Oaxaca life

Market Spotlight: The Backstrap Textiles of Santo Tomás Jalieza

An artisan works with cotton and a backstrap loom in the local market.
An artisan works with cotton and a backstrap loom in the local market.

Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland

Mexico supports an expansive history of textile production in a range of natural fibers like wool, silk, maguey and cotton that is woven into veritable art pieces. These creative works speak to tradition, storytelling, community and rich family legacies. While quality textiles can be found throughout the country, some of the most concentrated areas for the assembly of these handmade pieces include Chiapas and Oaxaca.

The pueblos (towns) in the state of Oaxaca generally focus on specialty items in a collective fashion, which provides a streamlined process for those sourcing specific treasures. Santo Tomás Jalieza is a small community of roughly 2,800 people that sits in the Ocotlán district of the state – a scenic 40-minute drive from the Oaxaca city center. While agriculture is a local industry, the pueblo is most widely known as the town of cinturones (belts), due to the continuous production of handwoven textiles using the traditional backstrap loom process. The bulk of the pieces are created from cotton, however bits of wool, silk and leather sometimes make an appearance.

An example of the vibrant blooms that line the streets of the town.
An example of the vibrant flowers that line the streets of the town.

Upon exiting a local colectivo taxi, I walk up the main road and am instantly enveloped by fuchsia blooms that line the street like a vibrant greeting line at a wedding. Single story homes recline across beautifully maintained yards, while the flowers beckon me forward towards the town church, and then on to the textile market that sits directly in front of it.

Two women sit on straw mats, feet folded under their legs as a spray of colored cotton strings slide into a pink and white strip of cloth. Wide leather belts sit on their lower backs, providing hand placement that is conducive to the creation of sophisticated patterns. Arms move across the fabric, and with this a tiny row of multicolored shapes emerge at the left of one of the designs. It is a Sunday afternoon and the market is quiet outside of a modest smattering of people who occasionally stroll through to admire the handiwork.

A backstrap piece in progress in the market.
A backstrap piece in progress in the market.

While some areas see only the men doing the weaving, it is the women of this pueblo who produce, market and sell the textiles that are formed using the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom method. In the interest of fair pricing and increased capabilities for large group orders, the community of Santo Tomás Jalieza formed a collective over 40 years ago. The group is extremely democratic in that they introduce a newly elected president and secretary every year, and have also created a systemized mode of pricing so that all of the artisans offer identical quotes for similar pieces. The women note that this not only ensures that they are paid well for their time and effort (given the lack of bartering with customers), but that it has also helped to maintain a harmonious balance between the group members.

Finely woven belts in an artisan stall.
Finely woven cotton belts of various sizes in an artisan stall.

Bags, table runners, placemats and belts of all sizes are artfully arranged at each vendor table. In total, there are eight stalls open, though this generally varies from day to day. After purchasing a black and white handbag and four placemats, I wave farewell to the women as hunger washes over my purchasing adventure.

Families dine together in the local restaurant.
Families dine together in the local restaurant.

Quality meals can be found at Comedor los Huamuches, with Sundays being especially popular with local families. One tlayuda and a plate of beans later, I am heading back to the city, hands folded across the interlaced stories that have been passed down from great-grandmothers in order to keep this local tradition (and livelihood) dancing through the hearts and fingers of the younger generations of weavers.

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2 thoughts on “Market Spotlight: The Backstrap Textiles of Santo Tomás Jalieza”

  1. Ehren,
    Your posts are great! So rich and informative. You’ve also got a fabulous eye for photography. Thanks for sharing this labor of love with us. I’m returning to Oaxaca in Oct. and will be volunteering again with En Vía – I hope to meet you this time around!

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Apologies for the delay in reply. Thank you for your lovely note – I appreciate it! I look forward to seeing you this month in October.

      Ehren

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