Josefina Méndez López is one of the master weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, a Mexican pueblo close to Oaxaca City. I recently had the pleasure to meet her and her family during a tour of her workshop on Calle Guerrero #9.
Teotitlán del Valle is famous for its textiles and especially its woolen carpets with Zapotec designs. Almost every family in the village earns (part of) their livelihood from weaving. Visitors are often welcome to watch the master weavers at work and learn about the art of rug making.
Josefina Méndez López does not only create gorgeous wool carpets and tapestries, she is also committed to preserve traditions. Her mother still cards and spins the wool by hand and the workshop uses only natural dyes to color the yarn. The weaving, too, is done by hand on large wooden looms. The results are stunning.
While my friends and I sat in a semi-circle and drank mezcal, Josefina showed us how she makes her own natural dyes. It all begins with a tiny insect that lives as a symbiotic parasite on the nopal cactus, a plant also known as the prickly pear. This beetle-like insect is the cochineal.
Once you crush the black insect, it turns into a red smudge. Not from blood, but from the carminic acid it has produced in its body to avoid being eaten by bigger insects. Cochineal forms the base of various colors on the master weaver’s palette.
Among the other natural materials Josefina uses to create her colors are indigo rocks, pomegranate seeds, marigolds, and black zapote fruit. She adds ground lime, sea salt, and lemon juice to make various vibrant dyes and subtle shades.
Aztecs and Mayans used cochineal to dye their textiles as early as the second century BC. After the Spanish invasion of 1519, it became an export product. The vivid red color was in demand with royalty and aristocracy all over Europe. Many insects and hours of work are needed to create a kilo of cochineal powder, and the Spanish traded the valuable dye like silver and gold. Nowadays, cochineal is known as carmine and popular as a dye in food and lipsticks, due to the carcinogenic properties of previously used synthetic reds.
Josefina Méndez López and her family create custom-made carpets, table runners, ponchos, shawls, bags, and more. All for very reasonable prices. Even if you cannot travel to the weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, you can still own these beautiful wool products by contacting Josefina on Instagram. She, unfortunately, does not yet have a website on which you can easily place an order.
To be clear: I do not make a commission on the sales and wouldn’t want to. I’m simply advertising her wares because they impressed me and are of excellent quality. I would have bought more had I possessed a home in which to put things. As it is, I carry my belongings on my back and travel light.
Want to see more? I captured the carding and spinning of wool and the weaving of rugs on three short videos I posted as a featured story on my Instagram profile.