A 500 Year Old Tradition Survives and Flourishes

In the early 1500's, Spanish authorities in Mexico sought new sources of revenue, following Cortez's conquest and subsequent looting of the gold and silver he found there. They recognized that the mulberry trees that they found native to Central Mexico might be conducive to raising silk worms. The first silk worm eggs imported by the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1523.
 
Over the next 20 years of experimentation, a small silk industry was established in two areas of Oaxaca, where large plantations of mulberry trees were planted: in the Mixtec speaking area of the Mixteca Alta, northwest of the city of Oaxaca, and the Zapotec speaking Villa Alta District of the Sierra Juarez, northeast of Oaxaca, where silk thread is still produced.
 
By 1540 the growing silk industry became centered in the Mixtec area of Oaxaca, where Dominican Friars began to teach the process of silk production to the indigenous population. By 1580 the annual silk thread output of this area was 20,000 pounds. This industry was focused on the raising of silk worms and the spinning of silk thread from their cocoons.
 
The weaving of silk cloth was controlled by the Spanish Crown, which created weaving guilds in the cities. Only Spanish gentry were allowed to weave and wear silk and the Catholic Church to use silk. In 1552 the city of Oaxaca was granted a mandate to weave these valuable fabrics. This growing and prosperous industry thrived for a time, but by the late 19th Century, due to a number of reasons, including the opening of new trade routes to the Far East, the Mexican silk industry declined significantly.
 
Local handspun and woven (on backstrap looms) textiles, using silk thread, continued to be produced throughout this era of decline. The use of silk, which was originally woven for personal use only, seems to have been established during the 16th Century and has continued, although most textiles using silk in Oaxaca are now produced for commercial purposes. It was only as recently as the beginning of the 1960s that silk rebozos were first made for sale.
 
More recently, the Mexican government, recognizing the importance of sustaining indigenous crafts, has initiated programs in the state of Oaxaca to encourage a revival of this industry. Beginning in the 1980's and '90's, programs were established in a number of villages to teach people how to raise silkworms using new technology to improve the quality and increase the output of silk cocoons, as well as how to spin and weave thread. A more recent government sponsored program in Teotitlan, in collaboration with the Central Bank of Mexico, also brought in this new technology, to assist textile artisans in that village who were working with silk. The government currently offers mulberry trees in the spring and silkworms twice a year to all individuals and families producing silk in Oaxaca. Some artisans have found their own sources for both trees and silkworms.
 
Today there are Oaxacan artesanos who are working with silk in new and inventive ways. They carry on a 500 year-old cultural legacy, which they invigorate with new and creative ideas of how to use the silk their ancestors first began to grow and spin and dye and weave.



Photo by Otto Piron
Two-time FOFA/MEAPO concurso award winner, Rebecca Rubi Martinez Sosa, and her husband, Hilario Domingo Contreras Sosa, have established a silk production facility at their home in Teotitlan del Valle to expand their textile practice. They used the proceeds from Rubi's first prize award for textiles in the 2016 concurso to build a beautiful and spacious textile taller.
 
Photo by Dana Kasarsky
Their work uses centuries old techniques to produce new and inventive textiles. They raise their own silkworms to produce beautiful hand-dyed and hand woven rebozos and other textiles. Rubi and her husband also breed cochineal insects (on large, hanging cactus paddles) to make the dyes they then use. Some of their work is enlivened with beautiful patterns created by using ancient tie-dying techniques.
 

From start to finish, this is a very time consuming and laborious process. Currently Rubi and Hilario are able to produce only about 10-12 silk rebozos a year (in addition to the cotton textiles that they produce).

Photo by Otto Piron
Esperanza Martinez Velasco, hails from the village of San Pedro Cajonos (one of the earliest Villa Alta villages to produce silk thread). She is the youngest child in a family that cultivates silk and weaves textiles.
 
Esperanza has pushed the boundaries of her textile practice, to distinguish herself and her work. When she was 13 years old, she began to use silkworm cocoons to make flowers and jewelry. She now also makes table runners made of cut cocoons (first dyed with cochineal and then sewn together with silk thread). Her work is inspired by the colors and shapes of the plants and flowers that she sees around her. Esperanza is also a two-time concurso winner.
 

Photo by Joyce Grossbard
The esteemed Carlomagno Pedro Martinez is a native of the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, known primarily for the barro negro pottery that many of its artisans produce. He is a master ceramic artist as well as the founder and director of the  State Museum of Popular Art of Oaxaca (MEAPO). In addition to his work in ceramics, Carlomagno has also more recently explored creating jewelry using silk cocoons.
 
Photo by Annie O_Neill
As an artist, he was drawn to the idea of working with cocoons simply because of the visual appeal that they held when he saw them in the market. The cocoons he works with are dyed in rich colors and then used as large beads, strung with smaller (ceramic and other) beads and ornaments to make colorful necklaces.
 
While this is not the primary focus of his work as an artist, it is a stimulating diversion to enrich his creative process.


Many thanks to Marta Turok Wallace for her willingness to share her extensive knowledge 
of the history of silk production in Oaxaca.
 
References:
Leslie Grace, 460 Years of Silk in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2004;
Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings
Careyn Patricia Armitage, Silk Production and its impact on families
and communities in Oaxaca, Mexico; Iowa State University, 2008

 

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