The Serape Collection at Galeria Atotonilco
Galeria Atotonilco houses Mexico's finest private collection of historic serapes, 1875 to 1940, usually referred to as the "post-classic" period.. Although "classic serapes," earlier than 1875, are well documented, virtually all of them in public collections, the serapes woven after that have been little studied or collected, yet they are among the most exquisite weavings in the world..
When he discovered that post-classic serapes were more or less neglected by scholars and collectors, Mayer Shacter began searching them out and now has over 200 serapes in his collection. In 2008, seventeen of his pieces were displayed at the brand new Museo del Sarape y Trages Regionales (Museum of the Serape and Regional Costumes) in the town of Saltillo, where they constituted the very first of the Museum's changing exhibitions. The Museum subsequently purchased sixteen pieces for their permanent collection.
Uses of the Serape
The serape is a universally recognized symbol of Mexico. Worn over the shoulder by aristocrats, used as a blanket by cowboys, covering walls or beds in homes, or spread out on the ground at markets to display wares, the serape is an integral part of Mexican history and identity. And like American quilts or Navajo rugs, serapes are exquisite works of art, each piece the result of months of work by talented weaving families.
Origin and History of the Serape
When Cortez arrived on our shores in 1519, the Aztecs were already wearing a blanket-type garment. The Spanish influenced the weavings by introducing the pedal loom and domesticated sheep and wool. Worn only by men, serapes were the counterpart of the rebozos and huipiles worn by women. Serapes were the typical garment of workers, horsemen, and townsfolk alike. The more refined, beautiful, and expensive serapes were worn by hacienda owners and gentlemen at parties or as they ambled along broad avenues. They were worn by insurgents in the War of Independence (1810 to 20), and by patriots during the wars against the Americans (1846-48) and the French (1862-67).
By 1875, the characteristic zig zag diamond began to appear in Navajo weavings, derived directly from Mexico and brought north through the Spanish settlements in Chimayo and the New Mexico area.
By the 1880s, fashion was beginning to change. Photos from that period show some Mexicans in more conventional Western dress. As the demand for fine serapes diminished, weavers responded by creating somewhat less intricate designs. They were still spectacular works of art, but scholars deemed them less important historically, and designated them as "post classic." The rising middle class continued to wear them as symbols of wealth as they rode through Chapultapec Park or strolled through the Alameda. The serapes were so gorgeous that famed artists and travelers from other countries would marvel at their glorious colors and designs.
Then came the revolution of 1910, when the mansions of Mexico City were commandeered by insurgents, and the lavish haciendas, ransacked and destroyed. It was dangerous to be in the upper class, and symbols of wealth went underground. Weavers, when they were not out fighting or hiding, were probably weaving functional pieces for everyday use.
After the revolution, as Mexico began to stabilize in 1920, there was a surge of pride in Mexican popular arts. In 1925, a major exhibition of Mexican folk art in Los Angeles introduced tens of thousands of Americans to Mexico's unusual variety of popular arts and whetted their appetite for travel. Newly equipped with their personal snapshot cameras, tourists began to flood Mexico, searching for icons to bring home. Now the serape became a tourist item, and there was an explosion of weaving all over Mexico. Along with the sombrero, the serape became a national symbol of Mexico, appearing on travel posters, and always draped over the shoulders of the mariachis.
San Miguel de Allende was a major weaving center, as were the towns of Texcoco, San Luis Potosi, Tlascala, Zacatecas, and Aguas Calientes. Serapes were sold every year at a major trade fair in Saltillo and thus acquired the name "Saltillo serape" or even just "Saltillo." But they were woven all over the country.
The Serape Today
From the 20s through the 50s, American and Canadian tourists eagerly bought serapes as they newly discovered the colorful Mexican culture so different from their own. They took the serapes home and put them in cedar chests to pull out and display to their friends. Or they used them as bedspreads or wall hangings and then passed them along to their children. Now, seventy to ninety years later, these serapes, many still in mint condition, are appearing at estate sales, auctions, and even yard sales, always in the States or Canada. (If Mexicans purchased serapes after the revolution, they used them, so that the rare piece to be found in Mexico now is probably in very poor condition.)
The difference in price between serapes made before 1875 and after is very great, but the difference in quality is small. Serapes from the "classic" period, before 1875, are found mostly in museums and have been well documented. A piece from that period might sell at auction for as much as $75,000 USD. However, since serapes from the "post-classic" period have been little collected or studied, they are greatly undervalued. Designs did become less intricate, but the serapes were still finely woven beautiful works of art, and they are no longer being produced. Yet serapes from 1875 to 1940 can be acquired for several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Weaving as a craft is disappearing from Mexico. There are exceptions, like Teotetlan del Valle where weavers still produce hand woven rugs, not serapes. But in most towns, families stopped weaving fifty years ago. This makes the serapes we have left even more precious items. The time that goes into creating a serape—from shearing and carding the wool, to spinning and dying the yarn, to setting up the loom, and then the months required to weave a piece—means that the price of the finished piece must remain high. Think how many ceramic pots or carved wood figures can be made in all that time. As the cost of a good serape began to exceed the demand, the craft fell away. The pieces that pass for serapes in tourist shops today, machine woven with acrylic yarn in day-glow colors and with little or no center design, bear little resemblance to the spectacular works of art so lovingly created by skilled and devoted hands, when the world was a very different place. A serape is a piece of Mexican history, a window into a era that vanished, a souvenir of times and places that can no longer be visited because they no longer exist. Would it be an exaggeration to say that serapes are the Faberge eggs of Mexico?