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The Future in the Past

Weaving-oaxaca-BTThere were no signs here, no restaurants, no shops, and no Spanish spoken. A lone dog, its head on its paws, eyed me in boredom. “Down there is where the pumas live,” Daniel, my chaperone said, pointing to the dense rolling hills surrounding us. We advanced towards a barn house. Cacti carpeted the yard. An elder hunched over a loom outside the front door. Splays of butterfly yellow spooled out from his apparatus. 

Weaving-spinning-oaxaca-BT

“You’ve found me,” a man in a navy embroidered shirt announced in English as he came out. He spoke to the weaver in a melodious and lilting tongue.  

“Zapotec,” Daniel whispered. “It’s the only way to communicate with anyone in the village.” When they’d finished their conversation, Daniel introduced me. “Meet Nico, his family has been farming and weaving here for centuries.”

“Yes. Welcome to our workshop!” Nico replied, smiling. “Come inside. I will show you where the magic happens.” In the living space tapestries of indigo, mauve, and sepia riddled with geometric cyphers hung from the wall, draped over the dining table, and covered the floor. 

Weaving-pots-oaxaca-BT

For the next hour and a half Nico instructed us on local ingredients his parents use to dye the wool; “everything we grow here or get from our neighbors.” He showed us mixing and mordanting processes; “it all depends on timing.” He taught us traditional designs that convey meaning for his tribe; “the zig-zag represents lightning, the spiral is our life cycle.” Finally, he demonstrated how to operate the treadle loom. His fingers flew over the shuttles, darting between the curtain of yarn and the frame. His feet pedaled smoothly, so that both the heddles and the levers made a rhythmic beat as the carpet set into its pattern.

Weaving-yarns-oaxaca-BT

“When did you start learning to weave?” I enquired.

“At six years old.” 

“Nico just decided to return to rug making, though,” Daniel explained. “He’s been overseas studying.”

“Oh! What were you studying?”

“I completed my master’s degree in textile engineering.”

“Before that, he graduated as a chemistry major. His parents hoped he’d join a tech start-up or go into academia.”

Nico laughed. “Yes, instead I’m disappointing them by carrying on the old traditions.”

Weaving-loom-oaxaca-BT

“What made you want to return home?” I asked.

“This is where I belong. I could have pursued those other careers, but they felt too small for me. I thought if I was going to give my life towards any profession, it should be one that called to me, something that was a part of who I was.”

“You don’t feel trapped? Worried about the prospects of your dying craft?” Daniel teased.

“That is always a concern. But I am hoping that by putting my education towards guiding my ancestor’s knowledge into the future, I can both keep their skill alive and infuse innovation into it.”

“You should see all the clever ideas he’s got to expand the business.”

“I’m not ready,” Nico replied, embarrassed, “there’s so much to be done and I’m still in the process of figuring out how best we should move forward.”

“Nico’s thinking of going beyond the conventional motifs, really bringing the design component into the future.”

“And what do your parents think about that?”

“They’re unsure of course. I’m trying to make them understand that implementing computer graphics and creating more complex sketches will get our artistry noticed. But, right now I’m excited about color play. I’m like a kid in the lab….” Nico scurried between his baskets of marigolds, tarragon, persimmon, moss, and cochineal animatedly handling the seeds, powders, and leaves. “I’m changing the water type I use…experimenting with oxidation levels…combining different acids and bases…researching different fibers as well.”

“Are you modernizing to aniline dyes?” Daniel asked.

Nico grinned. “No, no, no…I would never do that…it would be easier and faster, but where’s the fun?” 

Weaving-colors-oaxaca-BT

Like any creative endeavor weaving is an arduous craft. Very few of the villagers still practicing the art make a name for themselves. Since Nico employs only natural methods, each process is even more time consuming. Despite his uncertain future, it was refreshing to see Nico so enthusiastic, willing to forego the dependability of other occupations to commit to weaving. Perhaps it’s because I so often struggle to feel confident in my metier, but I admired Nico for his audacity and dedication.

“You’re seeing this through, then?” 

“My dream is to have one of my designs displayed in an avant-garde museum, so that there’s a thread between the artistry of my forefathers and what lies ahead.”

Weaving-rugs-oaxaca-BT

As we veered to the kitchen for lunch, I couldn’t stop ruminating about Nico’s vision. It’s difficult for the past to coexist with transformation. It either gets obliterated or mummified in arrested development. So, I’m eager to discover how Nico will honor the path of his ancestors while embracing our digital age. I hope he will be able to usher history forward as he seeks to weave the future into the past. 


TRAVEL NOTE:

Most artisans live and work deep in Oaxaca valley and use middlemen to sell their wares in the markets. They continue to depend exclusively on tourism and face economic and social barriers. While visiting make sure to travel outside of Oaxaca City, into the region’s ethnic villages each of which specializes in a different craft such as pottery, textiles, wood carvings, and silversmithing.


Watching (and interacting with) local artisans is such a wonderful entry into discovering a culture. Let me know about crafts people you’ve encountered whose work has amazed you and feel free to add a link to their shops, or your own if you are a maker, in the comments below!

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101 replies »

  1. Viva la tradicion! Love this piece so inspiring and beautiful how he sees his ancestral family in his work–what a connection. Bridging the past with the future without loosing the integrity of the work is a delicate process. I’ll be looking out for his work.

  2. Fantastic! Nico is really inspiring. I hope there are more and more people who follow a similar path. Your photos illustrate the information so beautifully, too. I do think it can be done, maintaining the craft and the best aspects of a tradition while embracing change. It seems that if anyone could do it, he could. You were very lucky to have met him. 🙂

    • I’d never thought of it, but I love that the colors embody happiness for you! Nico told me he sees the weight of his ancestral history in the colors, which I also thought was an interesting idea.

  3. Beautiful. The colors, the texture, the skill, the history. Thanks for sharing. i just love how natural ingredients are used for the dyes and your photos capture that so well. The authenticity of the process…. so very special.

    Peta

    • I too love that despite how much more labor goes into it, there are still weavers choosing to use natural, local ingredients for their dyes in a sustainable fashion. The little taste I had of the dyeing process has me interested to see this in other places in the world where the ingredients will be different. Thanks for your kind comment Peta.

      • Yes. I feel the same. I come from North Africa and I grew up in a small town that strongly believed in keeping old traditions alive(from making bread at home and making their own clothes) being self sufficient is important to. And I carry that with me. It’s good to see that others still do the same.

      • I love this sense of self sufficiency. It’s something I’ve lost growing up in more urban, technologically powered places, but I see how much being able to return to what we think of as “old” or “traditional” as making one’s own food is empowering. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  4. I love how you always find the less visited corners of the world, and bringing these amazing stories to us. Nico, and people like him, warm my heart, as they are the keepers of the past. Not locked in a time capsule, but evolving into the future, which is perhaps the only way for traditional crafts to survive. I love how he could have pursued, what appears to be an easier career path, but decided to follow his heart by honouring his traditions.

    • Oh, thank you, what a marvelous compliment! I agree with you in thinking that the only way for traditional crafts to survive is for a younger generation to think up ways in which they can sustainably evolve while honoring the past.

  5. I can’t help but admire people like Nico. I hope he can somehow find a way to inspire support for his work. I just love the photos, too. Something about those natural colors.

  6. Traditional weaving is such a fascinating and beautiful subject. That first photo of the loom with the chartreuse yarn is so captivating. I loved my visit to a traditional weaving village in Laos but with the language barrier and no guide we could only watch and express our awe in clumsy gesture (and purchase). Interacting like you did with Nico is very special. Did you arrange your guide in Oaxaca?

    • Thank you, that yarn is such a lovely color isn’t it? A language barrier does make it difficult to connect on a more meaningful level. I’ve experienced that too. I did arrange for my guide locally.

  7. What a great piece!! My favorite line…’ “This is where I belong. I could have pursued those other careers, but they felt too small for me. I thought if I was going to give my life towards any profession, it should be one that called to me, something that was a part of who I was.”’ I think we are all searching for that something that speaks to us…at least I am. Wonderful job 🙂

    • It’s difficult isn’t it to find a job or career that is both valuable to our spirit and is of value to the greater community? Best wishes on discovering your own fulfilling path and thank you for your comment.

  8. I love the thread (no pun intended!) that weaves through this post of the weight of ancestral traditions leading up to the present and what might happen in the future. I do hope Nico achieves his dreams.

  9. Such vibrant colors, only matched by Nico’s drive. Our culture – whether on the village or global level – will be lost without educated, thoughtful individuals like him to bridge the gap. I have no doubt that he will valiantly do his part.
    Here’s a link to the website of an Italian terracotta artist I particularly like: http://www.arghilla.it

  10. Have they already found a method to fixate the colors of their textiles a little better? I bought a couple of years ago some handwoven pieces, but you can only hand wash them, because the colors are not water resistant. My brother, who’s a chemical engineer, advised me to put them in a bucket of cold water with some vinegar, and that helped to a certain degree.

    • Not that I know. They recommend doing spot scrubbing on the rug with a clean brush and neutral soap and water (pH = 7, also brush in direction of weave). When you do need to, you can wash in a machine on gentle cycle in full water mode with ¼ cup of very, very mild soap or baby shampoo (here in Mexico people prefer Zote or Fels-Naptha brands, if those are available to you). But if your brother’s vinegar and water solution works than that’s great too!

  11. I, too, was able to meet with local artisans in Peru to see how they used nature’s materials for their dyes and how they are carrying on their traditional activities, but your visit seems even more intimate. I’d like to think that there is a renewed appreciation in recent years for local crafts and age-old methods of creating all kinds of textiles, so I’m hoping he can carry the traditions forward and make a living (or better) at it!

    • How fun! I would have liked to have a similar experience to yours in Peru. Though I visited the craft markets I never inquired about artisan workshops. While I’d like to think that these ancient crafts will survive, the cynic in me isn’t very optimistic. The Oaxaca crafts people cater to tourists since locals would never dream of purchasing something so expensive. Most visitors, however, buy the cheaper mass-produced goods that are touted as “craft” souvenirs in the city shops, so I’m not that hopeful.

  12. Lovely post and words. Relatedly, I’ve just been reading about the traditional Egyptian Tentmakers of Cairo — who are in a similar situation to Nico, as far as the whole traditional art/craft vs technology. A long time ago, I spent six months living in Cairo … I wish I had known about the Tentmakers back then! Thank you for bringing Nico’s story to us.

    • I think many traditional arts are fading. The push towards digital reminds me of the beginnings of the European Industrial Revolution which also saw a lot of various crafts die. Thank you for bringing the Cairo tentmakers to my attention! I’m eager to read about them.

      • Thanks for your comment, Bespoke Traveler :). I think you might find the Cairo tentmakers quite fascinating. Their work is gorgeous and they have recently been garnering attention for this and for the centuries of tradition that lie behind it xo

      • I’ve found a documentary about them called “Tentmakers of Cairo,” by Kim Beamish, but not sure where that’s playing. More accessible to me are a couple of blogs from quilters who’ve spent time there, which I’m reading. Thanks again for introducing me to this other artisan’s community. One of the interviews the documentarian did, however, he said, “But all around the world, we are always trying to bring down the price without putting too much thought into the people who produce it.” Which is heart-breaking, but equally true in Oaxaca as well. Factory made synthetic dyed rugs made outside of Mexico are sold for cheap in the city and sell like hotcakes.

      • So true, Bespoke Traveler. I’m saddened to hear what’s happening as far as cheap rugs being sold outside of Oaxaca, but not at all surprised. Although I do have some hope and faith in a swing towards more artisan ways of living and being. I do think more people are moving towards understanding why it’s important and why we should support artisans, traditional craftspeople and so on.

  13. The closest I’ve come to that was a visit and a short demo with some artisans in Peru. It was a similar sort of thing, but it sounds like you got to spend more time and get more of the personal angle, making your experience even more memorable. Lovely pics, those colors just jump.

    • Thanks Dave. The natural dyes are so beautiful, aren’t they? Though I was fortunate to meet one of the wool ladies who sold her stuff in the market, I wish I’d had an artisans’ demo while I was in Peru.

  14. I really wish Nico well with his chosen path. It would be great if one of his pieces landed in a museum. I think it’s really important to meet artists. The art means so much more when you realise what goes into it. Thanks for telling something of his story.

    • Wouldn’t that be his dream come true! I’m always excited when I can get to know cooks, and farmers, and musicians, and crafts people in a new place. They have interesting insights into the culture and environment and every time I’m able to observe their work I’m awed by the mastery of so much knowledge.

  15. Thank you for the beautiful post. Nico’s story was wonderfully told. I loved his sense of belonging and that he came back to his heart’s calling after all those years of studying!

    • I suppose no career path is easy, but I think he’s so brave for returning to his village and trying to hold fast to the wonderful things there. Thanks so much for dropping in and for your thoughtful comment. ☺️

  16. I really hope Nico will be able to carry on his mission for many years to come. For me the more I travel the more I appreciate my local culture, and the more I realize how far I’ve distanced myself from it without knowing. So it’s always exciting to see people like Nico who choose to embrace their own centuries-old culture and make sure that they will still be relevant in the future.

    • I have had a similar experience! Traveling has awakened me to the fact that there’s so much I will never know about my own culture or familial traditions. Given the hold technology jobs have on the world, it is heartening to meet people like Nico who are happy to embrace their roots and still find their traditional crafts pertinent. Thanks, as always, for your insight.

  17. You express the dilemma so beautifully–how to weave tradition with contemporary expression. I admire Nico’s confidence too in the future. Like you, I struggle with confidence. But ultimately we all have to follow our passion–regardless of what others think and regardless of our own faltering confidence! 🙂

  18. Wow! A wonderful post and the spirit of Nico shines through! His devotion and enjoyment is incredible and I had to raise a wry smile how his parents were disappointed he wanted to continue and work with this beautiful tradition. I feel his passion will carry his designs and work further into the future. Many thanks for sharing. Ps the photos are brilliant, so vibrant and colourful!

    • Thank you! You picked up on the irony there. Many of the elders in Nico’s village don’t see a future for their craft or even for small-scale farming. They encourage their children to move to the city and pursue more modern jobs.

  19. I love this article about Nico & what he’s doing to honor his forefathers in the history of weaving, more power to him who instead of distancing himself from the past generation’s way of life is embracing it instead. The photographs are colorful & lovely!

  20. Wonderful profile of this young man eager to unite a traditional art form (also a form of story telling) with new horizons. I bought a six-foot long piece of weaving in Mexico that was made in Oaxaca. It occupies the place of honour over the mantle of my fireplace.

    • How lovely to hear that you have a piece of ancient Oaxaca art over your mantle! I had never thought of weaving as either an art-form or as story-telling, until I spent time with some of the crafts people.

  21. “My dream is to have one of my designs displayed in an avant-garde museum, so that there’s a thread between the artistry of my forefathers and what lies ahead.” That’s wonderful! I hope Nico’s dream will come true. (And maybe it will, thanks to you!?

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