It’s a Family Affair: TRADITIONAL RUG WEAVING IN OAXACA

The artisan village of Teotitlan del Valle, located thirty kms from the city of Oaxaca, is renowned for their long tradition of handcrafting high quality, woven wool rugs. Drawing on the ancient cultural history of the Central Valley area of Oaxaca, the weavers have traditionally used the geometric motifs that are found as reliefs on the preHispanic ruins at Mitla. Lately they have expanded their repertoire by incorporating circular, organic shapes, so that rugs are now produced that feature designs from nature including birds and butterflies, the tree of life, historic murals, and reproductions of famous art.

From sheep to carpet is a long and labourious process, starting with the sheep! At one time, families were able to produce most of their own wool, nowadays at least half the wool is purchased. Newly shorn wool does not hold much resemblance to the finished product, it goes through a number of steps to become the yarn used in weaving. Using traditional methods, it is cleaned by scrubbing with the roots of the amole plant, a native species of yucca, that produces quantities of cleansing lather. After several rinses, the wool is ready for carding, which further removes bits and pieces and aligns the wool fibres so that they can be spun. After spinning, the wool is ready for dying, using a variety of natural ingredients.
Cochineal is an insect that is found on prickly-pear cactus which, when harvested and dried, produces a grey substance that is ground to create a rich red colour, the basis of many colour combinations. Add a little acid, such as the juice of a lime, and you have a lighter red, add baking soda, which is alkaline, and you have purple, add the blue created from indigo leaves and you have brown. By using the yellow dye from marigold (cempasuchil) flowers, the brown shades created from pecan bark or walnut husks, and black from the acacia (huisache) pods, you develop a palette that compliments any design.
Rug making is a family affair with children starting to learn the business from age seven through the construction of simple, small, geometric patterned samplers. As their competence increases, they are given larger and more difficult projects to complete.
Only the most skilled masters work on the large, complex designs, which require a fierce concentration to maintain the pattern. A 2 m by 2 m carpet will take three months to complete, use kilos of yarn and quantities of expensive natural dyes.
The craftsmanship, quality, and superb use of design and colour make these rugs popular throughout North America, with large markets in New York City. I’ve bought many of these rugs which always seem to find homes as gifts to my family and friends. Fortunately, that makes further trips to Oaxaca “necisito” as the Mexicans say

By Moralea Milne
Originally published on Mexi-Go.ca

3 comments

  1. Moralea, do I detect that you are related to the editor, and possibly the person who was photographed with Madeline in the world’s largest Molcajete, a few issues back? Or else the recent arrival mentioned in Madeline’s recent editor Notes?

    Either case, you penned an interesting article about the making of the wool blankets in Oaxaca. Every time I have been in Puerto Vallarta it has been too hot to use a wool blanket, and the hotel where we stay often only provides a thin sheet on the bed. They are not necessary in San Francisco either as our central heating system is seldom used. When it gets too hot, we just open the window, and the cool fog drifts in.

    Reading your article, my thoughts turned to the hammered tree bark, table coverings made in Colombia, and in Africa. The several I have collected each has a different design in bright colors, which I understand has a different meaning and story and use. Although they are fairly strong , flexible and durable, I nevertheless keep them in a glass covered picture frame that I can hang up on the wall, since I understand that some of the Colombia tree bark, table coverings are worth over $20,000 due to the time and skill necessary in making them, the next generation no longer makes them.

    I am amazed at the different uses people can make of the parts of animals, plants and trees. I have a necklace, bracelet and earrings made of the snails eye covering over the shell opening of snails that are found in Tahiti and the Samoan Islands, that looks just like the human eye. I also have black coral from both Tahiti and Banderas Bay in PV.

  2. Hi Frank,
    Yes, I’m Madeline’s mom, a frequent visitor to her home in Mexico. I love this country and am thankful we can explore it together.
    I’m glad you appreciated the article, we had a fabulous time learning about the traditional rug making process. These are rugs that you walk on, or hang on your wall, but not generally to be used as blankets, they would be extremely heavy!
    It sounds as if you live an exciting life, traveling the world. It is a great privilege to be able to see different cultures and their arts and crafts, your pieces sound amazing!
    Thanks again for responding to the article, it’s rewarding to know that someone reads and enjoys them!
    Moralea

  3. Moralea,

    Nice to meet you via the Internet. Blankets? What was I thinking? I have been to Puerto Vallarta so many times and approached by the beach vendors selling blankets, also in the stores. But not rugs. My bad on this one. However I have a number of American Indian blankets in my collection, that can be used as throw rugs. Exactly, when does a woven blanket become a woven rug?

    Dictionary: Rug , piece of thick fabric used as floor covering, as distinguished from carpet that covers the entire floor. British term: lap Rope. Slang: Toupee.

    Blanket: A large piece of cloth used for warmth, as a bed covering. .Anything used as or resembling a blanket.

    Indians wove heavy blankets and covered the floor where they slept, as they did not use beds in ancient times. I see why my mind switched blanket with rug.

    Most of my travels have been to PV, and to Vancouver Island and British Columbia, in Canada. Most of my collections have been brought to me from archaeologists and other world travelers that sell at our local flea market.

    From Canada I have a seven foot Canadian wood Totem Pole with the thunderbird on top with out stretched wings, plus three baby Harry Mammoth teeth, and a small amount of their long hair and short fuzzy down.

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