From the Capitol city of Oaxaca, we travel up a beautiful forest road to arrive at the Martinez family home in San Pedro Cajonos. San Pedro is one of three villages that make up the trilogy of the Oaxaca silk route, in the municipality of San Francisco Cajonos. Recently, the weavers in this area have revived the production and promotion of the ancient technique of silk cultivation. The elaborate process involves growing the silkworms, as well as the spinning, weaving, and dyeing of garments made with this precious material. In the central courtyard of the house, we find a colorful clothesline with fabrics in natural tones: red, indigo, pink and yellow, which give us peek at the texiles the artisans produce. Beautiful shawls with elaborate fringe, scarves, blouses, and huipiles with gradations of color, are all created with natural dyes.
Moisés Martínez, an artisan, who specializes in silk production and natural dyes welcomes us. Walking through his workshop, he carefully explains every step of the silk cultivation and textile production. This trip is an incredible opportunity for you to personally experience the rich cultural traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico through experienced guides of Traditions México. (Http://traditionsmexico.com)
It all begins with the thousands of eggs that the female silk moth deposits almost immediately after being fertilized by the male. Moises jokes saying that it is the fastest act of love of all the species on the planet because it happens just barely after the moths have left the cocoons.
There are two types of silk worms: the criollos (wild or “native”) and the “improved.” The latter are not bred here from the local silk moths but are purchased from a distributor. While both types of silk moth produce white silk after processing, the cocoons formed by native silk larvae have a deep yellow color, while the cocoon of the “improved” larvae are white. There are also subtle differences in texture. The silk from the native worm is slightly irregular and the silk from the “improved” worm is somewhat smoother.
After the larvae hatch, the main work is to keep them well fed with mulberry leaves. Over the course of 20 days, the hungry worms eat and grow, sometimes eating as much as 90 kilos of leaves a day. The Martinez family maintains their own grove of mulberry trees a few miles from their home to provide enough leaves for the hungry works. Keeping the grove healthy and abundant is also part of the silk production process.
After three weeks, the worms stop eating and their color changes to a transparent green. This color change is the sign that they are ready to form their cocoons of silk. Moises and his family spread out the cocoons on oak boards and wait for the worms to do their work.
Yarn and Fabric
The first step in making the yarn, is to boil the hard cocoons which softens them to a small mass of fibers. It is also during this boiling and washing that the cocoons from the native wild silk worms lose their yellow color and become white.
In some parts of the world, the boiling process is done when the worm is still alive inside the cocoon, killing the worm. But the Martinez family prefers to wait for the moth to mature and naturally abandon the cocoon. Not only is this kinder to the worms, but it is important for the family to allow the moths to mature and generate new eggs for the next crop.
Spinning into yarn is done manually with drop-spindle or with a spinning wheel. It is only after these long processes that the skeins of silk yarn are formed and ready to weave.
Almost all members of the Martinez family weave on a traditional backstrap loom, a weaving technique used in Central America for thousands of years.
After about a week for the weaving process, the women create elaborate knotted fringe on many of the rebozos, scarves and some of the blouses. Moises recently invented a wooden tool that helps with this work.
After the weaving and knotting, the pieces are ready to be dyed with natural dyes. Moises and his brother Joseph, especially like to experiment with dyeing techniques such as ikat or shibori. They are continuously participating in textile innovation workshops. They enjoy trying new things and are aware that it will allow them to reach a specialized market for their products.
Moises has already made the dye pots to demonstrate the process for us since some of these concentrates take days or weeks to prepare. With only a handful of dyestuffs: pericón (wild chamomile), palo de Brazil (Brazilwood), indigo (indigo) and cochinilla (cochineal) the expert dyers in the family will show us how they achieve hundreds of shades.
The challenge for the Martinez family and all the silk producers in the Cajonos region is, undoubtedly, to find the right markets for the sale of their products. At first glance the prices of the products may seem high. But after witnessing the elaborate process of the cultivation of the worms to the fine finishing of the colorful woven textile and you know experience, time and care it takes, know that the pieces are priceless.
For more information about our day tours to San Pedro Cajonos, contact Traditions México at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Article and photographs by Claudia Muñoz. Translation by Carolyn Kallenborn.