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Secrets of Master Weaver Jacobo Mendoza
Secrets of Master Weaver Jacobo Mendoza
slow dye

by Barbara Erickson

Intense blood red, hot pink, blue jean blue, buttery yellow, black as dark as a sharpie marker line, brown as soft as soft can feel, and hues of green, shades of nature all come to life in the weavings of Jacobo Mendoza.

Mendoza hails from Teotitlán del Valle, the world famous Zapotec weaving village 31 km outside of Oaxaca City in the southern Mexican state of the same name. His entire family weaves, even his restaurateur sisters Adelina and Abigail, who is world famous for her pre-Hispanic cuisine. Villagers in Teotitlán del Valle have been weaving since the village was founded in 1465, and before. They sent their 2000 decorated cotton serapes to the court of Montezuma as tribute. Since the conquest, thanks to the Spanish, they have used the foot peddle loom and added wool to their repertoire of textiles. Since time immerorial they have used natural dyes to color their yarns. What sets Jacobo Mendoza apart is his use of the slow dye method. It is how he achieves colors that are alive, intense and deep in his weavings.

In the 2012 New York Times article “The Past Has a Presence Here” Edward Rothstein writes: “The Oaxaca region…has been home to more species of plants than any other region in Mexico, and indeed, more than most regions of the world.” People, being creative beings, make use of the materials around them so it comes as no surprise that the weavers of Teotitlán del Valle developed expertise in natural dyes.

Let’s consider the color red. Known to most of the world as carmine, the traditional red dye comes from the scale insect, suborder Sternorrhyncha, cochineal. This little fuzzy pest of the Opuntia cactus family grows in abundance in Oaxaca. The Spanish cornered the world market for red dye with cochineal, almost all of it exclusively from Oaxaca, until the middle of the 19th century when spies discovered it was produced by an insect and carried live ones to the Canary Islands to break the monopoly. After synthetic aniline replaced the delicate and slow process of nurturing, collecting and processing the cochineal, almost the only place this art was practiced was in Oaxaca, particularly by the weavers of Teotitlán del Valle. Today the cochineal is back in favor for natural and non-toxic use in cosmetics and food processing as well as dye for textiles.

Mendoza simmers 14 grams of dried cochineal bugs in a liter of water, filters it and repeats the process with the insects four times to start his dye bath. Then he adds a mordant (fixative) to the strained liquid. Depending on the color he wants he might use cream of tartar, club moss, lime juice, or gall nut among others. He adds the hand prepared yarn. Then he waits and waits and waits until the color is exactly what he envisions for the piece he has in mind. Such is the slow dye process that instead of a quick fixative of chemical mordents, time and non-toxic ingredients are the key to Mendoza’s gorgeous colors. Cochineal is one of a few water-soluble dye stuffs to resist fading over time, even when exposed to heat and light. Your Mendoza masterpiece reds will still glow after years of use.

Then there is my personal favorite, indigo; the color of jeans, the color of borders of ancient Greek and Roman togas, the color of India. Indigo, which looks like a mineral, is actually derived from plants of the genus Indigofera. Indigo is not water soluble. The leaves of the plant must be soaked in water then fermented. The precipitate from the fermented leaf solution gets mixed with a strong base such as lye, or other historically toxic oxidants, pressed into cakes, and dried. To use it, it must be ground to a powder then mixed with the mordant. Mendoza’s slow method uses fruit sugars such as an over-ripe mango syrup and naturally occurring lime (cal), plus time, time, time and patience to get an intense and stable color.

Cochineal red and indigo blue are only two of the vast array of plants that Mendoza uses in his exquisite textiles. He uses locally collected lichen, black sapote fruits, berries, pecan bark, walnut husks, huisache seed husks, leaves of the pirul tree and alfalfa from the farm, rock moss, and a new plant he discovered, the lenuga de vaca weed that covers the hills behind his workshop and gallery. You can find him with his wife Maria Luisa, a master weaver in her own right, cooking yarn in their back yard when you visit.

Mendoza’s expertise in natural dying and the slow dying techniques are only part of the story of his success. Awarded Fondo Nacional Para Las Artesanías de Mexico – FONART’s first place prize for textiles in 2015 in Veracruz and again recently in Morelia, Mendoza’s creative and complex patterns are the rest of the story. A weaver since the tender age of eight, Mendoza weaves intricate traditional Zapotec designs in fine wools, silk, cashmere and metallic threads. You have to see them and touch them to understand their fine beauty.

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Please join Casa de le Cuesta Gallery and the Another Face of Mexico Mask Museum at their annual Open House and Exhibit of Day of the Dead Altars and Folk Art Exhibit featuring Jacobo Mendoza and Oaxacan Folk carver and painter Blanca Gomez.
Fonart’s First Prize Weaver, Jacobo Mendoza, Exhibit and Sale
Day of the Dead Altars and Folk Art Carver Blanca Gomez
October 28, 29 and 30, 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM
Casa de la Cuesta, Cuesta San Jose #32, Colonia Azteca

Casa de la Cuesta Gallery/ Another Face of México Mask Museum
Day of the Dead Altar and Traditions Talk at 2:30 Pm

No admission fee for the Mask Museum, exhibition or talk
For more information, call 154-4324

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Barbara Erickson lives in San Miguel de Allende and Barra de Potosí, a small fishing village in the state of Guerrero. She retired after selling her business in Southern California and happily moved to Mexico with her husband of many years in 2003. She loves Mexican artesanía, traveling in Mexico, studying Spanish, making friends and supporting indigenous artists and hardworking students.

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