Casa Otomi is an artisan company located in Coyoacan, Mexico that specializes in hand embroidered heirloom Mexican creations. From clothing and handbags to home décor such as pillows, bedspreads and tablecloths, each piece is made for those with discerning tastes for exquisitely crafted original art.
I fell in love with their beautiful colors and handmade details as soon as I laid eyes on them. I especially love the unique shapes of the pillows and handbags from Casa Otomi. The embroidered designs are crafted from original art created by owner and artist, Sandra Renteria. I asked her to share a bit more below, about the history of her business and the creative process involved in bringing these one of kind pieces of art to life.
Q: What is Otomi?
A: Otomi is an indigenous culture and an endangered MesoAmerican language. This particular cultural group is known for their Tenango embroidered pieces also known as Otomi.
Q: How did Casa Otomi come to be?
A: I used to own a Fair trade Folk art gallery for close to a decade. I have a passion for indigenous antiquities and spent my gallery years travelling the world and visiting global tribal groups as a personal passion and a means of survival. I have always envisioned myself living away from the crazy grind of USA life and was finally able to get away from the rat race. I wasn’t sure how we could survive in Mexico but I knew we needed to try. Casa Otomi came to be when I was interviewing for jobs in Oaxaca. As a curator for museum or gallery assistant, I was offered positions that paid about $6 dollars a day. Which, we could have lived on. But….I decided to try to work with the locals to sell their wares and see if we could make $12 a day. Abel, my partner, could also make $6. It was an uphill climb and we lived on rickety buses for close to a year to pull it off, but we managed to make our $12 to $15 per day and reinvested all of our money. We started with only $100. The first piece we purchased took close to two years to sell. Glad we didn’t base the future on that one piece. I noticed that certain pieces would not sell because of the figures, so I started drawing new contemporary figures and those pieces had wings. Now I see my drawings all over embroidered pieces all over the country. Quite surreal.
Q: What made you get into the world of textiles?
A: As a collector, the easiest pieces to drag around the world are canvases-unstretched and textiles. The textile world is bliss for me. My daughter was raised taking naps on top of textiles in bazaars all over the world. It’s all she knows. It’s natural to her. Now she is 14 years old and she runs the tally and books when I buy. I point, drool, stare and grab. That’s what I do. Abel inspects. Serena runs the numbers.
Q: How long does it take to make a single blouse or dress?
A: This depends on the piece. We have some blouses that take close to a year to make. They are hand laced, embroidered and crocheted. For these pieces we have close to a 3 year pre paid order wait. Collectors are quite serious about these heirloom pieces. I have two of them. I wear each one weekly. It’s my standard uniform and I love how they feel so I understand. The piece you are wearing is a lot quicker. It is embroidered only one side and the fabric is hand-woven. These pieces take a few months. QUICK!! Ha…in the world of handmade that is speedy.
Q: How is the art of embroidery learned?
A: I think it’s something everyone is born into. It used to be a vanishing art form. Since we started the prices have gone up 200 to 400% and that’s pretty incredible. In fact our new collection is currently at a pause. The embroiderers have demanded a 100% increase and I’m at a loss. We are scared we cannot afford it. We have agreed to 20% and now await the results. It’s odd to be on the other side of things. It’s terrifying and also kinds exhilarating to see how they are empowered. It’s a double edge sword that I just deal with on a day to day basis. I used to freak out, but now I see that we manage despite it all.
Because of the increase in prices, groups have formed all over the country and we are able to get embroidery work faster that we used to be able to. Of course, now that the prices are soaring, it’s becoming a more desirable profession to enter. It’s a rare career that allows you to stay at home with the littles and embroider when there is down time. Most of the women who work for us embroider about 1 to 2 hours a day. After chores, food and everything is done and they are relaxed and the embroidery circle is pulled out.
Q: How does sharing this art form and handmade work with the world affect the local community?
A: I feel like we are empowering women and now men are entering the art form as they are seeing fiscal results from a more “feminine” position. It’s become a family venture for everyone. As I explained above, embroidery prices are soaring and we are along for the long haul.
Q: In sharing Mexican traditions and art with the world, what do you want people to know?
A: I think it’s important for people to separate the difference between exploitation and teamwork. Although we appear to be a large company we are a 5 person team with hundreds of embroiderers. We cannot change the lifestyle that we lead because our sales are getting stronger. We have people to invest in, we cannot invest in material possessions and luxury items because if we do, our network dissipates. Remember, we used to live on $12 a day. Obviously we no longer live on that salary but we have not forgotten how we started. At all. But still…It’s important for us to explain how we function to people so that we are better understood.
We have become the “bank” for many of these artisans and although it used to be stressful, now we understand our role and position. I’ve always been a champion of the underdog and have always believed in the principles of fair trade, but now I don’t just believe in the them-I embody them. Any time something within our community base goes wrong, we feel it. We are constantly being asked for loans and advances and we give until it hurts. We now survive on sheer volume. We sell the absolute highest quality for the lowest prices possible. We have markups as low as 30% on many of our pieces in order to keep a continuous ebb and flow. We could make higher markups on these pieces but it means we would have to lower our quality standards and we have no interest.
Most of our clients are repeat clients who are in awe of our quality. If you go to our Etsy store you can see our 5 Star rating. Not easy to do these days. People are more discerning than ever and expect quite a bit from their online orders. We jump thru hoops for our clients, but we always put our team first. We know that we cannot live without our clients, but we will not rush our embroiderers or put undue stress on anyone demanding things of us that we cannot provide. A client can come and go but our team is here. This is our daily life. We eat with them, we hang out with their families, we are them. They are not an email from hundreds of miles away that will push us to create under a pressured boiling pot. We live and create in Mexican time and amazingly, most of our clients are willing to wait for our pieces because of the quality that we produce. Once things are in our hands, we work in first world time. But….that moment can take a year or two of hard work to get to us.
It’s been a roller coaster ride and a beautiful woven dance that we live in. Each day brings us high highs and low lows, but this is our life. This is currently who we are. We have been approached by a couple of large companies that have tried to buy us out, but we have refused. After our meetings, we have noticed that they expect embroidery teams under factory conditions pushing and creating on slave labour levels and we would not succumb. As a stay at home mom, I value the importance of being home when my daughter gets home from school and being available at all times to her. Every piece that you see in our shop has that same energy around it. A family member working from home being able to greet their kids when they enter from school or wake up from a nap. There is no price for that feeling and that luxury. We have built an entire brand on that philosophy. Stay at home moms and dads.