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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!

127 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.

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