I believe that art, or beauty of any type, can only make our lives happier. I’ve mentioned that I create mosaics in my spare time, mostly because their creation allows me to smash things, and because precision isn’t required. I also love fiber and textile arts, but counting stitches while crocheting or knitting, or sewing the straight lines required to create quilts is stressful rather than relaxing for me. Because I have tried these arts, I admire those who can create things of beauty using fiber and textiles. I think I might like weaving, and hope to give that a shot sometime soon, but in the meantime, here’s a little information about the history of weaving in Mexico.
The art of weaving in Mexico has changed as the country has changed. Although woven items can be incredibly beautiful, it is art that is produced to be utilitarian. Today, folk arts such as weaving are a living tradition in Mexico, a link to their ancestors.
To fully understand the tradition of weaving that exists in Mexico, we must first understand a bit of the history of the indigenous peoples. Mexico is geographically diverse, with mountains, jungles and desert. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century, Mexico was peopled by a variety of indigenous cultures, the most well-known being the Aztecs and the Mayas.
Along with pottery, weaving is one of the oldest handcrafts. Mexican weaving probably began with weaving grasses to form baskets. Weaving fabric using native fibers, such as cotton, cactus, yucca, agave and maguey was a widespread practice before the Spanish arrived. The indigenous people had learned to cultivate and process cotton to make cloth. They made dyes for the cloth using insects, plants, minerals, shells, and animals such as cochineal and shellfish. Woven cloth was used by those who made it, but was also used for barter and to pay tribute.
Early weavers were able to control the fineness or coarseness of thread using a clay whorl, called a malacate. They used a backstrap loom, which has one end attached to a stationary object, with the other end wrapped around the weaver, usually a woman. The weaver sways to change the tension on the threads and they were able to create complex designs. The only problem with this type of loom was that the width of the cloth was limited by the reach of the weaver.
There are few existing examples of pre-Conquest weaving, but the types of clothing created and worn can be seen on clay figures, stone carvings and pottery from that period. There are also detailed references to Indian dress in Spanish Conquest records, noting the magnificent garments worn by the Indians. There exist approximately 600 textile fragments from the pre-Hispanic era that were preserved in thick mud in a sacred well in the Yucatan. Some pieces have also been recovered from dry caves. The oldest loom-woven fragment excavated so far has been dated to 1800-1400 BCE.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, existing cultures were destroyed by disease, war, and slavery. They were also destroyed for religious reasons, with the invaders replacing their “pagan” gods with Christianity. One of the many changes that came with Christianity was in the form of dress, as the Europeans didn’t like people going about their business while semi-nude. Imagine the effect of that on indigenous tribes like the Aztecs and the Mayas, stratified societies that used clothing to connote status. Any traditional folk arts in these communities that served previous cultural or religious needs were eliminated by the Spanish.
Although the arrival of the Spanish was devastating to native cultures in many ways, their influence regarding textiles was not all bad. The most important contribution was the introduction of new materials produced by domestic animals which had not previously existed in Mexico. The most enduring was the introduction of wool to the native population. Wool was first woven in about 1540 and proved to be warmer and more durable than the previously relied upon cotton.
The Spanish brought silkworms to the New World. In the first years after the Conquest there were many silkworms and the mulberry trees they need to survive. Unfortunately, due to the restrictive Spanish laws regarding production and export from their American colonies, many of the mulberry trees were allowed to die. There are a few Zapotecan villages in Oaxaca where mulberry trees still grow and the people continue to make silk.
The Spanish also brought upright looms, hand looms and spinning wheels, but this did not mean that the old ways were abandoned. Using the upright loom meant fabric could be made as wide as necessary, rather than the narrower pieces that could be produced with the backstrap loom. The backstrap looms were still used for weaving narrow items, and also because they were more versatile and mobile, although they were also more physically taxing to use.
There were other changes in the next couple of hundred years, mostly due to mechanization and the availability of cheap foreign imports. The next big change was more about pride than about new materials or tools. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), weaving was one aspect of a new wave of nationalism in Mexico, a new respect among Mexicans for their native heritage and for the ancient crafts.
In the 1970s, the art of weaving started to decline, partly because of the lack of availability of natural resources, but also because of the lack of time. One piece can take months to complete on a backstrap loom, so the cost of the item would be prohibitive if it were made to be sold rather than worn by the weaver. During this time, Walter F. Morris, Jr., an independent scholar and cultural preservationist, helped weavers from various communities to form a cooperative. Called Sna Jolobil, which means “The House of the Weaver” in one of the Mayan languages, the cooperative opened their first store in San Cristobal in 1977. One of the benefits of the cooperative was the exchange of information between villages, which had been almost non-existent previously. This cooperative, and the work that it inspired, helped to reverse the decline of this ancient art form. As another source of income for the weavers, you can now travel to Mexico to learn the entire process, including how to create and use natural dyes, from the weavers.
The art of weaving has been a constant in Mexico that links the present with the past, surviving the many major events that have formed modern Mexico. The recent global renewal of interest in folk arts has brought a new respect to these artisans. Hopefully this new interest will assure the old ways never completely disappear.
Are any of you proficient in the fiber or textile arts? I’d love to see samples of your work, so feel free to share!