Oaxaca Weaving: For Divine Women By Real Women
Picture by: Cristinna Stoian
Mesoamerican civilizations were once the incarnation of prosperous and thriving pre-Columbian societies. Their accomplishments and advancements made them on par with classical civilizations thanks to their impressive ingenuity, craftsmanship, and physical strength.
Like any other ancient civilization, their most important source of energy was based on religious beliefs. For Mesoamerican people, the existence of Gods and Deities was a factor that strongly influenced their lives.
Their views and ideas were aimed to express devotion, and for this reason, religious ceremonies were events preciously crafted. They represented the most significant part of what was depicted in their art — from architecture, wall paintings, and ceramic objects to their clothing and ceremonial dressings. Garments were much more meaningful than any other creations because people wore them, and therefore, they stood closer to their souls.
After the colonial period, the population of all these societies declined as well as their artistic production. But not enough to erase their cultural heritage, which has continually been passed on to newer generations up until this present day. Some traditional practices, such as weaving, are very much alive and evolving with time. It is an activity that reflects the past and the present of these communities.
As expected, many contributors to Mesoamerican textiles are from Mexico, which was once the land of the most advanced indigenous civilizations.
Oaxaca, located in the southwest of the country, used to be the home of two of the most important indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica: The Mixtecs and the Zapotecs.
The Mixtecs and The Zapotecs: Societies with a Spiritual Link
Both groups managed to prosper into societies of complex and abstract beliefs. Their knowledge of weaving was vast and unique in terms of techniques. Most of them are still preserved and used within many settlements of the region.
Their products, which consisted of crafted garments, costumes, and rugs, are pleasing to the eye for their colors and fascinating weaving patterns. But it is the richness of their symbolism that makes them distinctive.
In the Valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotecs and later the Mixtec peoples had ceremonial centers that served as places for worship where priests gathered wearing ritualistic garments made of finely handwoven cotton.
These costumes reaffirmed the importance of the ceremonies and deepened their relationship with Gods and their ancestors. It was a meaningful way to preserve the link between the earthly and the spiritual realm.
The art of weaving as a means to dress continues to be very important for present-day indigenous people. It relates their extraordinary past and keeps alive the image of ancient rites. Through knitted colorful patterns of abstract geometric brocaded motifs, people tell their stories.
Oaxaca weaving system
Oaxaca weavers are historically known for their backstrap loom weaving system. Archeological evidence suggests that it may have been developed as early as 1500 B.C.E.
A loom is a device that weaves fabric. Its purpose is to hold vertical threads under tension to interweave them with horizontal yarns.
As the name suggests, a backstrap loom requires a body to support the loom by a backstrap attached to one end of the loom and adjusted around the back of the weaver. The other end is strapped to a stationary object.
The tension applied to the vertical yarns would depend then on the weavers and their movements. Its lightness permits an easy carrying for the weavers as it is constructed with wood, bone, and strings.
Backstrap loom. Pictures by: Cristinna Stoian
The composition of this type of loom forms a strict four-sided structure that imposed geometric limitations for ancient weavers to create brocaded designs. However, their imagination and creativity translated symbolic meanings into abstract and geometric brocaded forms.
You can see them in many of their traditional garments, like the Huipil, a loose tunic that falls freely through the torso. Or, the Pozahuanco, a sarong-like skirt only seen in the regions of Oaxaca.
These designs were so influential and significant for both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs that they were later reproduced in other art forms. It is common to see them in their magnificent mosaic stonework or architecture.
Meaning of Shapes and Colors
For the most part, the motifs were a sign of worship and respect for their Gods and nature. Many designs portrayed divine transformations to enter the spiritual realm. The weavers represented natural and abstract elements such as butterflies, flowers, step-fret shapes (motif of three steps connected to a spiral). Flowers had different meanings; they could represent life but also death, for their transitory nature.
Picture by: Bernardo Ramonfaur
It was also common to see S scroll forms that symbolized the union of the day and the Sun and the celebration of ceremonies.
Another shape suggesting the existence of magical kingdoms is the figure of a double-headed animal. One head represents the earth and the other the underworld, which gives this motif a sense of displaying opposites united.
Along with the motifs, the colors used could indicate the four cardinal directions: Yellow was east, red signaled north, blue and green showed west, and white was south.
The most important and repetitive of all themes was the signal of fertility. A pattern of crosses and crossbones depicted the fecundity of women. This matter was deeply rooted in the people’s spiritual beliefs, as one of their most revered deities was considered feminine and mother of the Earth.
Goddesses Among Textiles
The female representation in Mesoamerican art was a vital component to give shape and life to the deities responsible for creating all forms of life. Mesoamerican mythology pictured a female spirit who ruled over lakes and rivers, and this spirit was a woman.
The attributes of the female body were essential to imply creation and fertility. These Goddesses were the makers of all material and living beings. As creators, they also protected and cared for artisans and hand workers.
The Goddess Xochiquetzal, a deity known from the Aztec civilization but derived from the ancient Mixtec, is a fertility spirit and an advocate of the arts, including weaving.
Representing her presence was fundamental within the patterns of the ceremonial clothing. These garments also embodied deities. Dressing up as these goddesses for religious events was customary for both men and women, and even today, several Mexican people continue to do it.
In the present day, the devotion for deities continues. But it is the desire to preserve mystic practices that keep Mesoamerican arts alive. To pass on the inheritance to newer generations, the foundations of these practices had to be maintained. It is impossible to innovate or implement new ideas without understanding the techniques and methods of production. Weavers need to revisit the original patterns made by their antecessors.
For the modern-day textile artisans of Oaxaca, it is crucial to master backstrap loom weaving techniques. Otherwise, they cannot create new motifs into their designs or even copy an old brocaded motif.
The Bountiful Inheritance Of The Mixtec Civilization
The importance of Oaxaca textile has made the region globally popular. Many tourists buy these woven products for their alluring and intricate patterns.
Moreover, an interest in these crafts has risen as a result of green consumerism. Local products made with natural fibers and dyes are now more popular than ever.
For the tight-knit textile community of Oaxaca, this has meant an opportunity to share ancient knowledge with outsiders. But it is also a way to develop and grow within the economic globalization we live in. This international recognition has positively impacted the weavers, who are and always have been predominantly women.
The actual global market has enabled these women to form textiles cooperatives. Here, they can work as independent sellers and share new ideas with other weavers. Some cooperatives even rent locations in the city of Oaxaca to market their products. Additionally, they gather to discuss weaving techniques, schedule collective events, and many other activities to give support to all community members.
The Handwoven Dream of Oaxacans
Several weavers have even managed to launch their brand and take advantage of the visibility that social media platform gives them. This is the case for Mexican Dreamweavers. They are a small group of weavers, dyers, and carvers of Mixtec descendants located in Pinotepa de Don Luis, an Oaxacan town.
Thanks to their efforts to organize and give work opportunities to master weavers, they have received many avid followers seeking to purchase their finely crafted traditional tunics, skirts, carved gourd, and jewelry.
For these communities, the chance to interact with an ever-changing market by manufacturing and selling textiles is a pathway to obtaining more comfortable ways of living. They can do so by keeping alive their cultural heritage and fascinating art skills.
The textiles of Oaxaca are remarkable creations of a society that continues to thrive despite colonization and the planet’s industrialization. They hold the entire history of a world, both material and spiritual, encouraging social development for all Oaxaca people, especially their weavers.
Their intricate brocades are an ode to sacred female icons, and at the same time, they’re a knitted echo of all the creative and innovative women who have shaped an exceptional craft throughout thousands of years.