Cochineal Carpet, Oaxaca

Isaac Vasquez and one of his Cochineal Carpets, Oaxaca, Photos by Anna Laird Barto

When you enter The-Bug-in-the-Rug store in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, you are greeted by the master weaver himself, Isaac Vasquez, a friendly, soft-spoken man with salt and pepper hair.

He invites you into his workshop, housed in the sunny courtyard of his family compound.

Your eyes are immediately drawn to the carpets on the adobe walls. Their brilliant colors and complex designs have brought fame and fortune to this village of 5,000 in the foothills of Sierra Norte of Oaxaca.

For Vasquez, his wife Guadalupe, their eight children and twenty grandchildren, weaving rugs (called laadi in Zapotec) is more than a business; it’s a link to their Zapotec ancestors. Although sheep were not introduced into the Oaxaca Valley until the mid sixteenth century, ceramic spindles and scraps of cotton textiles have been found dating from 500 BC.

“It’s difficult to preserve the tradition,” says Vasquez, who started weaving at age eight. “because working by hand is very slow, but the advantage is that you get a better quality.”

By the 1950s, the art of prehispanic weaving in Oaxaca was almost lost, due to the invention of machine looms and synthetic dyes. Vasquez, in collaboration with renowned artists Francisco Toledo and Rufino Tamayo, was responsible for reviving the traditional techniques. The Vasquez family specializes in pre-Hispanic designs.

“Our interest (in reviving prehispanic weaving) was that people got to know the colors that the Zapotec used and know the symbols of our ancestors because many of us didn’t.”

Isaac Vasquez holds up one of his rugs, others of his are on display at institutions as prestigious as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Folk Art Museum of Santa Fe

Most of his patterns are inspired by Zapotec spiritual beliefs and the friezes and reliefs of the nearby ruins of Mitla and Monte Albán.

“Our ancestors worshipped the sun, the stars and the waters.” As he speaks, he casually unfurls example after example of rugs with figures so striking they seem to take on a life beyond the woolen canvas. He tells me about each symbol and its significance in Zapotec cosmology. “The jaguar and the hummingbird symbolize the sun, and the snail pattern: birth. The eagle represents heaven because it’s the bird that flies the highest.”

The Vasquez family patriarch acts surprised by my question about whether the younger generations are still interested in learning the craft of weaving, “Why yes,” he says, “they start practicing (weaving) as soon as they come home from school in the afternoon.”

Vasquez’s life work has taken him on a magic carpet ride; he’s traveled around the world to exhibit his rugs, which are on display at institutions as prestigious as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Folk Art Museum of Santa Fe. He’s also spent time on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, learning from the Navajo weavers.

Vasquez takes visible pride in explaining his craft, step, by step, to visitors.

“This is indigo,” he says, holding out a clay pot full of dried leaves. “You leave it to ferment for 22 hours. For the yellow we use rock moss.” He proffers a basket for our inspection.

But like most visitors, I’m most interested in the cochineal, the famous “Bug-in-the-Rug” from which the store takes its name.

The cochineal is a parasite that feeds off a variety of nopal cactus. Vasquez plucks a specimen from a cactus pear he keeps on hand for demonstrations. We lean forward to make out the miniscule gray bug, not much bigger than a grain of rice, cupped in his open hand.

We gasp as he crushes it with a swift, deft movement, leaving a vivid red smear on his palm.

He chuckles. “It’s not blood,” he assures us, explaining that the actual source of the deep red pigment is the carminic acid produced by the female insect.

Extracting dye from the cochineal is a delicate, time-consuming process involving the entire extended family. First the women harvest the cochineal, gently detaching them from the plant with a special brush. The cochineal are then dried, ground and boiled in a giant vat, which family members, even young children, take turns stirring.

The color spectrum of cochineal – from deep magenta to light vermilion – is achieved by adding different amounts of lemon juice to the dye. Organic dyes like cochineal are nontoxic and do not fade with time like chemical pigments.

Prices at The-Bug-in-the-Rug are higher than at many stores in Teotitlán del Valle, but you can be assured the highest quality, with thread counts of 20 strands per inch.

As you walk through the cobblestone alleyways of Teotitlán del Valle you hear the thud of treadle looms and the gentle aspirated tones of the Zapotec language. Even with the advent of television and the spread of US consumer cultures – McDonald’s and Sam’s Club are just 15 miles away in Oaxaca city – Teotitlán del Valle has managed to adapt to the 20th century without sacrificing its Zapotec identity.

-Originally Published March 2007