Held Together with Thread

Merche Pérez works in her shop / VERONICA MOYER

In the heart of the San Julian art community, one artist uses embroidery, or tattooed textiles, to convey the importance of having self-love and a “do it yourself” attitude.

Merche maintains her gaze on the needle as it moves with quick clicks across the blue cotton shirt under the machine. Her hands are seasoned guides, with unpainted fingernails and a taut grasp, leading the needle in the direction of her stenciled design. Behind the artist are paper bags printed with Debaga | work & shop in sans serif, the name of the store, the life, and the pseudonym of Merche Pérez, as known as Debaga in the San Julian neighborhood in Seville.

The store has a rapid heartbeat, coming from a Macbook playing electronic music through a speaker next to the sewing machine. It’s a small industrial space, with a concrete floor and white plastered walls. Potted plants hang from the ceiling while others remain on the floor, perhaps waiting for their chance to be hung or finding their permanent home below. The work of other local Sevillian artists is displayed throughout Debaga, including collages by artist Angelina Delgado Librero strewn across the window and ceramic pots by Fran Cabeza Gomez on the floor at the back of the shop. On either side of the 15-foot length of the store hang about 20 T-shirts, each bearing one of Merche’s unique embroidered designs ranging from the small outline of a bloody knife to a playful design of shrimp and carnations. On a wooden table pushed to the left wall lies a six-inch stack of sketches past, a plastic bag of colorful pincushions, a grey iron with a matted cable, and two beers. One for Merche, and one for Rafa, her tall dark-haired friend smoking a cigarette on the street near the door. “It’s a passing zone. My friends always walk by and say, ‘Can I have a beer while you work?’” With a laugh, Merche says, “I’m never really alone here.”

Interior of Debaga / VERONICA MOYER

To the left of the table, there is a floor to ceiling rainbow of spools of thread hung on short rods; however, there is a spot missing among the oranges. A quick scan back to the hum of the sewing machine reveals the missing spool, a bright yellow feeding into Merche’s latest design. This design in particular is simple. It consists solely of the letters “LIE” – the same message displayed on a bright yellow sticker stuck to Merche’s sewing machine. The word is the logo of LIE Radio, an alternative music collective that hosts radios programs and events around Seville and a close collaborator of Debaga. This blue T-shirt is just one of ten others Merche is embroidering to be worn during LIE’s upcoming alternative music festival On Air on April 28th in the Parque Del Alamillo in Seville.

The L and the I are now fully filled in with the yellow thread as the machine continues to hum. Only once, three-quarters of the way through the E, did Merche falter in her concentration – the yellow thread got caught in the lever at the top of the sewing machine. With pursed lips, Merche uses her hands to realign the thread and finishes her design with effortless precision.

LIE Radio T-shirt in the making / VERONICA MOYER

Having begun embroidering her own designs in 2004 and sewing in school and at home long before, these shirts are routine for the 39-year-old. Hailing from Cádiz, Merche grew up with the sounds of the nearby ocean and the buzz of sewing machines operated by her mother, Mercedes, and her grandmother, also Mercedes. The constant presence of sewing in Merche’s childhood is the one of the main reasons why she moved to Seville in 2001 to study costume design at the Centro Andaluz de Teatro on calle San Luis. However, Merche realized during her theatre studies that she, ironically, doesn’t like to sew. While the sewing machine piqued her interest as a creative outlet, she found the actual sewing of the clothes less interesting. Her brown eyes crinkle as she laughs, “I don’t know straight-line stuff.”

After her studies, Merche began to draw and experiment with the sewing machine. With a Leonardo scholarship for young entrepreneurs, she went to Florence in 2007 to work for a clothing brand called 98 Rosso. Merche contributed her own designs to the brand for three months, and when she returned to Seville, she began to develop her own brand. She brought her designs to clothing fairs, or “mini-markets,” in Madrid, Malaga, and Barcelona. “And little by little,” says Merche, “all of this was created.” The artist had two shared spaces with other artists to create her designs, both in the San Julian neighborhood as well, before opening her own place here on the corner of San Luis and Relator in 2016.

Exterior of Debaga / VERONICA MOYER

Debaga also functions as an unconventional tattoo parlor with the Tátua con Hilo service, which allows clients to bring their own drawings for Merche to embroider onto a shirt or other piece of clothing. Merche jumps from her seat, smoothing her oversized forest green American Apparel T-shirt, and walks to the wooden table in the middle of the shop. She gestures to the collection of drawings tacked on the wall above. She shows off children’s doodles brought in by parents, the hands of famous flamenco singer Camarón brought in by a fan, a painting of a hamburger done by a local artist. Merche touches the thread clippers hung around her neck as a necklace, as she looks out the window onto the street, smiling softly. “It’s like a normal tattoo. The same technique and importance, but on fabric, not on skin.” Here, in this small space with concrete floors, people can immortalize their memories with needle, thread, and Merche’s careful hands.

In this way, the business side of Debaga is much more personal than solely transactional, which is also how Merche describes her place among the circle of artists in the San Julian neighborhood. Before an installation for the launch of a collection, Merche explains, “I have help from a lot of collaborators, photographers, video troops; each one does their part. We make barters…a… ¿cómo se dice…change? chan-je?” She looks at Rafa, using him as an echo of reassurance. “Un change, un cambio,” he says. The San Julian art community is formed by a circle of symbiotic trades. “Esta mesa,” says Merche with a knock on the wooden table. “I just bought the materials, and a friend made it. Later, I made a sweater for him, a dress for his girlfriend, and a T-shirt for his son. Many exchanges.” For events like On Air on April 28th, Merche will embroider the 10 T-shirts for LIE Radio and the other group participating the event, Love Calls, which will be worn by the collectives during the festival. These will be gifts, because when people see the embroidered T-shirts at the festival, it’ll serve as advertising for her shop. It’s a transaction for business, but it’s also something more built from years of collaboration in the neighborhood. “It’s for friendship. All of the artists live nearby, and they pass by and we chat. We’re neighbors.”

Interior of Debaga / VERONICA MOYER

However, managing a business alone, even if it’s small, can cause a lot stress, especially being far from family in Cadiz. Merche bursts out laughing when she hears the word “stress.” Looking at Rafa, she repeats while continuing to laugh, “Have I had a lot of stress? Well, yes.” Merche sighs before continuing. “In November, I had an operation due to an internal infection. Because of stress.” She explains how she was more susceptible to her infection due to a worrisome relationship, pressure with Debaga and all of its related responsibilities. “I exploded.”

Merche’s collection Lucha con tus demonios, running from February to November, contains elements of this time period, with many designs of organs, blood, hearts, and knives. But the collection also chants the theme of self-love and strength, serving as a reminder to listen to and care for your body. “Because…” It’s the first time in the conversation that Merche speaks slowly, choosing her words carefully. “It’s when you’re unwell, and you don’t realize because you’re in your own world, the body… explodes.” The collection features a piece with a design of intestines and a crown, a piece with an embroidered depiction of a heart necklace contained the word “ME”, and several pieces with bloody knives. And, of course, what better day to plan an installation for the premiere of this collection than on Valentine’s Day, or rather Anti-St.Valentin, as the exposition was titled. The Debaga shop was transformed into a shrine to all that is love and all that isn’t, with dead leaves strewn across the concrete floor and a white mannequin head crying sparkly red tears on display. LIE Radio played songs of love and anti-love, photos of the collection taken by local photographer Lhaura Rain were hung on the walls, and Merche’s message of self-love was on display for the first time through her designs. “I want to express that, first, you need to love yourself. You cannot love anyone if you don’t love yourself.”

The sun diffuses its last rays of the day into the store, and Merche takes her thread cutters from around her neck and begins to remove the white backing of the three letters embroidered on the blue T-shirt. Having completed the T-shirt, the artist could leave her shop. But she prefers to stay until nighttime, working calmly in her second home made of needle and thread.