My personal quest on that first visit to Teotitlan del Valle was to find an extraordinary weaver who worked in natural dyes AND who had not been “discovered” by the New York Times. I wanted an “off the beaten track” experience. In all the Internet research I did, there were only two names that kept cropping up repeatedly as the “go to” weavers of Teotitlan. When I went to visit these weavers to learn more about the weaving and dyeing processes, I saw their houses were very prosperous and they really didn’t need little ‘ole me to support them. I guess I was looking for a “relationship,” although I didn’t know it at the time. I also wanted to buy from someone who needed the business and where I knew the money I spent would go directly to them.
By the third day in the village, after having visited and talked with a slew of weavers, I began to see and understand the quality differential. As I ventured into workshop homes that were off the main streets, the prices became more reasonable for similar quality. I could also tell when a showroom was not a work space since the looms were there only for demonstration purposes (and it was VERY clean). Real work spaces were cluttered with wool balls, dye vats, partially completed rugs, and bags and bundles of dye materials: cochineal, wild marigold, pecan leaves, pomegranates. I could begin to tell the difference between a chemically- and naturally-dyed rug by the subtle color variations in the weave of the finished product. I could see when the knot fringes were poorly made, and when the weave wasn’t tight.
There was no wireless service in Teotitlan then, so Stephen and I would make a daily visit to the pharmacy around the corner from the rug market to check our email. It was not really an Internet cafe, although we could buy cold sodas out of the refrigerator and sip as we tried to figure out the keyboard. On our third day there, we exited the pharmacy and make a right turn instead of a left, heading toward instead of away from the rug market, as was our typical path.
“Would you like to see my rugs?” I heard a voice call out in perfect English. I turned my eyes toward a young man standing in a small stall surrounded by rugs. Sitting in the corner was a girl bent over a book. I didn’t even look at the rugs. “No, thanks,” I said, shaking my head, completely taken aback by someone who spoke such good English. I was suspicious; it must be a scam to reel me in. We kept walking, and we had almost passed them when I looked up to see an array of spectacular rugs, clearly different and superior from any I had seen before.
That’s how I met Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister Janet.
For the next hour in that little stall I heard about what makes a quality rug (tapete), how it takes years to learn the chemistry of working with natural dyes, and how Eric researched the history of the Zapotec dyeing tradition. He convinced his father to work exclusively in natural dyes for quality and health reasons (chemical dyes are inhaled and cause lung cancer). I was smitten with Eric’s knowledge, the beauty and intricacy of the work, and the mission to preserve a cultural tradition. I agreed to go home with him to meet the family and look at the entire collection.