In Mexico, a Company and a Community Tied Together with a Single Thread

This article is part of our Design special section on how looks, materials and even creators evolve.

The way Ana Holschneider explained it, everything Caralarga makes is jewelry. It all depends on how you wear it.

You could dangle it from your ears, like the design firm’s signature “plume” earrings that resemble upside-down versions of the half-circle headdresses worn in Aztec times. Or you could drape it from your shoulders, like the loose, apronlike garments Caralarga started producing when it expanded into shirts and dresses.

Or you could hang it on your living room wall or drop it from an atrium ceiling, like the braided rope sculptures, some more than 20 feet long, that Ms. Holschneider described as “jewelry for the home.” These interior décor pieces alone have transformed Caralarga from a two-person operation to a company with 60 employees who make and ship products throughout the world.

The common thread is cotton, nearly all of it white, that Caralarga converts into such things as handbags, necklaces, mirrors and pendant lights. Ms. Holschneider, 39, who founded the company and serves as its chief designer, is determined to make the most of every scrap of raw material that arrives in her workshop, which is located in the Hércules neighborhood on the outskirts of Querétaro, Mexico.

Ana Holschneider in front of one of the custom-made metal racks on which employees fashion the Large-Scale Pieces.Credit…Jackie Russo for The New York Times

The small barrio was founded on fabric more than 150 years ago, when the El Hércules textile company opened there. It evolved into a manufacturing behemoth that supplied clothing to the entire country and, at its height, employed 4,000 people. Workers’ housing makes up most of the structures that exist in the neighborhood now.

El Hércules lost its strength in the early 21st century as imports from Asia came to dominate the industry, and it reduced its operations by about half. That is when Ms. Holschneider’s part of the story began.

She and her husband, Luis González, took over the other half of the sprawling complex to start a brewery. During the building conversion she noticed piles of fabric and excess thread that the factory was discarding as below standard.

Ms. Holschneider, who studied journalism in college and spent some time as an art dealer in Hong Kong before moving to Querétaro, was not a designer at the time, but she paired up with a colleague, María del Socorro Gasca, and together they developed the refuse into earrings. Those caught on with buyers and she continued experimenting. She brought in Yasmin Tellez, an acquaintance who knew how to sew, and turned the discarded bolts of fabric — pre-dyed denim — into apparel. That proved popular, too.

“We were buying the excess of the factory’s materials, so it was good for them, as well,” she said. “The cotton was not going to be in the trash. We were transforming it and making jewelry and other things.”

Fabiola López trims the fibers on a large braided piece.Credit…Jackie Russo for The New York Times
Fabiola Cruz Gutierrez cuts cotton to length from a large spool.Credit…Jackie Russo for The New York Times

The decorative braided pieces that have propelled the company’s fortunes evolved from shorter necklaces Caralarga made by wrapping the cotton strands around spheres of papier-mâché, a traditional Mexican craft. “We are trying to innovate always, but not trying to reinvent the black thread,” said Ms. Holschneider, invoking the Mexican version of the phrase about wheels and creative backsliding.

Those pieces grew longer and longer as architects and interior designers ordered custom sizes for clients, and that increased the need for more hands in the production process. Caralarga took over the factory’s empty warehouses and began hiring additional workers.

Ariadna García, left, general director, Maria del Soccoro Gasca, center, master artisan, and Ana Holschneider, right, founder and creative director, in front of a large decorative piece.Credit…Jackie Russo for The New York Times

Together with the operations manager, Ariadna García, they have transformed the space into a manufacturing plant where teams of employees make everything by hand, sewing fabrics, snipping and brushing threads and tending to the custom-made metal racks that allow them to drape the cotton strands as they convert them into Large-Scale Pieces (the hangings’ official name).

Just a decade old, the organization has managed to be nimble despite the numerous logistical problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Two years ago, El Hércules was sold to a larger corporation that moved its operation to the city of Puebla. Ms. Holschneider and Ms. Garcia had to convince the new owners to keep supplying their raw materials, which are now shipped 200 miles.

Still, the company does all it can to maintain its founding objective of sustainability. It throws almost nothing away, neatly organizing its waste on shelves for potential reuse. The clipped ends of the long sculptural pieces are recycled into fringe for a line of mirrors. Other excess odds and ends are used as stuffing for pillow cushions.

The Caralarga showroom in the old factory space features its clothing, handbags, necklaces, mirrors and pendant lights.Credit…Jackie Russo for The New York Times

At the same time, it has tried to maintain the legacy of the factory space and to be a resource for the neighborhood. Cervecería Hércules, which shares a courtyard with Caralarga, draws large crowds who come for the evolving line of beers (mostly old-school lagers but also some innovative pale ales), and for the live music on three stages performed by cumbia bands, or DJs, or traditional Huapango artists brought in every Sunday afternoon. The once-dying plant now leases offices to architects, photographers and members of other creative trades.

Caralarga also endeavors to provide job opportunities beyond its factory walls. It recently started working with women at a community center in a part of Querétaro where employment is scarce, contracting them to weave its cotton into new products. It is not necessarily a profitable part of the business, but it has enabled the company to expand into a line of handmade baskets and tabletop accessories.

And just as El Hércules did, Caralarga hires locally, resurrecting the idea of the company town for a new era, though, as Ms. García points out, working conditions have improved since the days of the industrial revolution. Large windows allow light and air into the formerly closed-off warehouse, and employees have contemporary perks, like being able to drop in and out for child care.

Many of them simply walk to work, treading a familiar path for the citizens of Hércules.

“And many have fathers or grandparents who worked in the factory a long time ago,” she said.

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