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