Pita: The Silk of the Pineapple Leaf

The pita (pee-tah) I am referring to is NOT the middle eastern flat bread that most of us are familiar with. It is the fiber produced from the pineapple leaf after it is pounded, smashed, torn into long strips, soaked and washed, dried, then used for weaving, crocheting and embroidery. It has the look, texture, and strength of silk. The exhibition opening we attended on Friday evening, August 15, 2008, at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca featured this extraordinary and beautiful material — one of the indigenous useful plant fibers of southern Mexico. Pita has been used in Mexico to decorate the leather belts, saddles, and other finery that accompany the rodeo horsemen. Its fine, silky texture is easy to manipulate to add texture and design. Today, it is also being used to create fantastic jewelry. The museum had a great display of necklaces, bracelets and earrings that had been woven and/or crotcheted with pita, then dyed with cochineal and other dye stuffs. They offered a range of designs for sale in their gift shop, too. The jewelry makes a great statement and is lightweight. What amazes me is how such intricate and fine work can be so inexpensive. Necklaces ranged from $8 to $90 USD; bracelets and pairs of earrings were around $20 USD. It was easy to support the museum by buying a few of these to give as gifts. It seemed that the entire expatriate Oaxaca community came out for this opening, dressed in their huipil finery and silver jewelry. Alongside them were art students, designers, educators, politicos, and culture afficionados. The placed was packed, bumper to bumper. The museum is encouraging international visitors and we saw many Estadounidenses, and tourists from Spain, Germany, and England. The cacaphony of language variation was music to my ears.

One of the primary purposes of the museum is to educate weavers, artists and the public about fibers and natural dyes through exhibitions, demonstrations, and discussions. During a presentation by Eric Chavez Santiago, coordinator of educational services, we learned that pre-Hispanic fibers found in the Oaxaca region are ixtle (maguey or agave cactus), henequen (agave), pita (“silk of the Oaxaca rain forest”), natural coyuchi cotton (the color of caramel syrup), chichicastle (ficus tree bark), and wild silk.  In addition, the yucca plants yield a fiber called petate which comes from the Mixtec highlands; hammocks are woven from henequin; and pita grows in the rain forests from Oaxaca to Colombia.  Amate paper is derived from the yellow bark from the tree of the same name, which artists prize for oil and water color painting.  Many people have lost the knowledge about how to grow and use these ancient plant fibers, so featuring them at the museum is an important part of cultural preservation.

With the Spanish conquest, hybrid white cotton, wool and cultivated silk (bombyx) were introduced.  The Spanish also introduced the reed for the loom, the fixed frame, two-pedal loom, and the white mulberry tree for silk cultivation.  The wild silk was found along the coast of Oaxaca, which is hand-spun using a drop spindle, then woven by women using traditional back strap looms (without reeds).

The botanical gardens on the back side of Santo Domingo Church and the cultural museum (corner Reforma and Gurrion) has an English language tour every Saturday at 11:00 a.m. The gardens feature a section on native plant materials used for weaving and dyeing. This was created some years ago by Alejandro de Avila, the curator of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, and is another Oaxaca must-see. One must join a tour in order to see the gardens; there is no independent meandering!

2 Responses to Pita: The Silk of the Pineapple Leaf

  1. I have been playing around with pita from the agave plant and recently while in Oaxaca hand the pleasure of dying it with natural dyes. I have no idea where this is going to lead, but have been making art with natural materials for many years. I would like to be in touch with other artists who are working with pita and other natural fibers. Could you give me any contacts. I have lived and worked as an artist for the past 14 years in San Miguel de Allende and recently had the pleasure of visiting the textile museum in Oaxaca and taking a natural dye workshop . I would also appreciate if you would look at my website and inform me if you are in the future having any group exhibits that could include some of my natural pieces. Thank you for any information you can give me.
    Agnes Olive

    • Dear Agnes, congratulations on your work. I am only familiar with what is being done through the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and the fiber artists who work in San Augustin Etla and create jewelry from the pita. I believe that Eric Chavez Santiago, the director of education at the museum can help you find who to contact. I do not know specific names. Unfortunately, we do not organize exhibits. We organize educational arts workshops in Oaxaca. Perhaps one of the textile museums in the U.S. would be a good venue for you. Saludos, Norma

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