Weaving is a centuries old endeavor. Originally Zapotec women were the first weavers, making cotton clothes and blankets to offer as tribute to the Aztecs, and then later to the Spanish colonizers. The Dominican Bishop Lopez de Zarate is said to have introduced the fixed-frame pedal loom, the spinning wheel, churro sheep, carding paddles scissors and steel needles. This enabled Zapotec weavers to create a new product — the wool sarape (blanket). He also taught weaving to men who had the strength to work with the heavier material and larger looms.
In the beginning of the Spanish conquest, weavers produced blankets, srapes and ponchos for their own use and for trade with other indigenous groups or the Spanish. As the market shifted to tourism, the function of these wool blankets and their style also changes. Textiles now served as art and home decor rather than clothing.
During the 1970’s, demand for handwoven Zapotec weavings increased and U.S. importers asked Teotitlan weavers to increase their production for export, primarily to the U.S. southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas). Synthetic (aniline) dyes were already common (introduced in the early 1900’s), making this an easy request because the dyeing process is so much simpler.
By then, local wool production couldn’t sustain demand and many weavers went to the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, where higher elevations made sheep growing more productive, to buy handspun rug wool. In 1983, a factory opened in Teotitlan del Valle to mechanically spin raw wool into yarn. At the same time, factory representatives from other Mexican states arrived to sell cheaper machine spun wool yarned mixed with acrylic (sill a common practice).
The handspun wool became an expensive and inconvenient material to work with. However, weavers to wanted to retain higher quality continued the tradition of using only hand spun yarn, still employed today by the best artisans of Teotitlan del Valle.
During the 1990’s, weavers began to combine imported New Zealand and Peruvian mohair with churro wool. This combination produces a soft hand and a very strong fabric. Looms have also been modified to create larger, higher quality and more unique pieces.