The Provenance of Pozahuancos

Weaving brocade on a backstrap loom
Mixtec co-op member weaving brocade on a backstrap loom

Part of what makes Anita Osterhaug such an excellent editor of Handwoven is her love of travel, specifically her focus on making connections between weavers all across the globe. Today she shares the incredible story of a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she got hands-on experience learning traditional spinning, weaving, and dyeing techniques for traditional pozahuancos. If her story awakens your wanderlust, fear not! Through CrafTours, you can sign up for your very own weaving and dyeing getaway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You’ll work with master artisans, participate in workshops, and enjoy the gorgeous sights of Dolores Hidelgo and Guanajuato. Click here to learn more! ~Andrea

When experts talk about fine wine, they talk about provenance, the history and origin of the grape stock, and terroir, how the wine reflects the properties of the earth from whence it came. The same is true of textiles created by weavers using centuries-old techniques on their native soil. For me, one of the great joys of travel is to seek out artisans and experience how intimately their crafts are woven into their lives. The fibers, the techniques, the patterns, the colors, even their tools, all flow naturally from their land and history. Through glimpses of that connectedness, textile travel expands my horizons, but it also brings my weaving and my own life into perspective.

Mixtec woman spinning cotton
Mixtec woman in her pozahuanco, spinning native brown cotton (She was fast!)

One of the most unique traditional fabrics I’ve seen is the pozahuanco, the purple wrap skirt worn by indigenous Mixtec women in coastal Oaxaca, Mexico. The Mixtec spin and weave with native cotton, mostly white and natural browns. They dye their cotton with cochineal and other native plants, but the finest pozahuancos were traditionally made and worn for weddings, and they were dyed purple with purpura dye, secretions from a snail that lives on the rocky coast.

I traveled to Oaxaca a few years ago with the staff of fair trade organization Clothroads and friends, and we had the opportunity to visit a weaving cooperative in the village of Pinotepa de Don Luis, where we saw how the backstrap weavers create pozahuancos using patterns handed down since pre-Columbian times. From there, we traveled to the coast with Habacuc Avendano, one of the last purpura dyers, and boarded pangas, open fishing boats, for a trip to a remote cove. Clinging to the rocks, we watched him milk snails, dropping their white liquid onto handspun cotton yarn, then carefully replacing the mollusks in their rocky cracks so they could dye another day.

Natural dyeing for pozehuancos with purpura dye
Left: Milking snails for purpura dye, before releasing the snails. Right: Purpura-treated yarn changing color in the sun. Click here to book your own life-changing CrafTour to Mexico!
Purpura dyer explains his legacy
Habacuc telling us about his youth and walking two weeks to the coast for dyeing

Habacuc told us how, when he was a boy, the dyers would walk two weeks from their village in the hills to the coast, bringing yarn for that season’s dyeing, and he told us how the snail population had been decimated by over-harvesting to supply the Japanese seafood market and new resorts up the Oaxacan coast. After leaving the snail cove, we gathered around a rock on another beach and watched the magic of sun and sea as the light turned the treated yarn first green, and then a deep, rich lavender.

The pozahuancos of Oaxaca are not only stunning fabrics, reflecting centuries of tradition, they are also a reminder that everything beautiful exists in a delicate balance. What we do as weavers has impact. We can consume responsibly in our own weaving, choosing to support small businesses (and every fiber arts business is a small business). We can also choose sustainably produced materials, and we can travel to support those who still live off the land and live by weaving. Through the weaver-to-weaver connection, we bear witness to the worth of textile traditions and the dignity of the artisans who practice them, enriching their lives and ours.


P.S. What was the most awesome weaving or other fiber-related trip you’ve ever been on? Share your story in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “The Provenance of Pozahuancos

  1. I just got back from the Solomon Islands where I was doing field research for a culture documentation project. On Santa Cruz Island there is a single clan that weaves the traditional garments and purses from banana fiber and the highly proprietary weaving craft there is on the brink of extinction. As an academic researcher, I was permitted to learn how to process the fibers into something that could be woven on a backstrap loom and all of the techniques involved with weaving in tassels, fringe, pandanus, and patterns. No dyes are used – only the black and white fibers. Currently, only eight men in the clan are weaving (up from the one man who single-handedly taught the others) and I am now the only female who now knows how to do Santa Cruz banana fiber weaving! This was an incredible journey for me and a very “National Geographic” experience!

    1. Wow, what an incredible experience! Hopefully there are people doing Santa Cruz banana fiber weaving for many years to come. I’m sure the process is very interesting, and I’d love to see what the black and white fibers look like. Thanks so much for sharing your story!