Moisés Martínez Velasco, San Pedro de Cajonos, Villa Alta, Oaxaca

Moisés Martínez Velasco, San Pedro de Cajonos, Villa Alta, Oaxaca

Moisés Martinez works as a traditional silk weaver from San Pedro Cajonos, Oaxaca, the silk village high in the Sierra Norte. He uses the backstrap loom, with a silk warp and weft dyed with cochineal or indigo dye. The villagers raise their own silk worms, both wild and cultivated.

Moisés has garnered a reputation as one of the finest weavers of rebozos. He began by only making rebozos, then went on to create blouses, scarves and jewelry - all handmade, but modifying their designs.

Using traditional techniques in modern designs does not contribute to the loss of the traditional use of textiles - this is simply taking the art into the future. Young artists are combining traditional with contemporary - a practice Moises sees as necessary for new generations learning and expanding the art form.

Moisés began weaving at age 14. Making clothing other than rebozos was born of the need to have more products to trade. For generations silkworms have been raised in San Pedro de Cajonos and their silk has been gathered, spun and woven into exquisite rebozos with intricate fringe work or empuntado, hand knotted geometric shapes adorning the ends. Silk can be harvested twice a year - 20,000 silkworms equate to approximately ten or twelve kilos of cocoons or about four or five large rebozos.

Royals around the world coveted indigo as a symbol of their wealth, power and prestige. When we think of the color royal blue, what comes to mind is an intense, deep color that saturates the fabric and draws attention to the person wearing it. Indigo was used 6,000 years ago in Egypt, sought after by the Pharaohs who procured it from traders who traveled the tropical belt of Africa.

In Oaxaca state, the wild bush grows along the Pacific coast, is cultivated, fermented, dried into blocks, and sold to weavers and dyers, who grind it into a fine powder for use on protein fibers such as wool and silk, or on plant fibers such as cotton.

First the indigo is picked, chopped up - stems and leaves - and put it in a fermentation bath for at least 12 hours (sometimes as much as thirty-six hours) to prepare the dye. The process is ancient, thousands of years old. The plant material decomposes and collects at the bottom of the large vats as a thick paste. It’s then strained to separate any sediment. The result is a highly saturated, concentrated product. It takes about 200 kg of plants to produce 1 kg of indigo dye. It is then dried and becomes rock-hard. To then use it, it must be pulverized into a fine powder. Traditionalists in Oaxaca use a metate or mortar and pestle. Others take the faster route by using an electric coffee grinder.

Indigo can’t be dissolved in pure water. It has to be dissolved in a highly alkaline solution with a 10-11 pH, and free of oxygen. There are several ways to manipulate the chemistry by using either sodium hydrosulfide (highly caustic) or the more organic fructose crystalline. French botanist and dyer Michel Garcia is now experimenting with using mango skins and fructose successfully.

Cochineal is also used to color Moises' rebozos. Cochineal is made from the tiny dactylopius coccus, a mite that feeds on the nopal cactus.

We would like to thank Linda LaBelle for allowing us to use excerpts from   Stories of Hope - Oaxaca, Weavers of Southern Mexico.

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San Pedro de Cajonos, Villa Alta, Oaxaca