Monthly Archives: August 2008

Silkworms in Oaxaca

Sunday, August 18, Teotitlan del Valle: I’m behind the wheel of the aging blue Toyota truck, four on the floor. Cindy climbs in next to me riding shotgun. Eric, Sue and Emma hoist themselves onto the flatbed and we set off up the cobblestone street, bumpety bump, for the house where they cultivate silkworms, cook the cocoons into silk, spin it, and weave it into glorious rebozos, huipils, camisas (shawls, blouses and shirts). “Tope”, Sue shouts as we approach a speed bump. It is impossible to go faster than 10 mph anywhere in the village. There is a Tope every block or two.

Caterpiller Lunch
Silk LoomSilk Shawls

Reynoldo Sosa and his wife are the proprietors of Arte y Seda. They feed their caterpillars mulberry leaves from the trees that grow in their courtyard. The silk is spun and woven into beautifully soft material, which is then dyed with cochineal, pericone, indigo or the leaves of pecan trees. They only use natural dyes. She told us that her father was cultivating the silkworms, and they learned the process from him. Years ago, in the early 1900’s, the use of pesticides in the village wiped out the silkworms and the family had to start all over. This is a labor-intensive process. Just like everything else that is handmade in the Oaxaca valley.

Notice that the loom is dressed (warped) by hand, with all those fine strands of silk that are looped through tiny eyes. Then, when it is cut off the loom, it is sewn into a garment, or finished off by a macrame or crochet process that makes a beautifully intricate and secure fringe. Amazing!

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!

Dancing on the Loom: The Two Pedal Shift

August 11, 2008.  My right foot goes on the right pedal, and my left foot goes into position behind my right foot, a dance of balance and strength.  This presses one harness down so I can get the shuttle through the loom to bring my yarn across between the heddles.  Then, I do the same dance with my left foot and left pedal, back and forth, back and forth.  We are six people dancing on our looms, none of us synchronized.  We each have our own looms at which to work.  We have chosen our individual color palate from the hundreds of hanks of naturally dyed yarn that hang on the second floor of the Chavez workshop, and as we manipulate the warp and weft of the loom, we each have a unique pattern and variation that we are experimenting with.  None of the people attending this workshop are experienced, yet by the end of the first day they have achieved several inches of beautifully woven cloth.  Federico and Janet are constantly giving each individualized attention to help in the learning process, and soon there is a rhythm to the work, an exchange of ideas, laughter, experience.

Rhinestone Manicure

Do you know the way from San Jose? This morning I boarded a Mexicana flight from San Jose, California, to Oaxaca, via Guadalajara and then Mexico City. The great thing about the Guadalajara airport is the FREE wireless Internet connection, so I’m content sitting in the restaurant with the glass walls, finishing off some very tasty Flautas con Pollo topped with crema, queso fresco, and sipping a limonada. This is sort of a roundabout way to get to Oaxaca from the west coast, but it was the least expensive routing I could find. Everything I’ve read about travel in the wake of high fuel costs is true–jam packed planes, not an extra seat in sight. Mexicana airlines still offers in-flight hot meals, special meals ordered in advanced (I had a delicious fresh fruit plate that was piled high with the sweetest pineapple, strawberries, and honeydew melon I had tasted in a long time), and I noticed the abundant leg room. Imagine the window seat passenger being able to climb over me (one the aisle) without stepping on my feet or landing in my lap. There is still generosity in the skies.

The young woman (thirty-something) next to me was traveling with her son (nine or ten). He slept. She read a book. I was enthralled by her fingernails, definitely acrylic, that were painted a pale pearlized white, topped with a line of rhinestones in multicolors. They twinkled as she turned the pages. I had never seen this before. I am living a sheltered life in North Carolina. I thought to myself, this woman does not wash dishes, she does not do weaving, someone is taking good care of her. Her sunglasses had a huge rhinestone-studded “C” at the side of the frame. She sparkled in her ears, around her neck and wrists, too. Across the aisle was her sister, with nails even more spectacular — rows of rhinestones in multicolors of black, gold and lavender dotted those acrylic nails, and she, too, donned sunglasses sparkling with faux gems.

It was definitely a cultural awakening for me.  Another world of glamour that I do not normally encounter in my part of the world.

Travel tip:  To get to Oaxaca from San Jose, California, one must fly either to L.A. first, then to Mexico City, then to Oaxaca, or from San Jose to Guadalajara to Mexico City to Oaxaca.  The daylong journey for me began at 6:30 a.m. in Santa Cruz and ended at 11:30 p.m. in Teotitlan del Valle.