Twenty to thirty thousand years ago, early humans developed the first string by twisting together handfuls of plant fibers. Preparing thin bundles of plant material and stretching them out while twisting them together produced a fine string or thread. The ability to produce string and thread was the starting place for the development of spinning, weaving, and sewing. All three of those indigenous textile making traditions are still strong in today's Mexico.
Today we'll take a look at the weaving of the Huicholes in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit and the Zapotec in Oaxaca.
The fundamental aspects of hand weaving have remained unchanged for millennia. Webster defines a loom as "a frame or machine for interweaving yarn or threads into a fabric, the operation being performed by laying lengthwise a series called the warp and weaving in across this other threads called the weft, woof, or filling." Another definition, quite to the point, states: "A loom is the framework across which threads are stretched for the weaving of cloth."
When the backstrap loom was developed, it was easy to transport and simple to construct. One end of the loom was attached to a fixed point, like a tree trunk, and the other was a rod, which was held in place with a cord that passed around the waist of the weaver. By leaning back against the waist cord, the weaver could put tension on the warp threads and adjust tautness at will. The backstrap loom is still used today by Native Americans in the southwestern part of the United States and by people in Central America and Mexico. The complexity of the work that can be created on this loom is limited only by the skill of the weaver, and the entire loom with the weaving in progress can be rolled up at any time and carried from place to place.
In the culture of Mesoamerica (the region extending south and east from central Mexico to include parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua), clothing fabrics were quite diverse. In arid locations, plants such as yucca, agave cactus, and palm fibers were used for weaving. Where the climate permitted, cotton was the chosen fiber. Cotton was grown in Mexico as early as 3000 B.C. Although cotton did not grow in the region of the Aztec empire, the Aztecs obtained cotton from the peoples they conquered. At that time, only certain social classes were allowed to wear cotton clothing. Rabbit fur and feathers from exotic birds decorated luxurious clothing, while bark paper clothing was used for some ceremonial vestments. The clothing of lower social classes was made of much rougher fibers.
In the entire Mesoamerican region, women worked using a backstrap loom, and then sometimes embroidered fabrics and applied shells, precious stones, and silver and gold ornaments to the fabrics they wove. In the south of Mexico, women made weavings using ornamental stitches or, among the Mayans, decorated with thin braided ropes. In the northern parts of Mesoamerica, floor looms were used.
Fabrics woven in these ways were of the highest importance in early Mexican life. At times, fabrics were used as money. Each culture of Mesoamerica had deities who watched over those women who spun thread, those who wove, and those who embroidered. At birth, a baby girl was symbolically initiated into the work of weaving, and upon her death, a woman was buried with the textile tools that she had used all through her life. Textile making was considered to be much more than a technique. It was a sacred gift bestowed on women by the gods.
Conquest by the Spanish and the continuing presence of the conquistadores changed the panorama of textiles in Mexico. During the time of colonization, new techniques of weaving, materials, designs and forms of dress arrived in the New World. Silks, wools, and the pedal loom needed to weave them were introduced. In addition, the Spanish brought a strong textile influence from Asia and Egypt.
The richness, variety and liveliness of Mexican weaving are in large part derived from the fusion of these influences. Traditional Mexican indigenous clothing represents the union of the people, proud of their geographic and cultural origins.
The indigenous people we meet most often in Guadalajara are the Huichol. They use art, including weaving, for much more than decoration or economic gain. In the February-March 2005 New Life Journal, author Lisa Lichtig writes, "For women, the loom is the violin. Woven bags come in various sizes and colors and are used for carrying everything from food to sacred offerings. Each, however, is made with special woven designs that are signatures from the heart and the dreams of the weaver.
"In the process of learning to weave, the apprentice makes miniature weavings as offerings to the gods. When a girl leaves her offering, she may take one of the offerings left for that same god by another girl or woman. She takes the borrowed offering home and copies the design, and then returns the borrowed piece and leaves another one that she herself has made. This practice has been a means by which designs were distributed among Huichol women."
When the Spanish came to the New World, they brought sheep, previously unknown to the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The Huichol quickly learned to shear, card, spin, and weave wool. They used native vegetable and mineral dyes to create the vibrant colors so crucial to their designs. Today, as the Huichol herd fewer and fewer sheep, acrylics have largely replaced wool in Huichol work. Very few weavers still know how to make and use the old dyes.
The indigenous Zapotec are native to the state of Oaxaca, far to the south of Mexico. Many Zapotec are extraordinary rug weavers. The most famous Zapotec rug weaving center is Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, a remote mountain village that has become well known everywhere in the world due to the traditional fine weaving done there. Despite the ten-hour drive to Teotitlán del Valle from Mexico City, the world shows up on the doorsteps of the Zapotec weavers. Rugs from the village are sold all over Mexico as well as in the United States and other countries.
Before the arrival of the Spanish and their sheep, the Zapotecos had been cultivating and weaving cotton for several thousand years. Like the Huicholes, the Zapotecos quickly learned to card, spin, dye, and weave wool. They have used traditional vegetable and mineral dyes for centuries, although aniline (artificial) dyes came into use about 30 years ago.
The secrets of the natural dyes are jealously guarded. They are extracted from a range of plant mineral and insect sources: indigo blue from the jiquilete plant, green from malachite copper, and the rich red hues of the red from the world famous cochineal beetle on the nopal cactus. Dyes are hand-ground and hand mixed. Many weavers have begun using artificial dyes due to the difficulty and expense of creating dyes with flowers, herbs, insects, and other natural materials.
Buyer's Note: Ask your rug dealer which dyes his weavers use. Discerning buyers or collectors insist on natural dyes. Be aware that if a dealer claims to use only natural dyes and the price of a rug you like seems too good to be true, his claim is probably not true.
The Zapotec weavers of Teotitlán wove on traditional backstrap looms until the Dominican missionaries introduced harness looms in the 16th Century. Today, some Zapotec weavers like to create modern carpet designs based on the art of Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, or Max Escher. Others disagree. One weaver said, "Those are beautiful designs, but those designs are created by painters. I am a weaver, and my rugs are the traditional designs of my people."
We're privileged to have fine Zapotec rugs available in Guadalajara every day of the week. All of the rugs are made in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca. These wool rugs, if properly cared for, will last a lifetime whether you use them on your floors or hang them on your walls.