The Rugs of Teotitlan de Valle–Woven Beauty

Sra. Felipa Lazo de Lopez points to the many rugs offered for sale at her cooperative in Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The proprietor of this taller points to the many rugs offered for sale at her cooperative in Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The hand weavings of the Zapotecs who live in the small village of Teotitlan de Valle, a short drive east of Oaxaca in the southern Mexican state of the same name, draw upon centuries of experience, combined with an inspiring sense of design, and a scientist’s knowledge of chemistry, result in some of the finest wool rugs in the world.

The intricacy of the pattern of the rugs from Teotitlan de Valle is one indication of the value.

The intricacy of patterns in the rugs from Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico indicates the value according to the owner.

Since before the time of Montezuma, Zapotecs in Oaxaca have been weaving trade and tribute goods, primarily from cotton. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived to plunder the land and force the indigenous people to submit to Catholicism, sheep were introduced, providing weavers with wool to work with.

Sra. Pablo Lazo de Lopez unfolds just a few of the hundreds of hand-woven rugs made at her cooperative in Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

These are just a few of the hundreds of hand-woven rugs made at this cooperative in Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Today, Teotitlan de Valle is regarded as the epicenter of Zapotec weaving, and the town, somewhere between 5,000 – 6,000 people, is an organized cooperative that ensures the production of top quality rugs and woven products as well as fairly maximizing the profits for the town’s artisans.

A visit to one of the weaving cooperatives is a lesson in mechanics, chemistry and artistry.

A slice of this, a pinch of that and a squeeze of something else all combine to create a rich tapestry of color.

A slice of this, a pinch of that and a squeeze of something else all combine to create a rich tapestry of color.

To being with, as many as 10 different wools from Mexico and South America may be used to create the fibers that will eventually be used on frame looms (introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s), and an improvement over back strap looms.

These baskets show the nearly 10 different types of wool, sourced from Mexico and South America that go into this cooperative's rugs.

These baskets show the nearly 10 different types of wool, sourced from Mexico and South America, that go into this cooperative’s rugs.

First, washed wool is selected, sorted by color then carded. This step aligns the fibers so when it is spun into thread it is even, consistent and strong.

First, the washed wool is selected and placed in the carder.

First, the washed wool is selected and placed in the carder.

Strong hands card the wool so the fibers are aligned before they are spun into thread.

Strong hands card the wool so the fibers are aligned before they are spun into thread.

Only then can the carded wool be spun into thread.

Only then can the carded wool be spun into thread.

To watch a skein of bland-colored wool transform into a blaze of color is to witness the wizardry of alchemy.

This palette of colors were all created using plants, seeds, barks and other natural materials.

This palette of colors was created using plants, seeds, barks and other natural materials.

To create a desired color, weavers call upon their extensive knowledge of how the combinations of plants, seeds, fruits and insects react when combined. It takes years to fully learn the dyeing process and this work is only entrusted to those who know how to suss out the intended result. After all, wool and dyeing material is costly.

Knowing which ingredients combine to make just the right color is a skill that can take years to learn.

Knowing which ingredients combine to make just the right color is a skill that can take years to learn.

What might appear to be drab colors at first...

What might appear to be drab colors at first…

Are transformed into rich, deep colors.

Is transformed into rich, deep colors.

The most expensive color, a bright, blazing red, is created using a very small insect called cochineal (coach-a-kneel), a parasite found on the paddles of prickly pear cactus. Indigo, resulting in a deep, rich blue is also another expensive dye. Overall, more than two-dozen colors are possible, all derived from natural ingredients that have been in use for hundreds of years.

This leaf of prickly pear cactus may not look like much, but the hands of an expert can produce a deep lasting red.

This leaf of prickly pear cactus may not look like much, but in the hands of an expert, it can produce a deep lasting red.

To the uninformed, cochineal looks like a white mealy growth but to the weavers of Teotitlan de Valle, they are crimson almost worth their weight in silver. In fact, the cost of the cochineal dye is so high that finished rugs with large areas of red are much more expensive than rugs of the same size without much red.

Cochineal is turned into a crimson prized by rug weavers and collectors alike.

Cochineal is turned into a crimson prized by rug weavers and collectors alike.

The addition of other natural products can change the red to a blue, as Sra. Felipa demonstrates.

The addition of other natural products can change the red to a blue.

Once the weaver has a supply of dyed and finished wool, the next step is to create a design on the frame loom’s warp (the filling thread, called weft or woof, is the dyed wool portion). At that point, actual weaving begins. Depending on design complexity, a skilled weaver needs at least a week to complete a 3-foot by 5-foot rug and larger projects can easily take several months or more.

This skein of wool starts out white. Then...

This skein of wool starts out white. Then…

When first pulled from the vat it is a dull green. But as the air oxidizes the chemicals...

When first pulled from the vat it is a dull green. But as the air oxidizes the chemicals…

The same skein takes on a deep, rich blue, right before your eyes.

The same skein takes on a deep, rich blue, right before your eyes.

The finished results are both stunning and durable. One trick to assess the quality of a rug is to pull the threads of the weft perpendicular to the warp. If you can easily create space, then the weave is not tight and the rug is of a lesser quality. (Also, some products made outside of Teotitlan de Valle may use synthetic dyes, thus reducing their true value.)

This young woman works on a step loom, carefully following the pattern that has been laid out on the warp.

This young woman works on a step loom, carefully following the pattern that has been laid out on the warp.

While traditional elements incorporating Zapotec culture and symbology are most common in rug designs, today’s talented weavers create works of art incorporating virtually any idea a client may desire. The very best weavers place their initials on a corner of a rug as testament to its high quality and value.

Note the initials that the weaver has woven into the folded corner of the blue rug, denoting a higher value.

Note the initials the weaver has woven into the folded-over corner of the blue rug, denoting a higher value.

Teotitlan de Valle has evolved from a loose grouping of weavers into a business-oriented cooperative where today weavers recognize the value of their craft and buyers pay accordingly. Days like late in the 20th Century, when individuals could make bulk purchases of smaller rugs for as little as $40 or $50 each and export them for resale, have long disappeared.

The combination of patterns and colors are almost endless, offers near-endless choices.

Even with traditional themes, the combination of patterns and colors are almost endless, offering buyers near-endless choices.

For anyone who appreciates the beauty of finely crafted hand woven rugs, the small village of Teotitlan de Valle is a must-see experience. You will arrive curious about how the Zapotecs create colors and weave their rugs and you will leave knowing you have had a glimpse into one of the great craft traditions of Mexico.

encyclopedia.com/topic/Zapotec

wikipedia.org/wiki/Teotitl%C3%A1n_del_Valle

wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

luisramireztours.com

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