Rebozos, shawls and scarves : the lost art of supporting women through the childbearing years

RebozosI was introduced to the art of using a traditional Mexican shawl called a rebozo to comfort birthing women at my doula course by Maddie McMahon in 2008.

Whilst I developed my antenatal and doula career, in my usual, knowledge junkie style, whislst I learn to use the tool for myself, I decided to learn as much as I could about this magic tool by attending training.

Over the my first few years as a doula, I pursued my knowledge further by learning from several doula colleagues (I am especially grateful to doula Bridget Baker who showed me how to properly wrap a rebozo around a pregnant woman’s belly during a doula UK AGM).

I attended my first formal workshop with Stacia Smales Hill on rebozo use for labour and birth in 2013. In the same year I also attended a workshop by Rocio Alarcon called closing the bones, a postnatal massage technique  which included rocking and binding with a rebozo.

Frustration over long and difficult labours, and especially malpositioned babies led me to seek more specialist training,  such as the rebozo for labour progress and malposition with Selina Wallis, micromovements with Francoise Freedman, and 2 iterations of different levels of spinning babies with Jennifer Walker and Gail Tully.

As my experienced developed I also brought more focus towards postpartum support, and recently attended a workshop on healing diastasis recti with Birthlight which included many rebozo techniques.

I am also a babywearing instructor and tutor, and as such use rebozos and wraps to carry babies too.

I started facilitating workshops around this topic because people asked me to. Repeatedly.  At first, I refused, as I didn’t feel qualified or experienced enough. But after a few years of constantly using this amazing tool in my birth work and my antenatal and babywearing classes, and seeing how the incredibly versatile such a simple piece cloth could be, and the miraculous experiences that ensued, I finally felt ready to start teaching workshops around this topic, because I had so many positive experiences I felt I needed to share this skill with others.

As I met people through teaching, I constantly questioned people I met about their culture’s practises, I started to build a picture in my mind of something much more universal than the rebozo.

It seems that every culture has (or had) a piece of cloth of some kind, call it a shawl, a sarong, a scarf, or a wrap.

Cold countries have thick, woollen fabrics (think Welsh Shawl or Scottish plaid), and warmer countries, cooler, thin, cotton fabric (think African Kanga or Indonesian Sarong).

There are almost too many fabrics to count, but one thing is for sure, women have used all sorts of cloths in incredibly versatile ways, and what I’m going to say below about the rebozo is true for many other cultures too. It’s a truly universal practise.

I spent a few years believing that the rebozo use for labour was uniquely South American but I have since met a Somalian midwife who told me how they use their traditional shawl, called a Garbasar, in a similar way during labour.

I trained a Moroccan birth worker in doing closing the bones, and she was surprised when she started offering the massage that women came forward and told her they’d had a similar treatment in the local hammam after birth (using the traditional Moroccan cloth called a Mendil).  Tunisia offers a similar practise called a fouta massage (the fouta is a hammam towel, which is very similar in nature to the Turkish towel).

I am lucky to be part of a multicultural family, being French and married to a man from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong I’ve been told they use a long piece of muslin cloth to bind the woman’s hips and abdomen after birth, and my mother in law also showed me how she was taught how to use a towel to bind her hips and abdomen after birth.

It’s also quite fascinating to see how contact with foreign cultures can influence each other. For example I recently acquired a Dutch postpartum girdle called a Sluitlaken. I couldn’t help but notice how similar to Indonesian postpartum binding it looks, then a friend pointed out than Holland used to have Indonesian colonies!

So, what can you do with a rebozo, shawl or scarf of shawl?

Pretty much all cultures on the planet, some kind of cloth is used to cradle and carry a baby. In some cultures is used to rock and soothe the baby too. Rocking is such a primal rhythm we all experienced it in our mother’s womb, that we find it soothing all through our lives.  Even in Europe there are pictures of women wearing their babies in Welsh shawls which date from the 1940s.

Later, when the baby grew into a toddler and child, she would use the cloth to dress up, pretend play (including carrying toys and/or animals, pretending to carry a baby), make a den etc.

As the child grew into a young woman she would use the cloth as a shawl to keep warm, as a clothing accessory, a blanket, to carry siblings ( in traditional cultures women learn baby care from a very young age as they tend to live with extended families), and to carry loads on her back or head.

Later still when she became a woman, she might have been given her own shawl as part of a menarche ceremony. She might have worn a special cloth on her wedding day.

When she became pregnant, she would have used the shawl to support her belly, and her midwives would have used it to alleviate the aches and pains of pregnancy, and maybe to help the baby move into the best position for birth.

During labour she would have used the shawl to hang from, to pull on, and her birth attendants would have used it to provide comfort measures, such as sifting, rocking, shaking, and wrapping.

After the birth she would have had a “baby moon”. Again this is something pretty much universal in the world-women the world around have been alleviated from household tasks and cared for by family members for the first 30 to 40 days postpartum. During this time they would rest so they could recover from growing and birthing their baby and get to know their baby and learn to care for them. Her birth attendants and the community of women would have come to feed her nourishing food, and close her bones and help her body heal from the pregnancy and birth by using  a combination of their hands, massage techniques and using the cloth to help move and bind her hips and abdomen to help them back into place. In the UK we used to have this practise called “churching” you can read about it here 

She then would have started to use the cloth to carry her baby and start the cycle all over again.

Later as she grew old, her family members would have used the cloth to rock and soothe aches and pain.

Women would have been buried with their shawl using it as a shroud.

So you see, a traditional cloth, rebozo, shawl or cloth can be used to support a woman throughout her whole life. It is a universal phenomenon on our planet.

As the shawl came out of fashion and modern practises like using pushchairs became seen as more fashionable and desirable, this skill was soon lost, and because like most traditional women-only practises, it was just passed on orally rather than written about, the knowledge was lost very quickly, in one or two generations. We also tend to embrace “modern” practises mindlessly, seeing traditional ones as backwards and old fashioned.

Mexican and Chinese friends tell me that nobody wants to use the traditional shawl or carrier these days as only remote farmers or beggars still use them. And certainly my recent trip to Hong Kong showed me that it took less than 15 years for the traditional baby carriers to have been almost forgotten and  superseded by more modern, yet less ergonomical, models.

This is  something that we need to reclaim and teach all women, as it is part of the essence of women circles and supporting women through life transitions.

This is why I am so passionate about passing this skill to both expectant and new mothers, and to anybody who works with expectant and new mothers. It is our birthright!

How fitting is it that my friend Awen Clement just wrote this poem, for me it sums up everything the use of the rebozo is about.

We are all weavers

Life is a cloth
our stories the threads
carried across the warp by breath 
and memory
Every soul
unique in its tapestry
with tangles unpicked 
and rewoven anew
A rainbow of colour
where our threads meet others
and when we take our last breath
love will weave the ends”

(C) Awen Clement 2018

You can learn more about rebozo and its many wonderful uses in my online course

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