By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Most Oaxacan merchants, including craftspeople, seem to transact business differently from Americans and Canadians; except of course those who have had significant exposure to Western modes of marketing. The rug weavers of Teotitlán del Valle are no exception. Stock rotation and promoting clearance items do not appear to be normative practices, at least judging from my experience dealing with the town’s producers of hand-woven, wool rugs; dyed with natural substances which include pomegranate, pecan, mosses, seeds, añil (the plant yielding indigo), and of course cochinilla (or cochineal, the insect which infests the nopal cactus and is capable of being transformed into reds, oranges, purples and more).
This should not necessarily imply that these skilled rug weavers are not astute businesspeople. On the contrary, Teotitlán del Valle is arguably the wealthiest craft village in the central valleys of Oaxaca, attracting sales from both tourists and owners of retail shops across the globe. The rug makers boast a product that serves as both floor covering and wall hanging, is 100% wool, is in most cases naturally dyed, and doesn’t crack or break during transport, whether accompanying tourists toting luggage, or shipped by private commercial carrier or for a much more economical price via the Mexican post office.
Recent History of Rug Production in Teotitlán del Valle
While the history of the production of tapetes in Teotitlán del Valle has its “modern” genesis in 1535 when Dominicans first introduced to the region both sheep and the concept of the stationary pine loom, it was not until the post-WWII years, specifically approaching the 1960s, that the modern age of rug production began, and then quickly took off. The era was ushered in by:
- charters and jet air travel to Mexico from the US and Canada;
- the hippie movement with throngs of youths heading to the Oaxacan village of Huautlade Jiménez, to meet María Sabina and an alternate level of consciousness through magic mushroom ingestion;
- the women’s movement, signifying more two-income families, and with each a flush, new bank account meaning more disposable income for traveling;
- CHARGEX (now VISA) cards, which were mailed to anyone and everyone, making vacationing, and of course buying, that much easier. Rug production in Teotitlán del Valle during this new age of consumerism began slowly, with weavers of tapetes continuing with their tradition of hand carding, spinning, and dying of wool, then transforming skeins of colorful yarn into tapetes and tapestries. But rug design was basic, representing Zapotec symbolism mainly borrowed from the mosaics at the nearby Mitla archaeological site. And colors, while natural, were restricted in number and tone. And similarly weave, while of quality, was not nearly as tight as one would encounter some 50 years later.
Recent Rug Production in Teotitlán del Valle
By about the year 2000, rugs and wall hangings in Teotitlán del Valle had undergone a dramatic metamorphosis:
- weaves from 6 to upwards of 16 threads per inch, and sometimes tighter;
- more subtle tones and ranges of colors to match the tastes of sophisticated North Americans and Europeans;
- intricacy and diversity of design previously unmatched, some still representative of indigenous pre-Hispanic cultures, while others based upon the dictates of clients including high-end store owners and interior designers.
Bargain – Hunting for Tapetes in Teotitlán del Valle
There are family workshops in Teotitlán del Valle which still have a number of rugs from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, brand new and in showroom condition. Yet they are hidden away from view. They’re either in a pile off in a corner, or in a storage room. In many cases they’re available for sale, just for the asking. The tapetes might be exactly what some visitors to Oaxaca are seeking – simplicity of design and weave, fewer colors, and most important to many, priced to sell. And for others, perhaps the textile aficionado, the social anthropologist, the Mexican craft collector, or the historian who chronicles through material culture, they represent an opportunity to acquire with a view to advancing the appreciation of one’s passion.
There’s no guarantee that the prices asked today for rugs which date back decades, will accord with the North American perception of what should happen to prices of stock still on hand; there’s still that difference in worldview: “it must be worth more now because of how long I’ve had to keep it, and what rugs are worth today.” It’s up to the perceptive student of culture to find the formula for successful yet respectful negotiation with the skilled, and indeed astute, rug weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.
Pictured are a contemporary and a vintage rug both recently encountered for sale at Casa Santiago Rug Weavers, Calle Benito Juárez #70, on the main drag in Teotitlán del Valle.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).