Sunday, February 15, 2009

How I Learned About Mexico Through Yarn and Needles

Studying abroad, you have to find at least one way to immerse yourself in the culture outside of the program. While we are taking classes at the university itself, there is a difference between studying in a place and really living there. Eating the local food doesn't really count (unless you become a dedicated chef), and my friends' forays into making out with Mexican guys is not the sort of immersion I had in mind. So the question stands: how do I live my life, but as a local would? My friend, for example, joined the national water polo team where she was studying in Singapore.

At first I, too, thought of sports--there's a volleyball team that practices next door, and I sent a letter to the UNAM track coach. But so far these desires have gotten me no further than the viveros for my weekend runs.

I have taken up a bit of a shopping habit, not only because the clothes are cute and cheap but because I'm convinced that by wearing them I will stick out less. But this is more of a curiosity for me than a way to experience culture.

It wasn't until I'd been in the country a little less than a month that I realized I had already found one of my passions, and one of my projects, in Mexico: sewing. While the actual knitting is no problem for me (and an activity I am nothing short of obsessed with at home), the cultural challenge comes in getting the supplies. To knit a hat, I needed yarn, and to get yarn I had to find a yarn shop. Finding a yarn shop requires meeting other knitters who know where one is, or searching for it online. While Google Maps, which is based in the US, offers a pretty little satellite shot of my borough, it is basically useless for my purposes. What followed, then was an hour long internet search in which I not only learned the Spanish word for yarn (estambre) but where I located a nearby yarn shop and plotted my route to the store. 

Once there, which requires two short bus rides (or a long walk) and the navigation of my still relatively unexplored town, I walked past the entrance several times until I figured out how to ring the doorbell at the exclusive little site. Inside, I was confronted with an array of new vocabulary words, from the descriptive terms of each skein (alogodón, acrílico), to learning the gauges in metric and the difference between a gorra and a gorro. Even the checkout was an experience, where my name requires me to spell it out and the woman was utterly confounded by my "" email address.

Finding time to knit has also been interesting. In the US, I usually knit in class, but I was cautious about trying this even in the Casa de California where we were studying for the first month. My intention to knit at UNAM was even the subject of an entire meal-time conversation with Conchita and her friends. But Tere, my Spanish teacher, was enthused by my work and even wrote down a place in the centro where I could get my yarn for cheaper. She also helped me translate words like pattern and took down my name in case she ever needed any knitting help. Lucia, my history teacher at the Casa was also tolerant of my knitting, and in fact liked my hat design so much that I am  making her one for our reunion potluck this week.

I have been a little more cautious about knitting in UNAM. So far I have busted out sticks and yarn in my lecture series class, which has drawn some positive comments from the students. And in my social theories class, my professor used my knitting as an example of something that has become mechanized under the capitalist system.


My biggest triumph so far, however, has not been in knitting projects but rather in sewing. While outside of my mother's house and the occasional borrowed sewing machine from a friend I rarely get to sew, living with a family in Mexico has presented a unique opportunity. After I showed Conchita my yellow dress, she offered to let me use her own sewing machine, and has since passed on three sewing books and her own sketchbook of clothes that she's made. (Below, a sleeveless shirt.)

Sewing in Mexico is a whole other process. Tela stores are way easier to find than yarn shops (and occupy an entire district in the centro), with a variety of fabric in all patterns and materials. My favorite is the selection of stretch jersey knits, which are almost impossible to find in any sort of variety in the US. They have everything from t-shirt material to sparkly American Apparel-type spandex. 

What surprised me, though, was the utter lack of patterns. While one of the bigger chains sells a few on a rack in the back, an owner of a smaller store told me that they didn't really sell any here. Conchita is going to inquire with her friend, but until then I will have to be a little more creative.

This is where her books come in. Written in Spanish, they lack patterns but have drawings and measurements to make everything from kid's pajamas to a wedding dress. I'm thinking of starting up a skirt or two and I have been carefully looking up words like pinza (dart) and ojales (buttonholes). 

Even as I write this article, my señora and her friend poke their heads in my porch door and ask how my knitting projects are coming along. I show off my dress again, and the friend promises to return with muestros (directions) for her own knitting projects. Conchita invites me to learn a fabric-painting technique. 

1 comment:

  1. "...and in my social theories class my professor used my knitting as an example of something that has become mechanized under the capitalist system."

    :D made me laugh


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