MuMu, my big horse, just got a present: a custom woven saddle blanket! I visited the shop of a husband and wife team here in San Miguel who bring rugs into their tiny shop that have been woven by various of their family members. They are happy to create custom pieces using your directives for color, size and symbols.

I have purchased several small rugs from them since moving here and knew it was just a matter of time before MuMu received something special. What do you think?

A Long Held Tradition in Mexico

The Oaxacan (pronouced wa’-hocken) territory in the central region of Mexico is the heart and soul of traditional Zapotec weaving. Still practiced generations after the craft was perfected many families in the region support themselves as master weavers.

A Little History

The Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico have been weaving textiles for over 2,000 years. The first ancient Zapotec City, Monte Alban, was established around 500 BC and flourished for 1200 years in southern Mexico. Ceremonial architecture, hieroglyphs and clay figures were only part of this rich legacy that also included colorful cotton fabric woven on backstrap tension looms. After the decline of Monte Alban and several hundred years of invasions and instability, the Zapotecs were subjects of the Mixtec and Aztec empires, and paid tribute to these rulers with their woven fabrics.

Today, the weaving is done on peddle looms and the fabric of choice is wool. This change took place in 1535 with the arrival of Dominican bishop Juan López de Zárate. He introduced wool and the first loom, shipped from Spain across the Atlantic. These 16th century investments prevented the dismantling of the Zapotec culture and enabled the weavers to make the sort of larger, stronger and more durable textiles we now use as rugs.

The Materials

Each piece is made from hand or wheel spun yarns. The warp (the foundational lengthwise fiber) is generally 100% cotton while the weft or the woof is 100% wool.

The Colors

The natural dyes are obtained from:

  • Natural shades of wools
  • Bujuco, a parasitic moss native to Oaxaca
  • Campeich Wood, a tree native to Oaxaca
  • Cochineall, produced in Oaxaca
  • Indigo
  • Marigold
  • Madrone Bark
  • Moss, a tree moss native to Oaxaca
  • Muitle, a small shrub native to Oaxaca
  • Pecan shells, leaves or bark
  • Wild Tarragon, native to Oaxaca

The cochineal bug is a beetlelike insect and parasite that lives in a symbiotic fashion with the nopal cacti (or prickly pear), feeding on the abundant sap of the thick round leaves. It has the external appearance of a white velvet-like mold.

The process of extracting the dye is very similar to that of making tea. After the dye medium is ground-down and it’s powder is added to water then heated to extract the color and then combined with either alum or some other mordant which acts as a fixer.

The Process

Washing
The fleece is washed on the river; soaked, wiped and squeezed several times. It is next placed on a reed basked and shaken off excess water. Back at the weavers home the wool is laid on a petate and left to dry on the sun.

Threading
The wool is carded into bats and then spun with the help of a spinning wheel; the weaver holds the bat with one hand and with the other turns the wheel handle.

The Symbols

The video below produced by a young rug maker from the area gives an introduction into the multiple meanings of some of the more common symbols used by the weavers.

Additionally: The designs of the rugs have multiple origins. The Zapotec Indians have original designs such as the Caracol for example.  They have also been influenced by other MesoAmerican Indians such as the Navajo, Hopi etc and have themselves influenced the weaving community as well. The traders traveling throughout North America requested and influenced designs a process that continues to this day.

What to Appreciate

The Work: From caring for the animals whose wool will be used to create the yarns for the rugs, to cleaning, carding, spinning and collecting the dye materials and then dyeing the yarns to be used the work that goes into simply preparing the materials to be used to weave each rug is huge. Preparing the loom is its own ordeal and the cotton string that becomes the warp must be carefully and perfectly strung with the proper tension to ensure the rug yielded has no funny gaps or other imperfections.

From there the piece is planned, the various colors of yarns wound onto spindles one by one, and only when all of that is done can weaving begin.

Take a look at Sergio as he weaves:

 

Where to Buy

In the U.S. (Online)

Western Saddle Blankets: Coming soon to the Shop section at: http://www.marykitzmiller.com

In Mexico

In Teotitlan del Valle:

  • Federico Chavez Sosa, Francisco I Madero #55
  • Pantaleon Ruiz Martinez, Constituccion #12
  • Bii Dauu Cooperative, Calle de Iturbide
  • Arte y Seda, Avenida Benito Juarez #4

Teotitlán del Valle is a small village and municipality located in the Tlacolula District in the east of the Valles Centrales Region, 31 km from the city of Oaxaca in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains. It is part of the Tlacolula Valley district. It is known for its textiles, especially rugs, which are woven on hand-operated looms, from wool obtained from local sheep and dyed mainly with local, natural pigments. They are woven in traditional designs but modern designs such as reproductions of famous artists’ work and custom orders are available, as well as tours of family-owned workshops. The name Teotitlán comes from Nahuatland means “land of the gods”. Its Zapotec name is Xaguixe, which means “at the foot of the mountain”. It was one of the first villages founded by the Zapotecs in this area, in 1465, and it still retains its Zapotec culture and language.

In Oaxaca,two shops next door to each other:

  • Galleria Fe y Lola, Av. Cinco de Mayo #408
  • El Nahual Gallery, Av. Cinco de Mayo #402