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Tiny Birds. Big impression.

Ailsa Wilson Huipil Mexico San Cristóbal de las Casas Textiles Tiny Bird Textiles

A tale of creative thinking on a street corner in Mexico and a curious name.

It occurred to me the other day, while my brain was taking a wander, as it does post-lunch, that most visitors to my Facebook page or website won't know why I called myself 'Tiny Bird Textiles'. As Mr Tiny Bird (or Martin as I think he might prefer… as that is actually his name) put it… 'isn't there a possibility they'll expect you to be a vertically challenged lady-sort?' Hummm… (she thinks on, a little nettled, but does she change her mind?)


I stuck with it though and for good reason. The tiny birds in question cost next to nothing, acquired on an extended trip to Mexico with Martin in the late 90's. We were on the run from grotty flat-shares (not literally – we had paid the rent before we left) and dead-end post-degree jobs, in search of one last adventure before we admitted defeat and got proper jobs.


San Cristóbal de las Casas image montage

(San Cristóbal de las Casas is an absolute visual feast)

I can still picture the precise street corner I bought those tiny birds on. We were in the beautiful mountain city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Its history deeply rooted to its pre-hispanic indigenous tribes, which was all but erased, except for the remnants of its original population, by the arrival of the Spanish (I can't be too judgemental – 'we' Europeans were all at it… Empire building). The colonial years left a new, indelible chapter of culture, architecture and religion to the city. The Spanish influence can be seen in the spectacularly ornate churches and public buildings, built with the proceeds of riches found in the surrounding hills. But also in the peculiar hybrid of Catholicism and indigenous religious practices. These days they like exorcise bad spirits with help of a bottle of Pepsi (or Coke depending on your tribe!). I can see how they came to that conclusion if you catch my drift! Utterly baffling and totally fascinating.


 (The Santo Domingo Cathedral)

However, what caught my eye in our copy of Lonely Planet Mexico (or was it Rough Guide?) was San Cristóbal's reputation as a centre of indigenous arts and crafts; ceramics, jewellery making, wrought iron work and weaving and... textiles. As I've always had a weakness for beautiful, vivid, hot colour I was heaven. The indigenous artisans create their wares in their outlying villages and bring their handiwork down to market on foot, some walking for more than a day to reach the city tourist markets. All carefully wrapped in sheets of old Mexican tabloid newspapers (printed in full colour, so you really get a sense of how much blood a dozen rounds of bullets can leak onto the floor of a hairdressing salon – Mexican's love a sensational front page even more than the Murdochs). The place was chock full of the most stunning stuff, literally spilling out onto the pavements, which is where I came across my tiny birds.


(These tunic-like garments are worn mainly by men on their journey to market and express the wearers' status and beliefs. Each community wears a specific design of their region, so you can tell where people are from by the distinctive style.)

 On a sunny street corner, sat a woman on a blanket, with her two bold and bright children, making and selling her crafty wares. This genius of a woman was nimbly weaving away on her hands, making little animals and birds from discarded packing tape (the kind you get round a heavy, boxed Amazon delivery and then have to cut up into tiny pieces so it can't creep out of the wastepaper basket overnight and trip you up in the morning when your half asleep – trust me it happens in my house). She had found a source of this discarded tape, essentially someone's rubbish, and worked out how, with a little bit of skill and imagination, to turn it into little keepsakes that tourists were queuing up to buy. Up-cycling before it got its name and was apologetically adopted by the first world as a way of reducing our carbon footprint… try walking a day and a half to the shops… that might help!

(Shops tend to be brimming with colourful curiosities, not all suitable for carting home in a big basket)

Anyway, I was impressed. Not just by her creativity but by her vision and fortitude. Mexico is not any easy place as an indigenous tribes woman. It takes courage and determination to do more than just get by. I took my place in the line and bought a couple of birds. I put them in the massive wicker basket I bought in Mexico City, so packed with all our other random purchases collected as we went on our journey, it almost lifted the lid. (Notable highlights include; glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary figurine, skeletal, glittery Bet Lynch doll smoking a fag, glass cactus shaped cocktail stirrers etc etc etc oh and a substantial earthenware casserole dish, as you do. The lovely check-in staff on the desk at British Airway's didn't bat an eyelid. No excess baggage charges. No sniffer dogs. Nothing. Oh how times have changes!)

(See what I mean - total Bet Lynch!)

The birds came with me on my onward journey. When I landed my first proper job for an actual proper creative design agency in London, they came with me. They found a perch on my desk (o-oh! Note to self: resist all bird-type puns – it's best for all of us I think), and they served as a reminder of what's important to me in life; not money, success or status at any cost. Not trophy handbags, expensive shoes and twinkly stuff. But integrity, being true to yourself and being master (mistresses?) of my own destiny. But they also remind me of the power of creative thinking, innovation and seeing things from a different angle; that it's possible to make something out of nothing. Not forgetting determination and never giving up.

It was the 90's. I was made redundant and the birds and I moved on. Always taking up residence on my desk somewhere. And so it was, that after some good times (and sad times), Mexico Martin got a new job and we found ourselves on the move to Dorset, with a baby on the way. Baby number one was soon followed by baby number two. Time flew but in the meantime I'd been up to something. I couldn't rest idle (when I say idle I don't mean 'sat on the couch' idle – who manages that when they have kids?). The trouble with going back to my old career was it wasn't compatible with having children. Hours too long. Demands too high. Plus, I was harbouring a secret. I was hatching a plan...


(Tassel detail)

I left art college, ever-so slightly crushed. Not because I wasn't any good. More because I didn't think I was the dog's 'wot-nots'. I hadn't really got that ego was just as important, if not more so, as capturing the likeness of a naked old-timer topping up his pension, on sugar paper in a life drawing class.

Every job I had since starting my career, I'd been 'managing' designers, watching over their shoulders (not in a creepy 'Sleeping with the Enemy' kind of way), helping with ideas, cheerleading them through their projects, wishing I'd been brave enough to grow some 'wot-nots' and follow my creative heart. While I was watching, though, I was learning too. Something that's proved invaluable.

When we finally joined the chaos of the school run, I fell into a job working for an old colleague from my London days, who happened to have his own business down the road in Bournemouth. In the time I had to myself I seized my opportunity. I was a forty-something, rapidly going grey, mother of two – it was now or never. So I went for it; I acquired a retired 1950's beach hut for a song and had it craned into the garden (where there is a will, there is a way!).  I converted it into a studio (it broke my heart but I had to take out the bar – just not enough room!). I built a print table and with sketch book in one hand, business plan in the other, started the work of breathing life into Tiny Bird Textiles.

I figured, if that inspirational mother sat on her street corner in Mexico could manage to do what she did, I surely should be able to give it a good go, given that I'm not doing this alone (thanks Mexico Martin) and that life and resources in Dorset are a little less challenging. It's a work in progress but then so is life.

In the meantime those tiny little birds are gracing the walls of my beach hut studio…

Thanks for reading.

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  • Celia on

    Loved reading about your creative road and how all the threads joined up in your beach hut studio.

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