A Great Old Mexican Yarn: The Story of Hilos Omega
You can almost hear the sounds and smell the aromas of old Mexico as Marina Sampietro talks about her family’s business, Hilos Omega, or Omega Yarn, which has been making and selling yarns and thread for nearly seventy years.
Her parents, who fled from Spain to Mexico in the great exile of 1939, had just married when her father decided to start the business. He was working for a company that sold yarn and saw firsthand how clients’ needs were not being met. Eager to provide for his wife and family, he asked for a loan from a friend and bought two machines to make threads and wool. Marina’s mother operated the machines from their home while her father went out to sell their wares. Things weren’t easy in those first few years; her father had to pay off the loan, and her mother became very busy with four children, but his knack for sales and her organizational skills made them a great team, and little by little the business began to grow.
Marina joined the company at sixteen to learn the family trade. She has been there ever since and currently runs the business with two of her brothers. In the seventies, the company became the first in Mexico to commercialize nylon, and the business grew exponentially. Marina remembers this time—when her father would send mariachis to the factory to serenade her mother, and the team was like one big family—with great affection. Further changes occurred when Omega began to dye its own wools and threads and added acrylics to its inventory; the increase in products prompted the family to move the factories from outside the capital, Mexico City, to neighboring Puebla.
Despite the ups and downs that can come from rapid growth, Omega is now a household name across Mexico, with more than eight hundred employees and hundreds of products. Although much has changed since those first days of two machines in the Sampietro house, the ethos and the family feel of the company remains. “My mother is ninety-four, and she still knows everything that is going on,” says Marina with a proud laugh.
The business is changing as fashions shift and some of its older clients with small stores begin to close their shops. However, Omega still has a large market of mostly middle-aged women who attend the two-week crochet classes that are offered for free in yarn stores across the country and in supermarkets in the capital.
In the last ten years, Omega has also seen an increase in sales to indigenous artisans across Mexico. “They know that we have a quality product that won’t change or break, and that is important to them,” says Marina, reflecting on this new addition to their business.
When one thinks of traditional Mexican design, crochet doesn’t immediately come to mind; woven rugs and embroidered blouses typically take center stage. However, a deeper look reveals crocheted items in almost every handicraft market across the country. Mexico has a pre-Hispanic craft called randa that is very similar to crochet. Originally, thread from the maguey cactus plant was used in this technique to produce detail almost identical to that of crochet. The tradition continues in some areas of Mexico, such as Tlacolula, Oaxaca, where very fine thread is used to produce extremely delicate pieces that look almost like lace. Crochet was introduced to Mexico from Europe hundreds of years after randa, but it has carved a place for itself within the Mexican handicraft world. Offerings in local markets can range from traditional crocheted pieces such as placemats, headbands, table runners, and scarves to more unique creations such as blouses and dresses with finely crocheted detail, bags, hammocks, and even jewelry.
Mexico’s design scene is evolving rapidly as the world’s eye turns to the country for inspiration. The traditional is being interwoven with the contemporary, allowing for an interesting mingling of old and new. Mexico’s Mesoamerican roots remain, and a youthful exploration moves the design in exciting new ways. Within this evolution, Marina has noticed a trend toward brighter, bolder colors. “People want less beige and more bold tones these days,” she says.
Business for Omega can certainly ebb and flow with the fashions and the uncertainties of the international market, which affect Mexico intensely, but Marina seems positive. Some younger members of the family are joining the business, ensuring that the family ethos will continue. “Fashions come and go,” says Marina, “but what sustains our business is the classic, the traditional, and the quality of our products.”
A Love Knot Between Neighbors
Omega also has a market in the United States, with roughly 8 percent of its sales coming from Mexico’s northern neighbor. Its main distributor is Mona Modica of Creative Yarn Source, who first came across Omega while making purses from her home in Columbus, Ohio. She was using an Omega nylon to make her creations and loved it. Wanting to source other colors of the same nylon, she spent weeks desperately trying to find a distributor in the United States. After searching high and low with no luck, she finally found a phone number for Omega in Mexico City and rang to place an order for a pack of each of the company’s seventy-four colors. “I had so much nylon because I had to buy it wholesale that I had to start selling it to support my habit, ” Mona says with a cheeky laugh, explaining how her now thriving business started from a passion and love for crocheting rather than from a preconceived plan.
Marina remembers the call from Mona asking if she could sell the nylon on eBay and then on her own website. “We said that she had our permission, and she started selling our products—just her on her own, doing everything—and it has just grown so much from there,” Marina says, clearly impressed by Mona’s determination.
Eventually, the sales workload became so heavy that Mona’s husband, Steve, quit his job as an electrician to join the business. Mona would travel to California to meet Marina at trade shows in Anaheim and elsewhere, and the pair worked together to sell their products. After about two years, Steve joined Mona on one of the trips and was so taken by the West Coast lifestyle that he suggested they move to California. When the couple realized they had enough money to move their business and themselves to sunny California, they were surprised at their own success. “We had never even dreamed that this would be possible, it seemed so far-fetched,” Mona says, reflecting on how much her life has changed since that day she bought her first nylon threads from Omega.
Not only did Mona create a business doing something that she loves passionately, but she also developed a strong bond with Marina, considering her to be like a “mother or sister that I didn’t have.” They frequently meet at trade shows, talk on the phone, and share new ideas and designs with each other.
The crochet designs that Omega develops continue to impress and inspire Mona. “Some of the things they come up with I have never seen before,” she says. “I have never seen any patterns or products—even in the Japanese world, which is known for its delicate patterns—that are close to some of the patterns that I see from the Omega ladies.”
More than ten years after her first call to Omega, Mona continues to stock only Omega products that are imported from Mexico. “They have been so good to me. I never even thought about carrying another brand, because they’ve got it all.”
There are uncertainties in the market for both Mona and Marina as trade deals are being renegotiated and immigration issues strain the relationship between their two countries, but both see a future working together and sharing a passion for yarn. When it comes to their love of crochet, the only borders they see are the ones found on the beautiful designs that they share with each other year after year.
SUSANNAH RIGG is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist based in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her work has been featured by BBC Travel, Forbes Travel Guide, and Metro UK, among others. She is the founder of the award-winning blog Mexico Retold, which is now in its ninth year.
This article originally appeared in Interweave Crochet Summer 2017.
Featured Image: Traditional crocheted designs from Michoacán. Photo by Omega Yarns.
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