Learn More About Handwoven Wool Rugs From Oaxaca, Mexico
Handwoven Mexican rugs from Oaxaca are some of the most beautiful handmade products in Mexico. These Oaxacan rugs have history, eye-catching color, handmade quality, and a fantastic educational tour (when you purchase them directly from the makers).
On our road trip through Mexico, we had an opportunity to take a tour of making handmade Mexican wool rug from Oaxaca and purchased their beautiful rug. Not only they are high-quality, purchasing hand woven wool rugs from Mexico help support the local countryside economy.
In this post, we want to share what we learned about these beautiful Mexican rugs from Oaxaca. Everything from the history of Zapotec rug weaving, to the Oaxaca rug dying and weaving process, and finally how to visit and buy these rugs DIRECTLY from the rug makers themselves.
Table Of Contents
History Of Zapotec Rug Weaving In Oaxaca
Much of the rug production in Oaxaca is dominated by the Zapotec indigenous communities that live in the valleys of Oaxaca state, in southern Mexico. During the pre-Columbian era, the Zapotec had one of the most highly developed cultures and communities in Mesoamerica. And Zapotec woven garments, in particular, were highly prized in the region.
But the story of the Zapotec Oaxaca wool rugs originates in the mid-1500s when Fray Juan Lopez de Zarate brought sheep from Europe and introduced the modern spinning wheel to the Zapotec people living in the Oaxaca Teotitlán valley.
From then, wool rugs have become an economic stable for the Zapotec, especially the women, as a means to earn additional income while also taking care of the family. And with the onset of globalization, opportunities for the Zapotec to make, promote, and sell their beautiful Oaxacan rugs has been a boon to these communities living in the isolated countryside.
The Oaxaca Rug Production Process
The Mexican rug that is handmade in Oaxaca is produced using a hybrid of techniques that were either native and developed by the Zapotec, brought in during the Spanish colonial era, or recently introduced during globalization.
Below we discuss, from beginning to end, how an Oaxacan Zapotec rug is created.
1. Washing, Brushing & Spinning Raw Sheep’s Wool
When an Oaxaca rug maker receives the sheared raw sheep’s wool from the shepherd, the wool simply arrives unceremoniously stuffed in a large sack. The wool is tangled, knotted, and not yet fit to be spun into yarn.
Unsurprisingly, sheep’s wool isn’t all the same color. They come in white, dark brown, and all the different shades in-between. So one of the first jobs is to separate all the different wool into similar color groups.
Then the wool is ready to be washed to clean out the dirt.
After washing the wool, the wool is then carded multiple times by hand with wooden paddles to smooth out the wool and take out the tangles and knots. Hand carding the wool iis an incredibly time intensive and mundane process and we were told that this is often done by the women while watching TV.
Once the wool is straightened and ready, it is then spun into yarn using a traditional wooden spinning wheel. And we can tell you from experience, spinning wool is hard! Both your left hand (feeding the yarn spool) and the right hand (turning the spinning wheel) need to be working together to produce a consistent girth of yarn.
But Rosario, our Oaxaca rug guide, worked the spinning wheel effortlessly.
Once the wool is spun, the yarn is bundled together with yarn bundles of similar colors.
2. Creating The Natural Wool Dyes For The Rugs
One of the biggest differences between a traditional Oaxacan rug and a cheaper modern copy is the type of color dyes used.
The colors of a traditional Zapotec rug will be dyed using ONLY natural ingredients. No chemicals or artificial dyes are used. Below are some of the few ingredients that are used to create the natural colors needed to dye the wool yarn.
Red – Dried cochineal
Blue – Indigo
Yellow – Local yellow flowers & Dried pomegranate shells
Brown – Nut tree bark
Tan – Pecan hulls & other nuts
Pink – Alderwood tree bark
Green – Alfalfa Leaves
Other natural dye ingredients include fruits, seeds, and different mosses that grow on plants and rocks.
And to create an even more diverse range of colors, many of these natural dyes can be mixed with lime juice and/or sodium bicarbonate to produce a completely different secondary color.
For example, green hues were obtained by mixing lime juice with yellow dyes.
Cochineal Red - Our Favorite Natural Color Dye For Mexican rugs from Oaxaca
But our favorite of all the natural dyes was red. This color is derived from dried cochineal; an insect parasite that lives and feeds on cacti. The cochineal produces carminic acid in their digestive system which is a thick, deep red liquid and a perfect colorant. The bugs are then harvested, dried, and sold as dyes to carpet weavers.
And when these dried cochineal are ground up, the deep red colorant is exposed.
Oaxaca Rugs With Indigo colors
The indigo pigments are purchased from Santiago Niltepec – southern part of the state of Oaxaca. Production is small compared to demands, and indigo dye takes time, and labour intensive. Therefore Oaxaca rug using large numbers of indigo colors are usually more expensive.
3. Dying The Sheep’s Wool
Once the dye powders are created, they are mixed with water to create the colored solution.
In order to imbue the color into the yarn, the yarn is then boiled with the colored solution for several hours. Afterwards, the yarn is taken out and hung to dry.
Creating Different Hues
Not only can different colors be gotten from different dye ingredients, but also by using the same dye liquid over and over again.
Each additional batch yields a wool color that is slightly lighter than the last.
Using this method, carpet makers are able to make hundreds of different colors and hues from a small number of natural ingredients.
A Oaxaca Rug Without Any Color Dyes
Oaxaca rugs that showcases zero natural dyes. Instead, it features different white, brown, and black hues; all achieved by mixing different wool colors of different sheep. Because it consists of only neutral colors, the finished design would be more towards modern and simple.
We loved seeing all the different colors presented in each of the different carpets in the showroom, but seeing this particular carpet, without any colorants, really stood out as unique.
4. Weaving The Oaxacan Rugs
And finally, with all the yarn spun and dyed, the wool was ready to be woven into a proper, traditional Zapotec rug.
A Oaxacan rug is woven on a loom. And the weaver uses a pre-drawn image to dictate where each yarn color is needed to woven in.
A Oaxacan rug, depending on its size and design, can take as long as a month, or even much longer, to finish. We were shocked that, even with a sophisticated-looking loom, sometimes a single day’s worth of work only yields a few inches of woven fabric.
It is no wonder than handmade products can be significantly more expensive than their machine-made counterparts.
Where To Buy Oaxaca Wool Rugs
These Mexican rugs are produced all throughout the valleys in Oaxaca, but the town of Teotitlán del Valle, approximately 1 hour from Oaxaca City, is one of the most popular places to view and purchase a handmade Oaxacan wool rug.
How To Get To Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
By Car or Hired Taxi
The most convenient way to get to Teotitlán del Valle is either with your own vehicle (or a rental) or hiring a taxi driver for the day.
For those on a budget, you can catch a shared taxi (called ‘collectivos’) driving south on the Carretera Internacional towards either Mitla or Tlacolula. You then have to get off the shared taxi at the Avenida Benito Juarez intersection and then catch a taxi to take you the rest of the way to the town of Teotitlán del Valle.
Tours to visit the Teotitlán del Valle can be easily arranged in Oaxaca city by your hotel or from the many local travel agencies located in the city’s historic center.
Recommended Oaxaca Rug Shops In Teotitlán del Valle
El Tono de La Cochinilla – Not the largest Oaxaca rug maker in Teotitlán, but for 4 generations, this lovely family has been producing some of the highest quality rugs in the business. The private, complimentary tour we took was incredibly hands on and educational. We got to try our hand at carding (brushing) the wool and spinning the wool into yarn. The all-natural ingredients for their dyes were neatly laid out with great explanation as to their use. Rosario speaks excellent English.
Official Website: eltonodelacochinilla.com
Vida Nueva Women’s Weaving Cooperative – A local community founded in the mid-1990s that helps to advance Zapotec women’s rights and autonomy. Excellent and informative tour.
How Much Does A Mexican Rug From Oaxaca Cost?
Depending on the rug’s size, color, and design complexity, most hand-made wool Zapotec rugs can cost anywhere from $75-$600. Of course, prices can get much higher for the very best Oaxaca rugs.
For those on a budget or who aren’t interested in purchasing a rug, small night-table mats (12”x12”) and coasters were also available for sale.
Modern Design With Traditional Techinique
Using traditional techniques from Oaxaca, more young artists are experimenting and creating modern and unique patterns. You can learn more about Oaxacan modern textile design at Oaxaca textile museum.
Purchase Modern Style Oaxaca Rug Online
My favorite modern style Oaxaca rug is from NakaweTrading. They partner with artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico to produce 100% handmade, natural wool rug.
I love that they re-designed in a modern simplistic way that you can’t usually find in local artisan studios in Oaxaca, and yet maintaining the highest quality by using traditional dyeing and waving technique of Oaxaca rug making.
FAQ - Mexican Rugs From Oaxaca
Is It Safe To Visit Teotitlán del Valle To Purchase These Oaxaca Rugs Directly?
Yes, absolutely! We have found the entire Oaxaca valley very safe and never once felt threatened or had anything bad happen to us. The people we’ve met in Teotitlán del Valle were friendly, courteous, and professional.
How Do These Zapotec Rug Vendors Accept Credit Cards?
Yes, they accept most credit cards. We opted to pay for our rugs in cash to save them the 4% credit card processing fees (every peso helps!), but that choice is completely up to you.
How Much Does A Hand Woven Oaxaca Rug Typically Cost?
At El Tono de La Cochinilla, most of the Oaxaca rugs in their sales room cost between $75-$600, depending on the rug’s size, color, and design difficulty.
Any Good Places To Eat In Teotitlán del Valle?
Yes! We ate lunch at Tierra Antigua in Teotitlán del Valle. It was a fantastic, authentic Oaxacan meal. They also have beautiful rugs for sale as well.
Final Thoughts - Mexican Rugs From Oaxaca
Having witnessed the laborious actions of brushing the wool straight, spinning the wool, dying and drying the wool, and finally weaving the wool together into a design, it’s no wonder handmade products, and carpets in particular, are so much more expensive than their mass produced counterparts.
In total we had spent about US$350 for the two small rugs, not a cheap purchase.
But for the informative tour, the opportunity to learn a bit about the culture and craft behind carpet weaving in Oaxaca, and to take home two beautiful rugs, we felt that the price was right and fair.
Perfect Addition To Our Camper Van
Given our interest in how the red color was produced, it was only natural that one of our two carpets highlighted the different red hues from the cochineal.
We bought this predominantly red piece to add color to our mostly white, blue, and brown interior. It currently lays in the aisle of our van.
We think it makes the van a bit more photogenic!