Handwoven Mexican rugs from Oaxaca are some of Mexico’s most beautiful handmade products. These Oaxacan rugs have history, eye-catching color, handcrafted quality, and a fantastic educational tour (when you purchase them directly from the makers).
On our road trip through Mexico, we took a tour of making handmade Mexican wool rugs from Oaxaca and purchased their beautiful carpet. Not only are they high-quality, but buying handwoven wool rugs from Mexico helps 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.
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 Mesoamerica’s most highly developed cultures and communities. And Zapotec woven garments, particularly, were highly prized in the region.
But the Zapotec Oaxaca wool rugs originated 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.
Since then, wool rugs have become an economic stable for the Zapotec, especially the women, to earn additional income while caring for the family. With the onset of globalization, opportunities for the Zapotec to make, promote, and sell their beautiful Oaxacan rugs have been a boon to these communities living in the isolated countryside.
The Oaxaca Rug Production Process
Mexican rugs handmade in Oaxaca are 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. Separating the Colors
When an Oaxaca rug maker receives the sheared raw sheep’s wool from the shepherd, the wool 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 separating the other wool into similar color groups.
2. Cleaning the Wool
Then, the wool is ready to be washed to clean the dirt.
After washing the wool, it is carded multiple times with wooden paddles to smooth it and remove the tangles and knots. Carding the wool by hand is an incredibly time-intensive and mundane process, and we were told that this is often done by women while watching TV.
3. Brushing & Spinning the Wool
Once the wool is straightened and ready, it is spun into yarn using a traditional wooden spinning wheel. And we can tell you from experience that spinning wool is hard! Both your left hand (feeding the yarn spool) and your right hand (turning the spinning wheel) must work 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.
4. Creating the Natural Wool Dyes for the Rugs
One of the most significant 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 used to create the natural colors needed to dye the wool yarn.
Red – Dried cochineal
Blue – Indigo
Yellow – Local yellow flowers and dried pomegranate shells
Brown – Nut tree bark
Tan – Pecan hulls & other nuts
Pink – Alderwood tree bark
Green – Alfalfa Leaves
Example of Mixed Colored Rugs
Natural dye ingredients include fruits, seeds, and mosses that grow on plants and rocks.
To create a more diverse range of colors, many of these natural dyes can be mixed with lime juice and sodium bicarbonate to produce a completely different secondary color.
For example, green hues were obtained by mixing lime juice with yellow dyes.
Oaxaca Rug With Cochineal Red Dyes
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, a thick, deep red liquid and a perfect colorant in the digestive system. The bugs are harvested, dried, and sold as dyes to carpet weavers.
And when these dried cochineals are ground up, the deep red colorant is exposed.
Example of Cochineal Red Rugs
Oaxaca Rugs With Indigo Colors
The indigo pigments are purchased from Santiago Niltepec – the southern part of Oaxaca. Production is small compared to demands, and indigo dye takes time and is labor intensive. Therefore, Oaxaca rugs using large numbers of indigo colors are usually more expensive.
5. Dying the Sheep’s Wool
Once the dye powders are created, they are mixed with water to make the colored solution.
To imbue the color into the yarn, the yarn is then boiled with the colored solution for several hours. Afterward, the yarn is taken out and hung to dry.
Creating Different Hues
Different colors can be obtained from other dye ingredients and repeatedly using the same dye liquid.
Each additional batch yields a wool color that is slightly lighter than the last.
Using this method, carpet makers can make hundreds of different colors and hues from a small number of natural ingredients.
Rugs With Natural Colors
Oaxaca rugs that showcase zero natural dyes. Instead, it features different white, brown, and black hues, all achieved by mixing the wool colors of other sheep. Because it consists of only neutral colors, the finished design would be more modern and straightforward.
Examples of Rugs With Natural Wool Color
We loved seeing all the different colors in each of the different carpets in the showroom, but seeing this particular carpet, without any colorants, really stood out as unique.
6. 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.
An Oaxacan rug is woven on a loom. The weaver uses a pre-drawn image to dictate where each yarn color must be incorporated.
Depending on its size and design, an Oaxacan rug 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 day’s worth of work yields only a few inches of woven fabric.
It is no wonder that handmade products can be significantly more expensive than their machine-made counterparts.
Modern Design With Traditional Technique
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 the Oaxaca Textile Museum.
Example Modern Style Zapotec Rugs
Where To Buy Oaxaca Wool Rugs
1. Purchasing Online
The easiest way to purchase Oaxaca wool rugs is online; Esty offers great selections specializing in handmade arts and crafts.
Here are my favorite sellers from Etsy.
This is the place to shop if you want something traditional and authentic to Zapotec art.
Business run by local families in Oaxaca, Mexico. Each piece is Handcrafted throughout the process, from cleaning, carding, spinning, dyeing the wool, and weaving on a Zapotec pedal loom.
If you are a fan of Indigo, it is worth checking out their shop.
Their traditional textile art is detailed and refined, and their indigo color hues and technique are some of the finest.
If you prefer more boho chic designs, Nakawe Trading is for you. Partnering with local artisans in Oaxaca while keeping the traditional technique of making rug process, they re-designed the pattern in a modern and simplistic way.
2. Purchase Directly From Artisans
These Mexican rugs are produced 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 by 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 Mitla or Tlacolula. You 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 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 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 this lovely family has produced some of the highest quality rugs in the business for four generations. The private, complimentary tour we took was incredibly hands-on and educational. We got to try carding (brushing) the wool and spinning the wool into yarn. The all-natural ingredients for their dyes were neatly laid out with great explanations for 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 handmade wool Zapotec rugs can cost anywhere from $75-$600. Of course, prices can get much higher for the very best Oaxaca rugs.
Small night-table mats (12”x12”) and coasters were also available for sale for those on a budget or not interested in purchasing a rug.
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 safe and never felt threatened or had anything bad happen to us. The people we 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 entirely up to you.
How Much Does a Handwoven Oaxaca Rug Typically Cost?
At El Tono de La Cochinilla, most 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.
Maintenance – How To Clean a Wool Rug
Although natural wool rugs are strong and durable, machine wash and drying are not recommended to avoid color fade. It is best to wash it by hand and naturally dry it on a sunny day.
Here are a few simple steps to maintain a wool rug:
- Remove Dust: Shake the rug and brush the dust and dirt away.
- Remove Stain (if needed): Add a drop of stain remover and gently scrub with the brush.
- Sponge: Dip the sponge into a bucket filled with mixed water and natural wool detergent and rub the surface with very gentle pressure. Be careful not to absorb too much water in the sponge, nor overwet the rug.
- Dry: After removing excess moisture with a towel, hang it outside on a sunny, dry day, but avoid direct sunlight.
Final Thoughts – Mexican Rugs From Oaxaca
Having witnessed the laborious actions of brushing the wool straight, spinning it, dying and drying it, and finally weaving it together into a design, it’s no wonder handmade products, and carpets in particular, are much more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts.
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 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 white, blue, and brown interior. It currently lies in the aisle of our van.
We think it makes the van a bit more photogenic!
Van Conversion Essential Bundles
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