Tag Archives: tapestry

Women Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Part One

Recently, I spent the day with a University of Michigan, public policy and economic development researcher, who asked me to introduce her to the Zapotec weaving culture of Teotitlan del Valle. Her expertise is India. Now, she is exploring how India and Mexico intersect and diverge in their support of artisans, particularly weavers.

Handwoven indigo rug with dye prepared by Juana.

hand-woven indigo rug with dye prepared by Juana Gutierrez

During our almost 10-hour day, we visited with five weaving families who work in natural dyes, two of whom are official cooperatives, registered with the government. One of these cooperatives, Vida Nueva (New Life), is solely woman-operated. Our time with spokeswoman Pastora Gutierrez enlightened my knowledge about how women came to become weavers in Teotitlan del Valle.

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Weaving on the fixed-frame pedal loom is mostly men’s work. The looms are big and heavy. It takes upper body strength to operate them. When the Spanish friars introduced this tapestry loom (along with churro sheep) to New Spain with the conquest, they trained men to use it, just as men traditionally worked this loom in Europe to create textiles for warmth.

Oaxaca tapestry looms turned out blankets, ponchos, sarapes and other articles of functional cloth for insulation used by people and horses.

Started in the early 1940’s, during World War II when men were overseas, the United States Bracero program opened the opportunity for Mexican men to work legally as temporary, seasonal agricultural laborers. From 1948 to 1964, more than 200,000 Mexican worked in U.S. agriculture each year.

Hand-woven tapestries with spinning wheel

Hand-woven tapestries with spinning wheel

Talk to anyone in Teotitlan del Valle and you will meet someone who participated in this program or has a relative who did. I am told the impact on Teotitlan del Valle was huge and saw the exodus of many of its young and middle-age men. They worked in the fields and orchards of America to earn a living to support their families.

Many men didn’t return.

This is when most women learned to weave.

Young women, who always did the cleaning, carding and spinning of sheep wool, learned to dress the loom and weave tapestries. Many began producing sellable textiles by age 11. Mothers, aunts, sisters, nieces and cousins came together to make this a family endeavor until the men returned, much like the sewing bee in small town USA. The making and selling of textiles remained closely within the family group.

Old sarape design, now a floor rug

Old sarape design, now a floor rug

By the mid-1970’s, Teotitlan del Valle weaving shifted from blankets and clothing to ornamental floor rugs, brought on by the market demand of Santa Fe interior design style. Importers developed relationships with village weavers who became exporters. Many were men who had learned a little English working in the Bracero program and had returned to the family and village infrastructure.


Book: Zapotec Women by Lynn Stephen, Duke University Press


Oaxaca Weaving Workshops: Dancing on the Loom

Schedule a 4-day tapestry weaving workshop with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator during your Oaxaca vacation. You do not need experience to take part.  The per person price is the same whether you take a private workshop or there is a group of up to four people. We welcome people who want to come and learn with a master weaver who has worked the craft for over 40 years.


All levels are accepted — beginners with little or no experience, intermediate and advanced weavers.

The Oaxaca Weaving Workshops: Dancing on the Loom is held in the famous rug weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, which is about 40-minutes outside the city of Oaxaca in the Tlacolula Valley.


Here is what we offer:

Weaving Workshop: Intensive beginner to intermediate level 4-day workshop is $585 USD per person.  This includes all wool and 5 hours of supervised instruction daily, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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At the end of the workshop you will have completed a tapestry sampler about the size of a pillow cover or small wall-hanging, 18″ x 24″.  If you choose to bring and execute your own design, it should be simple enough to complete in this 4-day time frame.

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You will work with wool that is dyed with all natural materials, including indigo, cochineal, wild marigold, nuts and other plant materials. This is a sustainable process and you will see how natural dyes are prepared, too. If you wish, you may purchase naturally dyed yarns to take home with you.


Note: The workshop fee does not include transportation, lodging or meals. We will refer you to local families who operate posadas and B&Bs out of their homes here in the village. You will make and pay for your own lodging arrangements, that cost from $25-45 USD per night. Meals are about $6 USD for breakfast and $10 USD for lunch/dinner.

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Reservations and Cancellations

To reserve your weaving workshop for the dates you choose, please contact us.

We require a 50% deposit to secure your reservation. The balance is due 30 days before your workshop date. If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email at least 30 days before the workshop start date to receive a 50% refund of your deposit. After that, refunds are not possible.




Teotitlan del Valle Weaver Recognized by Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian

Norma’s Note: Weaver Porfirio Gutierrez called to tell me about his recognition from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  He asked if I would share the news. Congratulations to Porfirio and to all the outstanding weavers of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico — many of whom deserve recognition and are unsung cultural heroes. I’m happy to share this with you.


My name is Porfirio Gutiérrez and I am a weaver from Teotitlán del Valle. We follow your blog and refer many friends who want to learn more about Oaxaca. I am writing because I thought you might find my recent award from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to be newsworthy. Once a year candidates for their Artist Leadership Program are selected. I am proud to announce that I have been chosen for 2016. Below is more information about how I became a participant and what this means to our village.

Porfirio on loom #1

Like many people in our village, my family has descended from generations of Zapotec weavers going back as far as anyone can remember. As you know, Teotitlán has been known for its fine weaving since pre-Columbian times. In spite of our long-standing reputation for fine work, the economic downturn and other factors have hurt our livelihood and threaten the existence of our traditional art.

Dying Indigo

In our town, other components of our Zapotec legacy are about to vanish forever. My parents speak Zapoteco, my siblings and I speak Zapoteco and Spanish, but our children speak mostly Spanish. The same pattern is true with our art; my parents spin, dye and weave. My siblings and I have these skills to some degree, but most of us have had to find outside work in other fields to sustain our families.

The youth in our village may never know the all of arts of their ancestors unless they are shown by the remaining masters who are still practicing our ancient techniques. In an effort to sustain our Zapotec art of weaving, I proposed to the NMAI to bring together experts with a group of interested people in our village for a workshop on traditional plant and cochineal dyes.


We are very fortunate that the NMAI wants to support our efforts and is going to help us with a 4-day training program. During this workshop students will see where dye plants grow in the wild, learn how to make them into dyes, and explore color combinations. NMAI will come to Teotitlán to oversee the program and make professional video that will be posted on their website.

The Smithsonian’s NMAI Artist Leadership Program is truly an important step towards sustaining Zapotec culture and our traditional art form. Their video will give a glimpse into life in Oaxaca. Please visit our website for more information.

Antiques in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

There is a tall, inconspicuous door on a San Pablo Villa de Mitla side street. Open it and discover a home gallery filled with antique treasures. The inventory is small and includes ancient stone metates, glass vases hand-painted with flowers and edged in gold, reliquaries and ex votos. Señor Epifanio knows his stuff.

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Scott Roth holding an old Mitla hand-woven textile

Upstairs via a narrow, concrete passageway painted in brilliant blue is a gallery filled with blown glass mezcal bottles, remnants of the time when this was how the agave liquor was stored. They are hard to find and very expensive.

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Dolls, old photos, books, chachkeh from Mitla, Oaxaca

Occasionally, there is a jewelry find, like the Mexican silver coin earrings from the early part of the 20th century. I returned a month later to buy them and they were gone. Rule for Shopping in Mexico: buy it when you see it. Usually, these things are one-of-a-kind.

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Hand-blown mezcal and water bottles, most from Oaxaca, 1950’s-1960’s

I’m reluctant to share the address and contact information. Only because I haven’t asked permission to cite the location, plus these things are getting scarce, and with scarcity comes higher prices. As demand rises, prices do, too. So, why am I publishing this?

So you can see the photos, of course.

Faces and Festivals Chiapas Photography Workshop

Scott Roth

Portrait of Scott Roth with old Zapotec textile from Teotitlan del Valle


Visiting the Oaxaca Wool Mill: Lanera de Ocotlan

In 1996 Englishman Graham Johnson came to Ocotlan de Morelos from Mexico City to open a woolen mill.  The mill was designed to streamline the production process for making yarn and weaving cloth from local churro sheep wool* without sacrificing quality.

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Graham was a tinkerer. He loved machinery, especially the old carding and spinning machines that were being replaced by computerization. He bought these up, shipped them to Oaxaca from the United States and the United Kingdom, and refurbished them. Often, he would find or make the parts to keep them going. Many were 30 and 40 years old already.

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Over time the mill diversified and made luxuriously soft merino bed blankets and throws, fancy yak hair mecate horse reins, cinch chord for saddle belts, colorful wool tassels to decorate saddles, horse blankets and rugs for home decor.

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They kept a supply of all types of wool to work with and blend, continuing to experiment to produce soft and durable products. In addition to merino, the mill cleaned and spun cashmere, mohair, Lincoln and other breeds. They still do.

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Then, Graham died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009, and there was a question about who would keep the business going.

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I remember when I first met Graham on one of my early visits to Oaxaca. It was probably 2005 or 2006. The mill was running at full capacity and you could hear the hum of machinery as you walked down the open corridor separating the rooms where the work was done.  It was impressive then what these old machines and talented local employees could do.

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Now, when I revisited with my friend Scott Roth, who has been working with weavers, wool, dyes, and the hand-loomed rug weaving process for over 40 years, I could see the changes. Scott brought with him replacement parts for some of the machines. Machines that were working ten years ago now need repair. Old belts, bearings, wires, cogs and wheels break, wear out.

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For the past two years, Graham’s 37-year old daughter Rebecca has stepped in and is learning the operation. The mill is 25 years old and Rebecca is determined to keep her father’s dream alive.

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At her side are Rosalba (Rosie) Martinez Garcia, who has been there for 18 years and knows just about everything about the mill.  Helping are Angel Laer Ambocio Perez (above) and Alejandro Maldonado Santiago. They know a thing or two, too, although their tenure is much shorter.

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Rebecca loves textiles. She loves yarn. She wants to supply all types of yarns for knitting and weaving and other fiber arts. There are beautiful rugs and blankets stacked on shelves that were made before her father passed that are for sale.

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Spare parts for anything is essential here in Mexico. Equipment can be old. It can still be good, functional, valued. If one has the necessary parts to keep it going. Graham wasn’t the only tinkerer here. People save, cobble together, recycle, repurpose. Things get jimmied together and continue to work. People here learn how to be resourceful with what they have. It’s something I’ve learned being here.

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As Scott and Rebecca worked out numbers to complete their transaction, I wandered the mill, remembering Graham. A cat ran across the corridor to hide. A young tree struggled to grow up from the crack in the concrete. A rusted yarn holder cast shadows on the adobe wall. I loved being there, another part of the textile heaven that is Oaxaca.

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Where to Find It: Lanera de Ocotlan, 119 Benito Juarez, Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, Tel:  951-294-7062. Email: Rebecca Johnson at  becky_madonna@hotmail.com for an appointment to visit. Directions: Continue straight past the Zocalo and the Mercado Morelos two blocks. The wool mill door will be on your left. It is unmarked.

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Footnote: *Local wool is shorn from churro sheep which were brought to Mexico by the Spaniards with the conquest in 1521. The sheep are raised in the high mountains above Ocotlan in San Baltazar Chichicapam. The mountain range separates the Tlacolula and Ocotlan valleys. The altitude there produces a soft, dense fleece. There are still some, like Yolande Perez Vasquez, who use hand carders and the drop spindle to produce the best yarn, but this is a costly, labor-intensive process that yields a premium yarn that is very dye absorbent. Few weavers are able to pay the price.

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