Textiles of the World: Oaxacan Tapetes

My first trip to Oaxaca, Mexico was just shy of 10 years ago. I took this trip with my sister-in-law who knows the city like the back of her hand. She and my husband are first generation born in the United States. Both their parents were born and raised in a small pueblo about 4 hours north of the city of Oaxaca. This small town, San Pablo Macuiltianguis, is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited.  It’s a magical pueblo to say the least. It’s got cobblestone roads, homes built with tin roofs, and green as far as the eye can see. Describing it does it no justice. 

A hilly landscape with verdant pastureland in the foreground; in the distance we see the houses of the pueblo.
San Pablo Macuiltianguis, Southern Mexico
Cynthia's mother-in-law and husband, and his grandmother stand in an embrace. They are in a garden in front of a building and pink flowers.
From left to right: Virginia (my mother in law), Noe (my husband), Jovita (Noe’s grandmother)

Most of my time on this trip was spent in this tiny village, but we also ventured in the city of Oaxaca and explored surrounding towns. One of the first things your eye will notice in Oaxaca (and frankly in much of Mexico) are the beautiful colors. The homes, businesses and signs are all painted in beautiful bright pastel colors.

Cynthia and her husband stand in front of a building painted green, which has a large folkloric model of a woman attached.
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca México

But let’s get to the juicy textiles! If you are into textiles, you might already know what I’m talking about. Oaxaca is famous for its folk art that includes: barro negro, hand embroidered blouses and dresses, alebrijes, and tapetes. Tapetes – they are gorgeous. Perfection. Honestly, I was in awe at the details, the craftsmanship, and the time it takes to craft these beautiful items. You can find woven textiles in all shapes and forms, but what I’d like to focus on today are Oaxacan “Tapetes.” Tapetes are traditional rugs that are typically placed on the floor. In my home, we place tapetes on top of our couch, our dresser, the wall, and on the floor.

A woven rug hangs in Cynthia's study, displaying typical diamond patterns in red, blues, yellow and ecru.
Tapete hanging in our work room
A tapete lies on a dresser, with other Oaxacan ornaments on top,. The tapete is woven in a gradation of colours from yellow to gold, orange and pink.
My favorite Tapete on our dresser (also shown: Barro negro, hand painted calavera)

 Tapetes and other woven goods are made by the Zapotec: the indigenous peoples that are mostly concentrated in the state of Oaxaca. In the small village east of Oaxaca called Teotitlan del Valle is where you can explore how they are made from start to finish. Although, of course, you can also find them sold in the city of Oaxaca and all around Mexico; Teotitlan is most famous for these textiles. 

In one of my many trips back to Oaxaca, my husband and I traveled to Teotitlan and took a tour to learn more about Tapetes and the painstaking process of creating these beautiful rugs. The rugs are made of sheep’s wool which is spun into yarn by hand. The yarn is then dyed by hand; all from natural ingredients like plants, insects and earth. One of the most beautiful colors I was shown was a beautiful burgundy made with an “insecto de nopal” (an insect that you can find on a cactus plant) called cochineal.

A tote bag with leather handles stand on a dresser. It is made from a woven tapete textile, in stripes of yellow and pink, with a vertical diamond motif.
Tote bag featuring the beautiful burgundy from the cochineal insect

The yarn is then soaked in boiling hot water for hours to allow the color set. Next, the yarn is hung out to dry to prepare for weaving. Weaving is done by men and women in the Zapotec community and is produced on a foot loom. The patterns that are woven into the rugs are significant to the Zapotec community, and have various meanings, symbols, and stories. You can learn more about this process by visiting here.

A man is giving a talk about the prodution of tapetes, with photos and rugs displayed on the wall behind, and a table with plants and other ingredients usd in the process on a table in front of him.
Plants, herbs and ingredients used to prepare the dying process

A woman is outdoors, stirring water and dyestuffs in a very large metal pot, using a long pole. Yarn dyed blue hangs on a washing line.
Señora boiling the water to prepare the dye
Yarns dyed various shades of blue and yellow hangs to dry on a washing line.
Yarn hanging to dry
A loom with a part-woven tapete in progress, in a variety of geometric patterns . Around 20 spindles each holding a different  colour yarn lie on the warp threads waiting to be used.
Spools of yarn on a foot loom
A stone wall at an archeological site, with cactus bush in the foreground.  The wall has been carved in a variety of different geometric patterns, similar to those used in the tapetes.
Hieroglyphs at Mitla archeological site which are also found on Tapetes

It really wasn’t until this trip that I began to truly appreciate the work that goes into making Tapetes, and other handmade goods from other countries. Often when travelling, I’d try to get the most bang for my buck, or try and see if I could snag some type of “deal”. Learning more about the people behind the product and the labor of love that goes into their art has given me a new perspective when purchasing folk art from countries I travel to. I know the worth and the value of the sacrifice behind the product. 

This is also something that I’ve learned to appreciate as a new sewer. I had no idea how much time you need to invest in creating a button up shirt, or a simple pair of pants (not to mention pants that fit you just right!) Although this is nothing compared to the work of the Zapotec community, it gives me a fresh perspective and another reason to appreciate the making process. Instead of rushing through my own projects, I’m reminded to intentionally slow down, take my time, and stitch with love, care and attention to detail. 

Cynthia is an elementary music teacher by day and a passionately creative maker of many things by night. She resides and teaches in Los Angeles. You can find her on instagram here.