In 1996 Englishman Graham Johnson came to Ocotlan de Morelos from Mexico City to open a woolen mill. The mill was designed to streamline the production process for making yarn and weaving cloth from local churro sheep wool* without sacrificing quality.
Graham was a tinkerer. He loved machinery, especially the old carding and spinning machines that were being replaced by computerization. He bought these up, shipped them to Oaxaca from the United States and the United Kingdom, and refurbished them. Often, he would find or make the parts to keep them going. Many were 30 and 40 years old already.
Over time the mill diversified and made luxuriously soft merino bed blankets and throws, fancy yak hair mecate horse reins, cinch chord for saddle belts, colorful wool tassels to decorate saddles, horse blankets and rugs for home decor.
They kept a supply of all types of wool to work with and blend, continuing to experiment to produce soft and durable products. In addition to merino, the mill cleaned and spun cashmere, mohair, Lincoln and other breeds. They still do.
Then, Graham died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009, and there was a question about who would keep the business going.
I remember when I first met Graham on one of my early visits to Oaxaca. It was probably 2005 or 2006. The mill was running at full capacity and you could hear the hum of machinery as you walked down the open corridor separating the rooms where the work was done. It was impressive then what these old machines and talented local employees could do.
Now, when I revisited with my friend Scott Roth, who has been working with weavers, wool, dyes, and the hand-loomed rug weaving process for over 40 years, I could see the changes. Scott brought with him replacement parts for some of the machines. Machines that were working ten years ago now need repair. Old belts, bearings, wires, cogs and wheels break, wear out.
For the past two years, Graham’s 37-year old daughter Rebecca has stepped in and is learning the operation. The mill is 25 years old and Rebecca is determined to keep her father’s dream alive.
At her side are Rosalba (Rosie) Martinez Garcia, who has been there for 18 years and knows just about everything about the mill. Helping are Angel Laer Ambocio Perez (above) and Alejandro Maldonado Santiago. They know a thing or two, too, although their tenure is much shorter.
Rebecca loves textiles. She loves yarn. She wants to supply all types of yarns for knitting and weaving and other fiber arts. There are beautiful rugs and blankets stacked on shelves that were made before her father passed that are for sale.
Spare parts for anything is essential here in Mexico. Equipment can be old. It can still be good, functional, valued. If one has the necessary parts to keep it going. Graham wasn’t the only tinkerer here. People save, cobble together, recycle, repurpose. Things get jimmied together and continue to work. People here learn how to be resourceful with what they have. It’s something I’ve learned being here.
As Scott and Rebecca worked out numbers to complete their transaction, I wandered the mill, remembering Graham. A cat ran across the corridor to hide. A young tree struggled to grow up from the crack in the concrete. A rusted yarn holder cast shadows on the adobe wall. I loved being there, another part of the textile heaven that is Oaxaca.
Where to Find It: Lanera de Ocotlan, 119 Benito Juarez, Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, Tel: 951-294-7062. Email: Rebecca Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment to visit. Directions: Continue straight past the Zocalo and the Mercado Morelos two blocks. The wool mill door will be on your left. It is unmarked.
Footnote: *Local wool is shorn from churro sheep which were brought to Mexico by the Spaniards with the conquest in 1521. The sheep are raised in the high mountains above Ocotlan in San Baltazar Chichicapam. The mountain range separates the Tlacolula and Ocotlan valleys. The altitude there produces a soft, dense fleece. There are still some, like Yolande Perez Vasquez, who use hand carders and the drop spindle to produce the best yarn, but this is a costly, labor-intensive process that yields a premium yarn that is very dye absorbent. Few weavers are able to pay the price.
Commonwealth Club of California to Host Chavez Santiago Family Weavers on May 10
San Francisco and Bay Area textile and fiber artists, hand-weavers and spinners are invited to attend a presentation at the Commonwealth Club of California at 12:00 noon on May 10.
The Future of Tradition: Weavers of Oaxaca, Mexico Connect Their Future with Their Past.
Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and Janet Chavez Santiago, education coordinator at the San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center of Oaxaca, will talk about their family’s weaving and textile traditions, indigenous life, and the professional goals they have set for themselves and their institutions. Jean Pierre Larochette, a Berkeley, Calif. weaver and leader of the American Tapestry Alliance, will introduce them.
Chavez Santiago Family Portrait by Richard Carter c.2012
Their father, Federico Chavez Sosa, is a master weaver whose work is recognized for blending traditional Zapotec design with innovative color combinations and pattern adaptations. Both Janet (top, second from left) and Eric (top right) are fourth generation tapestry weavers, along with their brother Omar (top left). Eric’s novia Elsa Sanchez Diaz is to Eric’s left.
The family is committed to using only 100% natural dyes in their work. They have been featured in the NY Times article 36 Hours: Oaxaca, Mexico by travel writer Freda Moon.
Eric and Janet are in the Bay Area at the invitation of the American Tapestry Alliance.
This summer! Weaving and Natural Dye Workshop with Federico Chavez Sosa and the Chavez Santiago Family Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, produced by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.
Chavez Family Weavers, a Portrait by Norma Hawthorne c.2012
In addition, Federico accepts commissions for custom work and when you are in Oaxaca, please visit them at Galeria Fe y Lola, Av. 5 de Mayo #408, Centro Historico.
Questions? Contact Norma Hawthorne, executive director, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.
Comments Off on Commonwealth Club of California to Host Chavez Santiago Family Weavers on May 10
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged American Tapestry Alliance, blogsherpa, Chavez Santiago Family weavers, Commonwealth Club of California, dyeing, Federico Chavez Sosa, fiber art, Mexico, natural dyes, Oaxaca, San Francisco, spinning, textiles, weaving