Isaac Vásquez Garcia hauled a hank of wool out of a steaming vat of red dye and grinned: "Bugs," said the patriarch of a family of rug weavers in the small town of Teotitl...

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Isaac Vásquez Garcia hauled a hank of wool out of a steaming vat of red dye and grinned: “Bugs,” said the patriarch of a family of rug weavers in the small town of Teotitlán del Valle in southern Mexico.

The dye, called cochineal, comes from a tiny, gray beetlelike insect. The bugs are collected from the prickly pear cacti on which they feed; when their bodies are dried and crushed, they yield an intensely scarlet powder that’s mixed in water and used to color wool.

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Cochineal has been prized for centuries in this town near Oaxaca where more than 100 families specialize in hand-weaving rugs. Although cochineal mostly has been supplanted in the textile industry by cheaper synthetic dyes, some of the area’s master weavers, including Don Isaac, still use cochineal and other traditional plant-derived dyes.


An education on rugs


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Rug workshops: Casa Vásquez/Tapete Zapoteco, the rug-weaving workshop of Isaac Vásquez Garcia, is in the center of Teotitlán del Valle; other family workshops also are open to the public.

• Oaxaca weavings in Seattle: Jacobo Mendoza, an accomplished artist from Teotitlán del Valle, has several dozen rugs and weavings on display at Collins Pub in Seattle’s Pioneer Square area. The exhibit/sale runs through October at the pub at 526 Second Ave., Seattle. More information: www.thecollinspub.com or contact Peter Howard, his local sponsor: 206-329-1376.

More information: The Planeta Web site has useful information on Oaxaca-area crafts and sights, including Teotitlán del Valle; see www.planeta.com/oaxaca.html.


Teotitlán del Valle is in the Sierra Norte foothills, a huddle of low buildings about 15 miles from Oaxaca. We had come by van from the city, a group of 10 mother-and-daughter tourists, to this family workshop to see how rugs were made.

It was a friendly, casual display. Don Isaac stirred the bubbling vat of red dye over a wood fire in a sunny courtyard. In cool, whitewashed siderooms, the extended family — spouses, children, nephews, cousins — showed how they card, spin, dye and weave the wool into intricate rugs, both modern patterns and the traditional, geometric local Zapotec Indian designs. They had us try to spin the wool, but we turned out scraggly, lumpy strands that had these master spinners and weavers politely chuckling.

When we gave up spinning and just watched the pros, my eyes kept straying to a small rug hanging alone on a wall, an angular pattern of deep shades of red and orange.

There were dozens of other rugs piled in a sideroom for sale, but I hardly looked at them. Although I rarely shop on trips, I wanted that rug. I was captivated by its glowing colors and the sense of place that came with it.

Priced too high

KRISTIN JACKSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Handspun wool for weaving rugs is colored with natural dyes derived from plants and cochineal insects, shown clustered on a prickly pear leaf on which they feed.


In my basic Spanish, I asked Don Isaac the rug’s price. Very nice rug, he said, stirring the bubbling vat of dye over a wood fire in the courtyard and naming a price equivalent to about $400. Too much for me. I wandered off to watch another weaver, his slender hands flying over a wood loom.

“Ask again,” urged my 13-year-old daughter, by then a veteran of her own shopping forays and bargaining in Oaxaca. “Maybe you can get it cheaper.”

I was doubtful, but asked another man. The price plunged. By simply asking again, and offering cash instead of a credit card, I ended up paying $180.

I have no idea what a good price for my rug really was, but I was happy to pay that. It’s a little bit of personal history, a tangible piece of traditional culture that keeps memories of our trip alive.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com