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Weaving Information

Historical Background

Hand-weaving has survived as an unbroken tradition through the centuries and today abounds in the great central valleys of Southern and Eastern Mexico. Early civilization there dates back to 700 BC, and Mixtec Indians are thought to have conquered the Monte Alban Zapotec culture and occupied the area around 900 AD. Archaeological finds indicate magnificent adornments worn by the Mixtec elite, with beautifully painted codices providing valuable information about the different garments that prevailed in the region. It is also clear that women played a very important part in ancient Mixtec society, for they are shown not only as rulers and priestesses, but also as warriors.

Southern Mexico is a region of high mountain peaks and narrow valleys lush with rainfall. The geography varies widely, and this diversity has contributed greatly to the sense of independence felt by many of the region's people. For many of the region's ethnic groups, fabric and dress are used to indicate the wearer's cultural group and place of origin, a tradition that has become increasingly rare in most areas of the world.

The extraordinary hand woven textiles in this collection were originally brought to the U.S. by Luna Blanca over 10 years ago as part of a project to enable weavers of the Mixtec culture to become more self-sufficient, and the project was initiated by organizations such as the Instituto Nacional Indigenista and UNICEF. While the traditional weaving patterns are quite beautiful and sophisticated many of the styles and techniques were disappearing as synthetic yarns and fibers began to be used for economic reasons. The weavers needed to rescue and preserve their ancient weaving and dyeing techniques. Fine quality embroidery thread was purchased for this project, and the weavers made fabric for uses such as rebozos (shawls), rugs, upholstery, bedspreads, tablecloths, curtains, tablemats and napkins, potholders, tortilla warmers and pillow covers. In addition, project members requested a great deal of fabric made with the rare "coyuche" cotton, which had been in little demand during the past decade.

The Weaving Process

The backstrap loom is probably one of the simplest of looms to construct and presents great versatility because of its portability and size variations. It is constructed from four wooden sticks, with one end attached to a pole or other sturdy tension peg, and the other end attached to a strap or belt that surrounds the weaver's waist. She weaves while she sits on the ground or small bench, and it is the tension between her body and the post or tree that keeps the warp taut during the time-consuming weaving process. The warp, or lengthwise fiber, is measured according to the piece to be woven, and is often intended to be the exact length of the fabric planned, yielding a textile with selvages on all four sides.

While the simplicity of the loom would seem to indicate that the weaving at hand would be easy, quite the contrary is true. The skill and craftsmanship of the weaver is necessary to keep the selvages even and the beat of each row regular. In addition, producing intricate, handwoven patterns and colors can be quite a challenge for even the most advanced weaver.

Fabric made on backstrap looms is extremely durable and brilliant because the weft threads are not beaten with the force often used in other weaving processes, and thus are not stressed or weakened. Common designs are the brocade in geometric shapes or the damascus weave, as well as other elements of decoration and embroidery. Most woven pieces were originally destined to be huipils (rectangular pieces of cloth sewn together to make the women's dress), as well as skirt wraps, shirts and pants.

Fibers and Dyes

Cotton has long been the indigenous crop in the Maya regions, with wool being introduced to Latin America by the Spaniards. The cultivation of cotton remained common among many rural villages, and the use of natural brown coyuche cotton by the Mixtecs and a few other groups is a testament to their appreciation of its warm and subtle coloring. Preparation for spinning of the short coyuche cotton fibers is a much more difficult and time-consuming process than working with the longer staple white cottons.

While a general trend toward using synthetic fibers and commercial dyes has been overtaking the Mayan culture during the last twenty years, the current revitalization project has helped to revive the traditional cottons and natural dyes and invigorated the weavers. Fruits, flowers, barks, roots, leaves and various types of wood have been reestablished as important dyes throughout the region. Among the oldest known dyes of animal origin is cochineal, which comes from the cochinilla insect, and yields various tones of red. The sea snail, caracol, is a shellfish found on the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean. The weavers take their threads to the ocean where they gently "milk" the sea snail without harming it or their ecosystem. The result is used to obtain beautiful shades of purple. There are also dyes of vegetable origin such as annatto seeds, which give a nice red color. Indigo dyes yield intense, dark blues approaching black. The zacatlaxcalli are vegetable parasites on the branches of orange trees that, along with brasil wood, produce yellow ochre and golden tobacco colors. Minerals such as iron oxide are also used for red colorations, and charcoal for black coloration. All of these natural dyes add to the beauty, richness, and life of the textiles.

Photographs courtesy of Jill Sabella