Weaving is the main economic activity of the village of Teotitlan del Valle. This Zapotec community is famous for the quality and beauty of its woolen rugs which are woven on pedal looms. The inhabitants of Teotitlan wove in ancient times, but prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, they wove cotton and used the backstrap loom. Wool and the pedal loom were introduced later and revolutionized the weaving process. The weavers began to use synthetic dyes in the 1920s, but the use of natural dyes such as cochineal and indigo has been revived in the past few decades. Natural dyes are more time consuming to prepare, but the finished piece is of finer quality. In recent years, other innovations have taken place in Teotitlan’s textiles industry, including, for some weavers, the inclusion of other materials in their weavings, for example, the use of feathers.
Oaxaca is known for the variety and beauty of its handicrafts. Oaxaca’s diversity is reflected in its popular art: pottery, woodcarving, weaving, basketry, candle making, embroidery, and many more crafts are practiced here. Collectors from all over the world come to Oaxaca to purchase the folk art created by skilled Oaxacan artisans. Many of the small towns and villages surrounding Oaxaca City specialize in a particular type of craft. In some cases this specialization dates back as far as prehispanic times when different villages were required to pay tribute to the ruling group in specific goods. Oaxacan families who create folk art pass their knowledge down through the generations. In most cases the finished product is the result of family cooperation, with different family members taking responsibility for different tasks. Though skills and knowledge are passed down, each individual brings their own creativity to their work and each piece bears the personal touch of its creator.
Several villages in the Oaxaca valley specialize in pottery. The black pottery (barro negro) produced in the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec is one type for which Oaxaca is famous. The color of this pottery is the result of a technique that was developed by Doña Rosa Real, a potter from the village. She found that if the pieces weren’t fired as long as usual they would come out black instead of the usual grey. This black ware is decorative but not practical, as it will not hold water. The pieces are burnished with a smooth stone before firing to give them a shiny metallic gleam. This innovation came about just in time – prior to that time pottery had been used for many practical purposes, but as the use of plastic became more common, the potters were losing business. The switch to creating highly valued decorative pieces allowed many families of potters to continue practicing their craft.
Woodcarving was practiced in Oaxaca throughout history, but the term “alebrije” which is given to the carved wooden animals is of fairly recent provenance. Pedro Linares, an artist from Mexico City, created the first alebrijes in the 1930s; these were fantastical animals made of paper mache. In the 1950s, Manuel Jimenez from the village of San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca, began to make the same type of designs in wood. The theme became popular, and soon many Oaxacan woodcarvers were creating alebrijes. There are now three villages in the Oaxaca valley which specialize in woodcarving: San Martín Tilcajete, San Antonio Arrazola and La Union Tejalapa. The themes and styles vary, but they all reflect the rich heritage and imagination of their creators.
Visiting towns and villages in the Oaxaca valley where handicrafts are created allows travelers to meet the artisans, visit their homes and studios, see them at work, and learn about the whole process that goes into creating an exquisite work of art. This experience adds depth of meaning to any purchased piece – it is not only a beautiful possession but a souvenir of a trip and a memento of an encounter with a Oaxacan family. Buying pieces from those who made them is the best way to support the artisans and their families, and helps them to keep their heritage alive.