Oaxaca: Land of Fibers

One of our favorite things about Oaxaca is the amazing breadth of fiber work done in this Mexican state. Varying from hand-stitched and machine-stitched embroideries to complicated tapestry-like weavings and everything in between, every where you look in Oaxaca there is splendorous handwork. One of the best places to see these pieces are in the mercados and vendor fairs that are frequent here – you can see works from many neighboring villages on display for sale. The prices are so reasonable that I’m often almost ashamed to purchase such underpriced goods because I have a good sense of how long it must take to make such lovely things. I will, however, purchase from the maker if I can (rather than a re-seller) so I can support their work financially.

Vendor fair during Dia de Muertos

In trying to understand the origins of Oaxacan hand work, I start with the Oaxaca Textile Museum. The museum’s second floor houses large framed posters that illustrate the idea that many of the state’s villages are home to specific styles of weaving and handwork, and show examples of the work created. There is a large collection and a small space, so the display changes periodically. The organization also offers classes and other events, and has a very nice boutique onsite.

These creations are most often done with rudimentary hand tools, with most weaving done on backstrap looms or handmade jack looms, complete with reeds fashioned from homegrown, handsplit bamboo and hand-tied string heddles. Wool and cotton are grown in the region, with rug wool being milled regionally and trucked back to the villages where it is hand dyed (usually with natural dyes, sometimes with more costly acid dyes) and woven. For example, in Teotitlan del Valle, dyers grow and gather some of their dyestuffs for use on the bulky, coarse rug wools that they use in their wonderful rugs that feature complicated geometric designs and often incorporate tapestry techniques. Dixza Rugs is one of our favorites in Teotitlan.

The museum has many pieces that feature fine weaving and handwork. In our first visit nearly two years ago, I was amazed and entranced by some finely woven antique cotton garments that were embroidered with fine wools. In large part, the embroidery was a cross-stitch technique, but the stitch count was tiny: approaching 40 stitches per inch! Totally amazing, given the crude tools available at the time.

I took a number of pictures during our visit and am using these images to assist me in charting some of the recurrent designs and images so that I can incorporate some of them in my own work in the future. Not to appropriate them, but to borrow elements of them – thereby honoring the original.

Oaxaca is truly heaven for fiberistas!