Two main plants provided the Aztecs with textiles before the Spanish Conquest in 1519: maguey (agave) and cotton. Maguey fiber was so strong, it was used for hammocks, fishing nets, sandals, sleeping mats, paper, and various household items. It was the source of food and several different kinds of alcohol. It was also the plant that provided clothing for the common people, those who were not members of the nobility.
Once the maguey plant flowers, it dies, so Aztecs who cultivated it cut off the large leaves for the fiber, which would keep the plant from flowering. The leaves could be processed several different ways. At left is a photo of a woman scraping the leaves into fibers, which then will be left in the sun to dry. When ready, the fibers were spun with a hand spindle and eventually woven into cloth or knotted into nets and hammocks.
The nobles wore cotton, which came naturally either a soft brown or off-white. It grew in the semi-tropical lowlands far from the capital of the Aztec Empire. Conquered towns in the area paid taxes in cotton, so it was considered a luxury good.
Spinning was so much a part of Aztec life that baby girls were given a spindle at birth by the midwife who welcomed them into the world. By the age of seven, the girls were expected to be spinning a daily quota.
Weaving the fiber into cloth was done on a backstrap loom, named that because the loom was literally tied to the weaver by the strap worn around the lower back or hips. Small and portable, the loom is still used in many countries today. The fabric tended to be dyed bright colors, either before or after weaving. The needles on the tips of the maguey leaves came in handy, for the elaborate embroidery was often done on the woven fabric.
Feathers were sometimes woven into the cotton cloth. Years ago, I saw a cape made of hummingbird feathers in a Mexican museum. Time and dust had dulled it some, but I could still see glimpses of purple and green. Feather weaving was quite an art and those who specialized in it had their own guild. The Emperor Moctezuma had an aviary that is believed to have held every kind of bird in the (then) known world. Reportedly, the feathers were harvested regularly, much like fruit.
Unlike the Aztec nobility, the Spanish didn’t care for the cotton, finding it too stiff. So they began to import wool and silk. By the 1530s, sheep, silkworms, and the European foot peddle loom were introduced into what was then New Spain. From 1540-1580, the area was a major exporter of wool and silk.
A future blog will tell about the two Aztec dyes for cloth that were so valuable that European nations hired pirates to steal them.