Easily the most recognizable name when it comes to iconic Oaxacan folk art, Teotitlán del Valle (along with the neighboring town of Santa Ana del Valle) is best known for handwoven and natural dyed wool tapetes, a.k.a. rugs. Made laboriously by skilled craftspeople using pedal-operated looms, these rugs are often pricey but well worth the investment, not least for their artistic value but also for the economic support they provide to the families in these Oaxacan villages. Head off the main streets to support workshops that often get overlooked by tourists.
For woven goods that go beyond rugs, you need to make your way to the lesser-known town of Santo Tomás Jalieza. Sure, they still have plenty of good old tapetes available, but in this tiny pueblo you’ll also find a ton of other beautiful pieces, like sashes, belts and table runners, made using backstrap rather than pedal-operated looms. So, if you want a more uniquely crafted piece of folk art, this is the place to go.
Pottery is a major staple of the Oaxacan folk art industry, with several towns in the state producing their own variations of these already one-of-a-kind pieces. Santa María Atzompa – situated at the base of Monte Albán – is just one of those towns, known principally for striking, natural green glazed pottery, decorated with pastillaje (raised clay additions that give it an elaborate appearance).
As mentioned above, San Bartolo Coyotepec is easily the town in Oaxaca best known for barro negro, otherwise known as black pottery. This unusual type of folk art involves handcrafting the item before (sometimes) adding intricate lattice detailing and firing it in a pit kiln. Once finished, it’s polished to an intense shine which lends it its high-quality feel and finish. You can find figurines, pots and even just simple decorations made from barro negro in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
Alongside clay and tapetes, the most recognisable handicrafts produced in Oaxaca are undeniably the vibrant, delicate and surprisingly lightweight alebrijes. These petite wood carvings – often shaped like mythical creatures or vaguely surreal animals – are representations of spirits according to the Zapotec culture and can be found in abundance in the town of San Martín Tilcajete. Wood in general is the staple here though, so look out for hot chocolate whisks among a wealth of other wood based items.
The second of Oaxaca’s three woodworking towns, the first being the aforementioned San Martín Tilcajete and the third being La Unión Tejalpam, Arrazola is also known for the lightweight porous alebrijes that make for colorful, cute and cultural souvenirs. Choose from the large ones that might be a pain to transport but would make a statement in any household, or from the petite ones that will happily slip into a rucksack, but remember to pay fairly for these tiny artesanías.
If you’re looking for beautifully embroidered pieces of clothing and household decoration, the place to head in Oaxaca is the lesser-known town of San Antonino. Here they specialize in detailed stitching techniques, usually featuring animals and flowers and typically applied to women’s dresses. These so-called Oaxacan wedding dresses command a high price and, presumably, plenty of envy too. You can also pick up dried flower arrangements made with flores inmortales or woven baskets.