By Kary Vannice
Mexico’s rich textile heritage is a colorful historical narrative interwoven with indigenous traditions and the imprints of European influence. From the earliest known fibers (1400 BCE) to the contemporary fusion of craftsmanship and innovation, textile weavers and designers have left their mark on the Mexican culture.
Mexican Textiles – Indigenous and Colonial Roots
The genesis of Mexican textiles can be traced to 1800 BCE, when fibers of the chichicaste plant (much like stinging nettle) were skillfully woven into fabric fragments. The pre-Hispanic era brought about the artful integration of native fibers like yucca, palm, willow and maguey. Cotton, which is not native to Mexico, made its first appearance much earlier, around 3000 BCE. Obtained through conquest and trade among ancient societies, cotton assumed a revered status and its use was restricted to the elite.
In pre-Spanish culture, textile making was not merely a technique, but a sacred gift bestowed upon women by the gods. The backstrap loom, a lightweight, mobile loom made of wood and a strap that is wrapped around the back, was exclusively operated by women, and played a central role in weaving fabrics. In those times, the intricate process of weaving, spinning, and embroidering held more than cultural significance – some fabrics were also used as currency.
The Spanish conquest ushered in a transformative era for Mexican textiles. New fibers arriving from Europe, like silk and wool, reshaped the industry. The imported foot treadle loom, often seen in Mexico today, mechanized weaving and lead to an explosion of production and a pivotal shift in the textile trade.
Mexican Textiles Travel the World
Wool and silk imports, coupled with the introduction of sheep and silkworms, catapulted Mexico into the global textile scene by the late 1500s. This period marked a significant exchange of textile knowledge and resources between Europe and the Americas.
Over time, European textile techniques became assimilated into the rich tapestry of Mexican craftsmanship. This influx of new materials spurred innovation among native weavers and resulted in a fusion of styles and patterns. Mexican textiles became sought-after commodities and unique fashion statements throughout Europe.
Native weavers began exporting their diverse range of handcrafted garments and homemade items to international markets. Their designs showcased the distinctive aesthetic of Mexican culture, characterized by vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and the use of naturally dyed fibers.
During the 19th century, the introduction of steam-powered machines opened new horizons for the textile industry in Mexico. By the late 19th century, textile production and distribution emerged as a dominant force in the country’s manufacturing sector and Mexico’s textiles became known the world over.
When industrial sewing machines became available in the early 20th century it brought about another chapter in textile production and catalyzed a new phase in the industry – the production of finished clothing.
Despite the transition to modern textile production, the influence of ancient techniques endures. Weaving has become a cultural narrative and the artisans committed to preserving traditional methods not only sustain the authenticity of Mexican textiles but also foster a sense of continuity between generations.
Mexican textiles have emerged as international representatives of cultural craftsmanship. Their global recognition reflects the adaptability of Mexico’s textile industry, which today honors its heritage while at the same time embracing contemporary trends (see Brooke O’Connor’s article elsewhere in this issue).
Sustainable Tradition, Environmentally Ethical
Mexico’s long-standing traditional approach to textile production, rooted in sustainable and ethical practices, aligns with the growing global emphasis on environmentally conscious fashion. Mexican designers and industry leaders continue to push the boundaries of sustainable textile innovation. In 2019, the Mexico-based company Adriano di Marti, went to the Milan (Italy) Leather Fair and presented a vegan leather made from nopal cactus called Desserto. The company has developed a version of the leather called Desertex for use in automobiles; they are now working on using agave fiber, a waste byproduct of the tequila-making process, to produce a third vegan leather, Desserto Agave, for use in the fashion industry. Adriana di Marti also produces cactus yarns for woven fabrics.
The enduring history of naturally derived textiles in Mexico is a testament to the cultural richness that transcends time. Mexican textiles narrate a saga of centuries, embodying a cultural legacy that continues to flourish in the tapestry of modern life.