Before I left for Merida, Mexico, I heard that tailoring was a dying profession in Yucatan. To make things interesting, I decided to purchase a polaroid camera and a DJI Osmo Pocket to document my travels. It’s no secret that Yucatan has an abundance of cultural craftmanship, especially in the towns outside of the capital, so I wanted to see if I could prove the naysayers wrong. Is tailoring really dying on the peninsula?
It’s not particularly shocking that suits aren’t popular here. Given the heat (40 degrees this week) I understand why gents aren’t geared up the way they might be in Mexico City or elsewhere. But what about shirts, pants, or traditional garments found from decades passed?
GILBERTO CHAN CANUL
To start my search, I dug into an article from Yucatan Magazine and found Gilberto Chan Canul, a 71-year old tailor working out of his shop on Calle 64 with his brother. He’s been creating and altering clothing since he was a teenager, but so few people desire tailored clothing that he now works to supplement his social security cheque. The original article can be read here.
The article leads to the mini-documentary, El Sastre de Mérida, which showcases a brief portrait of the work, politics, culture, and life of Jorge Hoil Gomez, a well-known tailor in Merida in 2009. The doc dives into the PRI, old sewing machines, cars, and the trades of locals. It’s a complete joy to watch and a motivating factor for my journey to Yucatan.
The first order of business was to find Gilberto and his shop on Calle 64. That seemed like a logical place to start, except that the article only gave the street name, not the number. And if you’ve been to Merida you’ll know how confusing these addresses can be.
Being that it was near the old theatre, I decided to drive into town and start asking around. I ventured into a few shops in the area and asked for Gilberto and his brother. Luckily, after getting some dead leads, I met a group of women in a textile shop who knew them. “He’s about five or six stores down,” they told me. They thought I was crazy — why was this foreigner looking for an old man in a tailoring shop?
When I finally arrived at Gilberto’s address, it seemed to be closed. That or I had misunderstood the directions. I decided I’d come back in the morning when the working hours were more concrete (some folks take their siestas quite seriously). Take Tabaqueria Puro Gusto for example, my go-to tobacco shop. Whenever I plan on making a visit I send a text just to be safe. “Claro! Be there in five minutes!” they tell me.
My second order of business was finding another tailor named Augusto. He ran a shop on Calle 59 not far from Gilberto’s. Augusto and I had been texting for a few days about our meeting. I met him and his family outside of their beautiful red storefront. Inside there were a few youngsters relaxing in the back, and a few older men working the sewing machines. On the walls were stacks of shirts and garments ready to be picked up or delivered.
With the help of a neighbour, Augusto and I talked about tailoring in Yucatan. I mentioned I had some fabric from Oaxaca that I’d like him to potentially work with. He showed me some samples of shirts he had made for other customers, mainly for school uniforms and weddings. They were beautiful. He had intricate pocket designs, shoulder buttons and lining, and more. We set a date for measurements and I told him I’d return with my fabric and flats. Once he had the measurements and designs, he could return the shirt within two days.
THOUGHTS ON FABRIC
A bigger issue in Merida was finding quality fabrics for clothing, and Augusto agreed. Despite there being plenty of shops in the capital, I found virtually none that offered a variety that suited my needs. The shops seemed to cater more towards industrial industries, home improvement, or women’s dresses. I knew that if I wanted something handmade I was going to have to visit the artisans directly. And that meant heading towards Valladolid.
I roadmapped various towns from Ticul to the Quintana Roo border based on the town’s specialty. Here in Yucatan you can find communities that specialize in certain types of handmade goods. Hammocks are popular. So are handwoven baskets and hats. Unlike in Oaxaca, though, there seemed to be no accessible collective representing indigenous or local craftsmanship, which was what I was looking for. I was going to have to work a little harder to get what I wanted. And that was all part of the fun.