Go back to a time 1,700 years ago. A woman is sitting on the floor of her home in Teotitlán del Valle, humming softly as she weaves together the cactus fiber threads on her backstrap loom. The cloth she creates is in demand throughout the region.
It is the the golden age of the Zapotec empire, and the artisans of Teotitlán del Valle are already well known for their weaving. Zapotec cloth is sought after throughout the empire and beyond, and traded widely.
Fast forward through the centuries. The Zapotec empire sees its decline, but the cloth of the Zapotec weavers continues to be in demand. The new rulers, first the Mixtecs, then the Aztecs, take part of their tribute from the Zapotecs in cloth.
In 1521, something happens that changes the face of Zapotec weaving forever; the Spanish arrive, bringing with them sheep and standing two-pedal looms. The stronger wool replaces cotton and cactus fibers as the primary weaving material, and the new looms enable the weavers to create bigger, more durable weavings.
The need for greater strength to operate the new looms combines with the influence of the Spanish, for whom weaving is a male-dominated tradition, and the traditionally female weaving role is taken over by men. Women continue to help with carding, spinning, etc.
This remains true through the 1950's and 60's when women slowly begin to play a stronger role. Now it's almost as common to see a woman behind a loom as a man.
From the early 1900's on, Zapotec weavings attract an ever-increasing amount of attention. It begins on a regional level in the 1920's, and by the 1960's spreads throughout the world.
This worldwide interest has helped the people of Teotitlán maintain a better standard of living than many of the neighboring indigenous towns here in one of the poorest regions of Mexico.