Mexico is well known for its diverse range of textiles and its many varied styles, its exuberant use of colours and its combinations of techniques, both ancient and more modern. But when it comes to weaving, one particular state has a well-deserved reputation for its abundance of indigenous weavers and range of traditional designs.

Oaxaca State, with its southernmost coast bathed by the Pacific Ocean and its northern limits in the magnificent mountain range of the Sierra Mazateca, is home to a surprisingly large number of ethnic groups – Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mazatecs, Chinantecs, Mixe...

Teotitlan del Valle, a few kilometres outside of Oaxaca City, is one of several villages in the area where weaving forms an integral part of the livelihood for its few thousand residents. When visiting its workshops, you are immediately struck by the gentle earnestness of the Zapotec weavers describing skills that have been part of their heritage for over 2,000 years. The use of tree moss, pomegranate skins, marigold, madrone bark, añil (natural indigo) and the cochineal insect are the preferred methods of dyeing.

White or black wool is spun on simple wooden spinning wheels, often mixed to get the precise shade of grey required, in conjunction with the appropriate dye for a particular design. Most use the pedal looms brought over after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early16th century, in preference to the original backstrap loom. This allows them to weave rugs measuring anything up to four metres wide and of any length – taking up to three months to complete.

Recent years have seen major changes in how the outside world regards indigenous skills, ones that have often been preserved by their populations over many centuries. Rather than being treated as inefficient or inferior alternatives to mass production, there has been a slowly growing appreciation of the true artistic value of these painstaking techniques…

To read this article by Chris Jones and Palmira Serra in full, order your copy of Selvedge issue 71 here.

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