Travels with handcraft nerds
Lost Spanish silk in the Sierra Madre. Smoke fired pottery. Cochineal, the red worn around the world. Frida Kahlo’s fashion inspirations. The last traditional shellfish dyers on earth. Sixteen native languages, 80 pottery villages, 100 indigenous dressways and 10,000 weavers. Oh, and the tortilla was invented here as well 2,800 years ago.
Sounds like a bunch of sensationalist newspaper headlines for craft nerds. And it is. It also barely scratches the surface of a realm known as Oaxaca, crumpled like an oak gnarl in Mexico’s south. These are all stories born of this legendary land, each of which lives on today.
A 16th century silk boom begun by the Spanish conquistadores in Mexico that imploded a century later continued quietly on for the next 450 years in the hands of indigenous weavers, surviving to this day in far corners of the Sierra Madre of Oaxaca. Artisans still breed silkworms that are direct descendants of the worms introduced by the Spaniards so long ago. And this silk thread was once dyed with the best natural red dye on earth, a dye once used to tint kings’ robes and the British Red Coats. Cochineal, the carmine of a humble insect whose origins are in Mesoamerica, continues to be cultivated and dyed with in Oaxaca.
And speaking of color, in a Mixtec village called Pinotepa de Don Luis live the last 15 men on earth who carry on an unbroken lineage of shellfish dyers. Once a month they trek to the rocky shoreline of the Oaxacan Pacific and “milk” the ink from a shellfish called Purpura Panza. That ink turns thread purple and makes for a beautiful element in a Mixtec woman’s skirt. As it has done for millennia.
And not too far from this shoreline are the Zapotec cities of the velvet and lace; Tehuantepec and Juchitan. The confidence, pizazz and traditional couture of these proud women, with their zigzag embroidery, starched lace fringe and floral hair pieces served as cornerstone fashion inspiration for Mexican artistic legend, Frida Kahlo. She has gone, but the style in these communities thrives.
Smoke fired pottery? Yes. It comes out of sunken kilns the color of night. There are dozens of ways to form, fire and finish pottery in Oaxaca’s ancient pottery communities. Pottery ways that are unique to the Americas, the heritage of this land and this land alone. As are the languages spoken by Oaxaca’s first people and the great diversity of traditional dress ways, which like woven languages, are still worn in many Oaxacan villages.
While taking up no more space on a map than Indiana when measured with a ruler, Oaxaca is in fact fathomless when measured by the depth of time, the layers of human stories and the mysteries found in the shadows and hallows of a wrinkled, timeless land.
And it is true, the tortilla was invented here. How do we know? Not by the discovery of a petrified tortilla. Rather, the oldest comal, the clay griddle upon which a tortilla is cooked, was found here, made by a potter in one of those greatly diverse Oaxacan communities nearly three millennia ago.
Treat yourself in this lifetime. Come and meet this place, add your story to the layers of what makes this place endless.
Author Eric Mindling lost himself in Oaxaca 25 years ago and still hasn’t found his way out. He runs a cultural tourism company called Traditions Mexico that serves to help others become deliciously lost among Oaxaca’s weavers, potters, markets, tortilla makers, off-the-beaten-path villages, smoky kitchen chefs and rural roads. Twenty five years of Oaxacan lost has also given him time to write two books on the subject: Oaxaca Stories in Cloth: A Book about People, Belonging, Identity and Adornment and Fire and Clay, The Art of Oaxacan Pottery.