaller articles for both men and women. He uses leather from a variety of animals: cattle, goat, sheep, deer and fox, among others. For finely detailed work, he chooses suede and other special leathers that are the softest and therefore least difficult to embroider.
The work is demanding. Maestro Gaeta is often called upon to prepare special designs for his clients, designs which incorporate specific emblems, flowers, names, initials, or animals. The prepared leather is properly flattened and stretched before the parts of a piece are cut and before the design to be embroidered is traced onto the skin. This planchada—literally, 'ironing'—is always done from the reverse side of the leather.
After further hand processing, the designs are distributed over the surface of the leather. Maestro Gaeta uses a hard lead pencil, a wooden square, a ruler, a marker, and a metal compass—all the usual tools—to trace the intertwined flowers and foliage, the horse heads, the initials or names of the owner of the piece, and any other special requests onto the leather.
Once the drawings are finished, they are marked with a marker and Maestro Gaeta begins to make tiny holes in the leather with an awl. He then begins, little by little, to embroider with the pita, twisted in two or three strand lengths, depending on the design and the depth of the relief that he wants to give the embroidery. The sections of the piece he's making are then joined either with a hand needle or with a special sewing machine that is exclusively for this kind of leather work. If the piece requires a fabric lining, this is the time it's put into place.
The finished piteado, whether belt, boots, or saddle, is highly prized by the owner and may well be worn during competition in championship charreada, the stylized Mexican horsemanship competitions.
You're well on your way to being a connoisseur of the fine and macho art of piteado. If you are reading this while you're living North of the Border, be sure to look at the belts you see worn by Mexican men in your area. You'll see examples of the art of piteado and you'll know exactly how they're made and where they originate.
All photos courtesy of http://www.colotlan2.com/