Zapotec: carpet weaver

Meet Nelson Perez Mendoza, the master weaver from the village of Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca. He struck me at first sight as a proud professional. And there is plenty to be proud about. The traditional weaving, the chemistry of making natural pigments, the design. It actually seemed to me during our visit in February 2019 that crafts in Oaxaca state have been very sophisticated since ancient times and all the villages involved in crafts seem to look richer, with solid brick houses, firm infrastructure and nice pavements, when compared to the Yucatán villages of the Maya, where they still live in wooden houses with earth floors and palm leaves for a roof. On the other hand, there is still a lot of poverty among the Oaxaca indigenous tribes.

Nelson and his family have converted their large house into a workshop space where they use traditional methods of spinning, dyeing and carpet weaving. They allow visitors to come and see how this traditional craft is done. Here the yarn is carded, spun, and dyed with natural materials and woven into his own designs, inspired by the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec motifs at the nearby Mitla ruins (mainly fretwork). His indigenous designs have won some international awards. Interestingly, the rug weaving (on a pedal loom) is done by males here in Oaxaca, while textile weaving (backstrap loom) in Chiapas is done by women.

The cochineal insect from cactus is used to create red dye, pomegranate skin yields yellow tones, the indigo plant gives blue, rosemary leaves make a yellow-green dye. What accomplished chemistry! And all is so organic, as it has always been in this valley. Some techniques have changed since ancient times. The Spanish brought with them wool and spinning wheels, which makes the production faster. Once they shear the sheep, the wool is washed using Amole, a soap root which acts as a natural insecticide. The wool is then carded and spun into yarn. All this preparation is done during the rainy season.

Nelson weaving on a foot pedal loom.

Nelson weaving on a foot pedal loom.

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Mariachi band.
Red pigment from a crushed cochineal insect. Left: dry cochineal.

Red pigment from a crushed cochineal insect. Left: dry cochineal.

Teotitlán del Valle is a rural town that maintains its Zapotec culture. Nelson is one of very few Zapotecs that I heard (during our visit) speaking the Zapotec language (there are several of them; think of them as dialects). His village still maintains the native culture and language (not common to all the Zapotec villages). It is a tonal language (the tone can change the meaning of a word). The village church was built from the stones of the ancient Zapotec temple. Teotitlán paid its financial tribute to the Aztecs in weavings. The weaving continues; about 150 families in the village are involved in carpet weaving.

A family altar at Nelson’s home.

A family altar at Nelson’s home.

Nelson’s work: woven woollen carpets.

Nelson’s work: woven woollen carpets.

The steps at Nelson’s house. Very Mexican.

The steps at Nelson’s house. Very Mexican.


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