The thump, thump, rhythmic cadence of the loom awakens me on the mornings that Federico Chavez Sosa is at his loom. It is a gentle beating against the warp threads that have just been inserted, back and forth, back and forth, an ancient harmony like a drum beat that calls to me. The sun has not quite risen. The sky glows red orange. Out my bedroom window I see the clay pots holding geraniums, the tiled and tin roofs of adjacent adobe homes, the curl of a morning cooking fire, the tips of Sierra Madre del Sur, and a farmer carrying his burden of alfalfa to sell at the daily market. There is comfort in that sound of the loom and I can lay in bed knowing that this is an enduring rhythm, one heard throughout this village for many generations past.
I will never be a Zapotec weaver because I am not Zapotec. Even as I learn to weave on a two-harness loom using my hands and my feet to dance on the loom, to create weft that tries to mimic a generations-old tradition, I will never be able to accomplish or replicate what weavers in the village of Teotitlan del Valle are able to create. Nor do I want to. What I want to do is create an experience for non-Teotitecos to explore and appreciate the technique and skill that goes into making a Zapotec textile by trying their hand at it themselves. Photos below: El Maestro Federico Chavez Sosa. Note the curved detail of Federico’s lizard — very difficult to execute.
Weaving in Teotitlan is a cultural accumulation of family and village identity, considerable skill, and tutelage that begins at a young age. Children sit by their parents feet, watching the treadles raise and lower, gathering and dyeing yarn, spinning it into bobbins, cleaning and washing wool, long before they begin the actual weaving process. In many families, children begin to weave on the cross spindles of over-turned chairs, wrapping the warp threads across the spindles and using scraps to create the weft. For some, weaving is not an interest or skill, and they will go on to do other things, such as farm, butcher animals, sell tortillas at the market, go to work in the city or el norte.
The phrase, “it’s in your blood,” comes to mind when I think about weavers in Teotitlan. I hear of great weavers who learned from their grandfathers, uncles or cousins as apprentices, when they wanted to know more than what their fathers and mothers had accumulated. The village is a veritable weaving heaven. The anecdotal count is 2,000 looms and 7,000 people that reside there. Most will begin to weave at age eight or 10, and age 15 is considered late to start. It is a professional undertaking in which people take pride and ownership of their work.
We have just ended a four-day “Dancing on the Loom: Oaxaca Weaving Workshop,” in the home of Federico and his wife Dolores Santiago Arrellanas. What can people learn in four days? Certainly, they will not develop the lifetime of practice, experience, and cultural accumulation that it takes to become a master weaver. They will not learn the painstaking process to dress (warp) the loom, laying out yards of warp threads, winding them on posts in the courtyard, exactly counting how much they need, then carefully bringing this bundle to the loom to tie onto the harnesses by hand, one by one.
In four days, we did not even come close to making complex curves and figures that differentiate the textile produced by a master weaver from more easily executed geometric shapes found on most Teotitlan rugs.
Zapotec weavers earn their livelihood by their craftsmanship. This is not our métier. We come as visitors, explorers, wanting the multicultural experience to understand, learn, share and appreciate. I spend four days dancing on the loom and I am slow, deliberate and ponderous. I fumble, make mistakes, unravel, try again. Federico’s fingers fly, his bobbins move fluidly in the space between the heddles, his patterns are in his mind and heart, taken from pre-Hispanic images, the shadow and ground from carvings on the Mitla temple. I have no designs on becoming a professional weaver, and I love the process of being with a group of other weavers, some more and less experienced than I. Together, we are sharing this journey of learning, having fun, working with color, understanding the natural dyeing process, and respecting the work produced by our host family because we now understand through “doing” what it takes to create an outstanding textile.
It took four days (interspersed with dyeing lessons and frequent breaks) to weave a 24” wide by 22” to 30” long textile. The quality of our work is novice, at best. Trust me. We are no competition for the weavers in the village! We did laugh a lot.
During our four-day weaving workshop, we became comfortable with winding bobbins, exploring the use of color and texture, learned to dye with cochineal, indigo and pericone (wild marigold), and attempted undulating and geometric block patterns by manipulating the warp and weft. We also came to love the daily comidas (lunch) prepared by Dolores and her sister, Chalah, a sequence of food textures and flavors that are typically Oaxaca:. homemade chicken tamales with Amarillo mole sauce, sopa de flor de calabassas (squash blossom soup), spicy garbanzo soup with a plate of rice, tasajo (grilled beef), and fresh salsa. Plenty of avocado, fresh made tortillas, and tropical fruit (mango and papaya) adorned the table at each meal. Federico brought out cervezas and freshed squeezed limeade, and we learned to appreciate Micheladas.
I’ve been mulling over what makes an “authentic” Zapotec weaving, and will write more about this in another article. If you are interested in textiles, and especially in Zapotec and Navajo weaving, comparing them, and understanding the economic viability and marketability of handmade textiles in a global economy, I suggest you read, “Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market,” by W. Warner Wood (Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-21986-2). It is a wonderful discussion of the issues around how the work of weaving is organized from a social, political and cultural perspective, and factors that determine success and failure.
Most importantly, it is an education for those of us who want to be certain that we are supporting people who are using more environmentally sustainable practices in the wool preparation process by using natural dyes, and wool that is not commercially produced with nylon or polyester threads. Price differentiation is a great test for quality!
We have two new weaving workshops scheduled for late November and mid-December 2008. Please see www.oaxacaculture.com for workshop information and registration form.