Weaving a way of life
October 6, 2006
Nahum Gonzalez is accustomed to getting bombarded with questions about his weaving of rugs and tapestries using the centuries-old traditions of the Zapotec Indians of southern Mexico.
But, standing at his loom Wednesday at the Wyly Community Arts Center in Basalt, he seemed perplexed by a query from an Anglo visitor. What is it about weaving that he enjoys, he is asked. Gonzalez’s brow furrowed while he crafted his answer.
After thinking a moment, he explained that he can put aside all his cares and worries while working the loom and focus solely on his creation. It is stress-free work, the soft-spoken man said. “It makes me very happy to do this.”
After talking for a while with Nahum and his sister, Elena Gonzalez Ruiz, it becomes apparent why the question was strange to him. Weaving isn’t a hobby, a fancy indulgence or a way to supplement incomes for them. It is their life. It’s the way they put food on the table and clothes on their back.
Their father was a weaver, as was his father, as were their ancestors for centuries. Teotitlan, their hometown in the Oaxaca Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, has a population of about 5,000. Four-fifths of them are weavers, said Elena. The remaining 1,000 are farmers who grow the crops and raise livestock to sustain the weavers.
In a nearby village they raise the sheep that supply the wool for all the weavers of Zapotec rugs. The wool used to be hand-spun into yarn by the women of Teotitlan, but now the other town has a factory that produces much of the yarn used as the base layer for a rug or tapestry. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works well for both towns: One produces the wool and turns it into yarn; the other turns the yarn into rugs. They each depend on the other.
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The colored yarns used add detail and give character to the rugs are still hand-spun and often dyed by experts like Elena and Nahum’s father.
Women didn’t have the opportunity to become weavers until sometime between when Elena grew up and her mom grew up. Elena, now 39, was fortunate to be trained by her father when she was 12 years old. Nahum, 35, learned at age 9.
They are now both master weavers, each with their own looms, working out of the house they share with their parents. Weaving is a bond for nearly all the families of Teotitlan and their connection to the Zapotec Indians’ ancient culture.
Elena and Nahum both weave rugs with distinctive designs created by their father, Januario. To an untrained eye, one 2.5-by-5-foot rug appears simply to have layers of 1-inch bands, some with solid color, others with geometric forms, and others with repeated designs.
The layers actually tell a story, said Elena. She points out one layer that signifies eyes looking up toward another layer that signifies the mountains visible from Teotitlan. A third layer represents the rain that the eyes of the villagers always hope to see forming over the mountains.
The Oaxaca Valley is dry, Elena explained. Rainstorms are anxiously awaited and welcomed.
Other rugs designed by their father employ similar patterns of layers with special significance. Other designs are influenced by patterns found in ancient ruins of their ancestors’ villages. Still others feature animals, like birds scattered around the tree of life.
Elena credited her brother with possessing the weaving skills necessary to undertake the rugs with difficult animal scenes, like the tree of life. It requires adroit handwork, which she said she is still learning. While discussing their craft, Nahum kept working the loom, pumping pedals that brought vertical strands of stretched yard closer together or father apart. He mixed in small spools of hand-spun, dyed wool in precise horizontal patterns. His hands seem to automatically grab a precise number of vertical strands for a split second while he mixed in the dyed yarn. He uses a small comb to pack the yarn tightly, then grabs another precise number of strands while creating a form, like a mountain. Nahum said he relies on sight and feel to work the colored yarn into a pattern.
The 2.5-by-5-foot rug he is working on takes three weeks to create working eight hours days, he said.
Some rugs have vibrant colors while others are more toned-down pastels. U.S. and European collectors want strong colors that often cannot be created through natural dyes, so chemical dyes are being used. But some rugs use yarn that’s the natural color of wool from the sheep. Natural dyes are used by using a pomegranate, a sweet fruit called czapote, pecan shells or an insect, cochinilla, that lives on cactus and, when mashed up, creates a cranberry-red dye.
Elena said she likes switching off and working with rugs with chemical dyes for a bit as well as those with natural dyes. Variety is the spice of life.
“Sometimes you get tired of doing the soft colors, so I do the bright colors,” she said.
The late Stuart Mace met the Gonzalez family in 1987 while scouting Teotitlan for rugs for his families famed Toklat Gallery at Ashcroft. When they first met, Mace didn’t speak Spanish and the Gonzalez family didn’t speak English. They communicated nevertheless ” and became good friends.
The Maces brought Elena to Ashcroft in 1989 for the first of nearly annual Zapotec rug weaving demonstrations. Lynne Mace, Stuart’s daughter, has carried on the tradition even after relocating Toklat from Ashcroft to Basalt’s Riverwalk project. Elena said that as much as she enjoyed visiting Ashcroft and its surrounding high peaks for all those years, she enjoys the setting in town. It’s more lively in Basalt and more people see the demonstrations. Nahum has also made trips to the Roaring Fork Valley, but not since 1998.
Their visit this year is co-sponsored by Toklat and Wyly Community Arts Center, which received a grant from the Aspen Community Foundation that allowed it to devote time and space for the weaving demonstrations.
The Gonzalezes are giving demonstrations at 10 a.m., 2 and 6 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Demonstrations will also be presented at the same times Tuesday through Sunday, Oct. 10-15. Their work will be featured at the Wyly as part of a art studio tour in Basalt on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 14-15.
Groups as diverse as a bilingual kindergarten class from Basalt Elementary School to the Eagle County seniors have checked out the demonstrations so far.
Toklat carries Zapotec rugs and tapestries year-round. Elena said she feels honored to be an ambassador for her town. She brought rugs from about 50 weavers.
Elena said her hometown is thriving, thanks to its reputation for producing exquisite rugs and tapestries. Some family, like her’s, have establish bed-and-breakfasts in their homes to accommodate visitors looking for rugs.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.