Five hundred thirty mercenaries in binding leather, steel armor, rusting helmets, and sweaty boots, carrying swords and arquebuses, cut forward through the drowning tropical heat. Spurred onward by their outlaw leader, wild-eyed horses and snarling war dogs at their sides, they lunged into another bloody battle against the feather-crowned indigenous warriors of Mesoamerica.
And so it was that silk came to the Americas.
Cortés and the Silk Trade
It was 1519 and Hernán Cortés had been sent by the Spanish governor of Cuba to initiate trade relations with the indigenous coastal tribes of what we now call Mexico. But, hungry for glory and wealth, Cortés plunged inland in search of gold and treasure, conquering the Aztecs and taking this “new” land for Spain.
Cortés and Spain wanted to extract as much wealth as possible from the colonies, but there wasn’t enough gold to go around. However, there were mulberry trees. Although some sources report that before the conquest a type of silk was processed in Mesoamerica from wild moths, Cortés claims to have brought the first silkworm eggs to New Spain (Mexico) from Spain in 1523. With the abundant free labor of the indigenous population, soon there was a flourishing trade in this luxury fiber, and for nearly a century, silk was king in southern Mexico. The region of the old Mixtec kingdoms in Oaxaca state was the greatest producing area, producing 20,000 pounds of raw silk a year during its peak. But by early 1600, the boom had collapsed, brought down in part by competition from Chinese silks shipped in on the Manila galleons and in part by wave after wave of devastating European plagues of smallpox, measles, and flu that killed off nearly 95 percent of the indigenous population by 1600. By 1610 there was no one left to work the silk, the market shifted, and the Spanish silk industry disappeared in Mexico forever.
But it was not the end of silk in Mexico. During the boom, it was indigenous communities that did the hard work of cultivating and spinning the silk. However, indigenous people were forbidden by law (punishable by death) from weaving that silk. It was in weaving the cloth that the greatest value was added to the silk, and this right was reserved for Spanish weaving guilds in Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico City. The law, apparently, applied only to the Spanish floor looms and not to the indigenous backstrap looms. It was with backstrap looms that silk quickly became part of indigenous clothing. Some of those communities continued with sericulture on a cottage-industry scale, for they had incorporated silk into their richly decorative traditional dress.
Amazingly, four hundred years later there still exist two villages in Mexico where the original Spanish-indigenous tradition of sericulture survives. Offspring of those first Spanish silkworms are still fed mulberry leaves in the back rooms of adobe houses. The cocoons are boiled in ash to clean them, then handspun on support spindles as if they were cotton, and the silk thread is woven into cloth on backstrap looms.
Both villages are in remote corners of the state of Oaxaca, yet they are worlds apart from each other. San Mateo Peñasco is in the highland region of those old Mixtec kingdoms that once produced so much silk. The other village, San Pedro Cajonos, is far away in the Zapotec realms of the Sierra Madre. The villages are far removed from each other, and what they do with their silk is also quite distinct.
Many women continue to cultivate silk and spin in San Mateo Peñasco, but to this day not a single person in that village weaves. Instead, the thread is sold by the skein to two distant villages, where it is woven into traditional garments. The survival of sericulture in San Mateo is symbiotically tied to the ongoing weaving and use of textiles in those two faraway communities. Both Santiago Ixtayutla, a Tacuate village deep in the southern Sierra, and Pinotepa de Don Luis, a Mixtec village in a distant corner of the Oaxacan lowlands, still have fairly vital traditional cultures, and each of these villages creates iconic and unique weavings.
The weavers of Santiago use burgundy-dyed silk thread to brocade fine designs into their long white cotton huipiles (square-cut gowns). The silk is intentionally dyed to run. Freshly woven huipiles are folded and washed in a certain fashion so that the running burgundy dye will create an effect almost like tie-dye. In Pinotepa de Don Luis, the silk is also burgundy, but it is dyed to be colorfast. There, the silk is woven into a sarong-like wrap that is composed of narrow bands of color akin to a striped flag. In addition to the burgundy silk stripe, there are stripes of cotton thread in indigo-dyed blue and murex-dyed purple.
The other silk village, San Pedro Cajonos, is a weaving village with a long tradition of creating the red sashes once popular with women in certain regions of Oaxaca. Over time, the silk sashes were replaced by cheaper cotton or wool sashes or the traditional style of dress was abandoned altogether. As a result, by 1990 there were only four women left in San Pedro who still wove. Fortunately, at that time a government-led design and marketing program came to the village. The designers helped the villagers adapt the form of the sash into a rebozo, or shawl, which is a very popular item throughout Mexico. The program provided technical training, assistance in finding new markets for the weavings, and the introduction of more productive silkworms and mulberry trees. San Pedro enjoyed a rebound, and the neighboring villages of San Mateo Cajonos and Yaganiza also got on the bandwagon.
Silk Past, Present, and Future
The silk and textiles of these villages are a sweet sampling of the richness of indigenous weaving that still exists in Mexico. In a small way, these weavings, with their Spanish-introduced silk and indigenous techniques and creativity, are a symbol of Mexico in general, a modern nation born of the clash and fusion of two grand cultures. They are also a symbol of perseverance and adaptability. With continued efforts, these may continue to exist in balance so that silk cultivation, spinning, and weaving will still be alive and well in the far corners of Mexico four hundred years from now.
This article is excerpted from SpinKnit Winter 2011.
Eric Mindling has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, since 1992, working with and promoting traditional artisans. His company, Traditions Mexico, offers tours among the indigenous weavers, spinners, and dyers of Mexico, including one-day expeditions to meet sericulturists in the northern Sierra. Learn more at Eric’s website, www.traditionsmexico.com and in his book, Oaxaca Stories in Cloth.
- Borah, Woodrow. Silk Raising in Colonial Mexico. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1943. Out of print.
- Kallenborn, Carolyn. Woven Lives: Contemporary Textiles from Ancient Oaxacan Traditions. DVD. 2011.
- Klien, Kathryn, ed. El hilo continuo (The Continuous Thread.) Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1997.
- Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.