I think my friend Eulalia described it most eloquently when she likened weaving a tapete to a lover. They want all your time, and if you neglect them, the tension rises and they can get warped out of shape. Therefore once a tapete is started on the loom, it is continued until it is complete.
Eulalia lives in Teotitlán del Valle, a community known for their traditionally designed and intricately woven wool tapetes. Even if weaving is not the primary family business, you can be sure there are looms in the household, and the family members will work together in the evenings, companionably weaving side by side on separate looms.
Even before the Spanish arrived in the Zapotec community of Teotitlán del Valle in 1521, a style of weaving existed in the community. However, when the Spanish arrived, the clergy bought with them pedal looms, and taught the local indigenous population to weave on these new looms. Most children in Teotitlán learn to weave as early as 7 or 8 years old – using the legs of an upturned chair for their first loom, graduating to their own full-size loom around 12 years of age.
With so many weavers in the community, families go to great lengths to ensure their tapetes and bags are different to those offered by their neighbours, and differentiate using different natural dye colour combinations, designs, textures and the quality of the finished weave. Many people look at a finished tapete and assume that it just involves weaving. However making a tapete is a much much larger process.
Wool is bought at local tianguis as is. It is not cleaned or sorted so it contains a lot of burrs, dirt and twigs. In fact once washed, it can lose half its purchased weight in rubbish. Once the wool is cleaned, it is then carded to remove more of the detritus. This manual carding is a time consuming and laborious job, and it can take a month just to card a large basket of wool. After the wool has been carded and combed to a finer texture, it can be spun. The carded wool is spun onto small spindles, and then several of the spindles spun back on the wheel to create the larger skeins.
At this stage, which may have taken two months already, the wool is ready to dye. It is quite common to buy a lot of raw wool so all the prep work can be done in a large batch whilst they have tapetes for sale. The family will usually have people working on different stages of the tapete life-cycle so there is always material ready whilst the completed tapetes are ready for sale.
Dyeing using natural dyes made from plants, including pomegranates, marigolds, nutshells, alfalfa, indigo, and red from the cochineal insect. After dyeing, the skeins are washed again. Commonly the women wait for the rainy season so water is readily available, and wash several large baskets of dyed wool in the river that runs through the pueblo. Because the dyes are natural there is no risk of toxicity from the dye batches. People using aniline dyes will wash their wool in other locations so it cannot get into the groundwater.
The warp threads are purchased and the loom set up with correct tension, and then the weaving begins. It is common for weavers to spend around 10 hours a day at their looms, and in between their normal chores – cooking, visiting the market to buy the daily food for the family, laundry, cleaning, dropping off and picking up their children from school.
Depending on the size, and the materials used in the tapetes, weavers may not see a lot of profit from all this work. Sometimes it is hard to find buyers and so families may end up selling their tapetes at a lesser price to the larger ‘tapete houses’ who then act as middlemen for sales. Some families work ‘piecework for these same ‘houses’ and are given the wool and the required design. They are then paid for the weaving work of the finished product. Obviously it is a lot better financially for a family to be able to sell their own tapetes.
What I love about Teotitlán and all the talented weavers I have had the chance to meet and befriend, is their determination and their hard-won ability to not only safeguard the traditions of their history, but still look to the new and innovative. Ask any mother – education is the top priority for their children – so that they have options for work. Some of the current students are among the first in the community to go on to university. However they will always come home on semester breaks and weekends to re-join their families, sliding back into the familiar; chatting in Zapotec and weaving on looms side by side in the evenings.