Zapotec woolen rugs are one of the popular handicrafts to purchase in Mexico. You'll find them for sale at shops throughout Mexico and also outside of the country, but the best place to buy them is in Oaxaca, where you can visit the home studios of weaving families and see all the hard work that goes into creating these works of art. Most of the Oaxacan rugs and tapestries are made in Teotitlan del Valle, a village located some 30 km east of Oaxaca City. This village of about 5000 inhabitants has rightly gained worldwide fame for its production of woolen rugs and tapestries.
There are a few other weaving villages in Oaxaca, such as Santa Ana del Valle. Visitors to Oaxaca who are interested in visiting weavers and purchasing rugs should visit these villages to see the rug making process first hand. Most of the inhabitants of these Zapotec communities speak the Zapotec language as well as Spanish, and they have maintained many of their traditions and festivities.
History of Zapotec Weaving
The village of Teotitlan del Valle has a long weaving tradition that dates back to Prehispanic times. It is known that the Zapotec people of Teotitlan paid tribute to the Aztecs in woven goods, although the weaving of that time was quite different from today. In ancient America there were no sheep, so no wool; most of the weavings were made of cotton. The tools of the trade were also very different, as there were no spinning wheels or treadle looms in ancient Mesoamerica. Most weavings were done on a backstrap loom, which is still used today in some locations.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the weaving process was revolutionized. The Spaniards brought sheep, so weavings could be made from wool, the spinning wheel allowed the yarn to be made much more quickly and the treadle loom allowed for the creation of larger pieces than it was possible to make on the backstrap loom.
Most of the Zapotec rugs are made of wool, with a cotton warp, although some other fibers are also used on occasion. There are some very special pieces that are woven in silk. Some weavers have been experimenting with the addition of feathers to their woolen rugs, incorporating some ancient techniques.
The weavers of Teotitlan del Valle purchase wool in the market. The sheep are bred higher up in the mountains, in the Mixteca Alta area, where temperatures are colder and the wool grows thicker. They wash the wool with a root called amole (soap plant or soaproot), a natural soap which is very bitter and, according to the local weavers, serves as a natural insecticide, keeping pests away.
When the wool is clean and dry, it is carded by hand, and then spun with a spinning wheel. Then it is dyed.
In the 1970s there was a return to using natural colors for dying the wool. Some of the plant sources they use include marigolds for yellow and orange, lichen for greens, pecan shells for brown, and mesquite for black. These are locally sourced. Colors that are purchased include cochineal for reds and purples and indigo for blue.
Cochineal is considered the most important coloring. It gives a variety of tones of reds, purples, and oranges. this dye was highly valued in colonial times when it was considered "red gold" and was exported to Europe where previously there were no good permanent red dyes, so it was greatly prized. Used to color the uniforms of the British army the "Redcoats." Later used for cosmetics and food coloring. In the colonial times, it was used mostly for dying cloth. Funded the extravagantly decorated churches of Oaxaca such as Santo Domingo.
The traditional designs are based on Pre-Hispanic patterns, such as the "grecas" geometric patterns from Mitla archaeological site, and the Zapotec diamond. A wide variety of modern designs can also be found, including reproductions of works of art by famous artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and more.
If you're looking to purchase Zapotec woolen rugs, you should keep in mind that the quality of rugs varies widely. The price is based not just on the size, but also the complexity of the design and the overall quality of the piece. It is difficult to tell if a rug has been colored with natural or synthetic dyes. Generally, synthetic dyes produce more garish tones. The rug should have at least 20 threads per inch, but high-quality tapestries will have more. The tightness of the weave ensures that the rug will keep its shape over time.
A good quality rug should lie flat and have straight edges.