Silk Survival

500 years of Mexican sericulture undergo a Renaissance

In 1990, nearly five centuries of Mexican textile tradition was practiced by only four grandmothers in the mountains of Oaxaca. As they had always done, they cut leaves from aging mulberry trees to feed the Spanish silk worms they raised on woven mats in their small houses. They collected the cocoons, boiled them with ash and teased them apart like a cotton ball, spinning them into thread using a support spindle. Their hand-spun thread was then strung onto backstrap looms and woven into long sashes with fine macramé fringes, which were used by the valley Zapotec women as skirt belts. These four women were the last practitioners of what had once been a thriving craft in dozens of indigenous villages across southern Mexico.
 
In the chaotic 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, amid screeching swords, a frenzied search for gold and a harvest of souls for the Catholic Church, Spanish silk worms found their way across the Atlantic. The new Spanish estate lords were looking for ways to profit from new lands and cheap labor. Mulberry trees grew well in Mexico, silk was the most coveted of cloths, and the growing population of European rich in Mexico wanted to dress well: more than enough impetus for the introduction of sericulture around 1535. 
 
Indigenous people, under Spanish bosses, raised the silk worms in the labor-intensive process of hand-harvesting mulberry leaves to feed masses of worms housed in large sheds. They also reeled or spun the silk. But the weaving of silk into cloth, the point at which silk-making becomes profitable, was reserved only for Spanish weaving guilds. Death, or something equally horrific, was the punishment for the indigenous person who wove silk.
 
But native Mexicans had already incorporated silk into their dress. And the livelihoods of skilled indigenous weavers had to be maintained. A loop hole needed to be found,  and it was.  The prohibition applied only to Spanish frame looms rather than the “lowly” back strap looms used in the New World. Silk, as an element used in the richly textured fabric of back strap loom, became a staple of Mexican dress.
 
Just under a century later the silk industry collapsed in Mexico in a combination of devastating epidemics, greed, corruption, bad political policy, and competition from China. In other words, things haven’t changed that much in 400 years. The only place sericulture continued to be practiced was in those villages where silk had become an important part of local fashion -- where it survived and even thrived for another three and a half centuries.  
 
But the middle part of the 1900’s saw the “second conquest” of Mexico, the industrial conquest. Roads were built, electricity wired in, markets opened up to outside goods, radio and television were introduced. Rural Mexico suddenly came face to face with the 20th-century. Centuries-old local fashions suddenly became a badge of backwardness. Plastic shoes covered bare feet and colorful polyester largely replaced laboriously made and embellished homespun clothing. Traditional weaving and clothing in Mexico began its irreversible decline. 
 
Could it get any tougher for traditional weavers?  A 1960’s government effort to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes inadvertently killed most of the old Spanish silk worms. Only one hermit silksmith who lived well beyond the silk village of San Pedro Cajonos was unaffected by the spraying. From her seed stock, the direct descendants of the first silk worms brought by the Spanish continued to furnish silk to the last four weavers of San Pedro Cajonos in the 1990s.
 
But there was hardly anyone left who would buy the silk cenidores or sash-wraps these women crafted. Few women dressed traditionally and those who did preferred cheaper wool or cotton sashes. Silk weaving in Mexico was on the verge of extinction. But in that same year a short-lived but inspired government program and a few dedicated individuals began to turn the tide. 
 
With the idea of reviving traditional sericulture, a group of young women was organized in San Pedro and the four grandmothers were called in to teach them. New silk worms were brought in and hundreds of young mulberry trees were planted. Of course all of this means nothing if you are still making sashes for a market that no longer exists. But while sashes no longer sold in Mexico, something of fairly similar size and shape did; shawls, as well as the male counterpart, scarves. The Mexican tradition of dressing with a shawl, or reboso, is deeply rooted -- a point of pride and identity.  With the initial input of a designer, the new generation of weavers gently shifted to making shawls with smashing success. 
 
The process has been slow and organic, with occasional outside support, but there has been a renaissance in silk in the Sierra Madre of Mexico. It is no longer just four grandmothers, but now also hundreds of younger women in four villages, creating thread with support spindles and spinning wheels and turning silk into cloth, using backstrap looms…and even Spanish floor looms.  Silk has returned to the mountains in a colorful and welcome conquest.
 
Author Eric Mindling will introduce you to the silk and pottery of Mexico through his experience-travel business at www.traditionsmexico.com.  His gorgeous images of the silksmiths of Oaxaca can be seen on handeyemagazine.com, and on his site as well.
 
 

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