Weaving In Highland Mexicosenor-tierra.jpg

By Lori O'Neal

Maria of Santiago Atitlan weaving on her loom outside her home.

Today in Mexico, women weave intricately designed and patterned textiles for sale to tourists in the villages, market squares, and at the entrances of archaeological sites. In some cases, they can be purchased over the internet. They have taken this ancient craft, full of symbolism, cultural history, and spiritualism, and kept it alive as an important commodity to support themselves, and their political and social interests in these regions. Weaving has a long meaningful history in the highlands, and I will try to explain its importance as tribute, rank, and trade in the ancient world, as well as its importance today.

Just how long people have been weaving is difficult to say. Textiles don't preserve will, nor do the backstrap looms. Greenfield (2004:29) points out,however, that people of Mesoamerica have been weaving on backstrap looms for over four thousand years. Below is an example of a backstrap loom. They are very simple and mobile, so they can be used anywhere, and can travel with the weaver. Women often had to multi task, and with this loom, they could work while watching the kids, or the animals.
Photo: 2002, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

The loom is attached to a tree, post, or whatever is handy, and then a strap is placed around the weavers back to keep the loom taught. The threads running vertically are the warp threads, and the threads running horizontally (woven back and forth) are the weft threads. This simple setup allows the weaver to create intricate symbolic designs. The looms have changed little over time.

Historically, textiles were very important for the Maya and Aztec of Mesoamerica as trade goods, tribute, and in ceremonial traditions. An individual's ethnic identity and social status were represented in the colors, designs of the textile clothing they wore. This is true still today in Highland Guatemala (Chase, 2008:127). The best evidence for textile production comes from ceramic spindle whorls found throughout many households, indicating that the cotton thread production was common to many, and not a specific economic group. These finds date to the Postclassic era (after A.D. 900). (Chase, 2008:129)

Cotton, hemp, wool (sheep introduced by the Spaniards), and other natural fibers are spun into thread on spindles with whorls made of stone, bone, ceramic, or wooden material. The process is simple, but getting a good quality, even thickness thread takes a lot of practice in order to make a quality woven cloth.
Photo: 2002, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

The oldest cotton fibers have been found in Tehuacan near Oaxaca, Mexico an date to about 2300B.B.E. (Vreeland, 1999:112) Several varieties of cotton were domesticated all over Central and South America. Unfortunately, textile material is not preserved from the earliest times to put together a picture of styles and uses. In an earlier paragraph Dr. Chase notes that many whorls were found all throughout the households, but this is not true of all areas, and the post classic may have seen many cultural changes from the Formative period. Some commonalities can be implied, including the use as tribute in both the highlands and lowlands. In any case, weaving has a long and important history in the highlands.

A brief History of the Highlands.

Early inhabitants living in small villages and practicing both hunting and gathering and maize and bean agriculture were scattered about central Mexico. Population growth and expansion into the foot hills, brought more complex irrigation techniques, followed by increased longer distance trade. Valued obsidian was traded to the lowlands that brought exotic goods to the highlands. A new class of leader arose from the increased social and political complexity, and the exotic goods legitimized their rule. Styles and ideas were exchanged, like the Jaguar motif pottery, and magnetite mirrors from the Olmec in the lowlands, and the highland and lowlands connected in common religious beliefs. Ceremony and ritual maintained the rulers positions as intermediaries between their world and the ancestors. Their calendrical and writing systems were greatly important to document and validate their right to rule and human sacrifice kept the world in order. (Scarre, Fagan, 2008:436-441)

Monte Alban in the valley of Oaxaca, and Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, were major Mayan states by in the first millennia B.C.E. Teotihuacan would boast a population of over 150,000 people by A.D. 700. Both would vanish by A.D. 750. The Mayan states achieved power by conquest and military rule. They utilized extensive long distance trade, and demanded tribute from the subjects. An inexhaustible supply of labor built a complex planned city based on the idea that it was symbolized or replicated the spirit world, which was so important to the people. In Teotihuacan, there would eventually be 600 pyramids, 500 work areas, great market places, 2000 apartment buildings, and many plazas. It was a very sacred place of pilgrimage, a mecca. The symbolic nature of the city as the center of civilization can't be under stated. It is seen in the later Aztec writing as highly revered place. The Maya's increasing militaristic ideology, exploding population, and depletion of the valley's resources devastated the economy. Social unrest and dissent may have doomed the city, and it fell in A.D. 750. About the same time, Monte Alban was abandoned and fell into ruin. Both city's populations moved to other cities developing throughout the highlands. (Scarre, Fagan, 2008:441-446)

Eventually the Toltec gained power and ruled for near 500 years. Their cities never achieved the size and population of Teotihuacan, but their rule extended through much of central Mexico. The Toltec were the people the Aztec held in high regard as great warriors and conquerors, and who were "all perfect, all marvelous...in truth they invented all the wonderful, precious, and marvelous things which they made" (Scarre Fagan, 2008:457). The Toltec city of Tula fell around A.D.1200, but their legend lived on with the Aztec.

During next century, the remaining Toltec and other groups vied for control, but it was the Aztec who had the means to succeed. They founded Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, the twin cities on the largest lake in the valley of Mexico. Tenochtitlan became the religious and governing center, and Tlatelolco became the market or trade center. Although they reigned for only 200 years, the Aztec established the largest empire in the Americas. Combining the highlands and lowlands, they controlled a vast area of 5 million people. They were able to control a large number of people through military power, and created a city on an architectural grid, compartmentalized by patrilineal kinship groups, and divided into 4 quarters, based on these groups. It was a very complex and organized system of status and rank. Each quarter collected taxes and tribute, was expected to compile an army, provide labor for building projects, and had their own temples and schools. At the heart of all Aztec life was ritual. Ritual kept the world going, it kept time from expiring. Ritual even governed the way people dressed, and how they acted. A whole set of social rules were in place. For instance, a gentleman was expected to speak well, and women to weave good cloth. Much of the cloth was given in tribute, and tribute was expected of everyone, all to benefit the elite. Some communities specialized in types of tribute, 26 of which provided firewood for the elite. Many more were traders, securing exotic tributes from all over Mexico. With their vast reign came enemies and discontented villages who took advantage of the Spaniards arrival in 1517, and between 1519 and 1521 the cities succumbed to Spanish disease and weaponry.(Scarre Fagan, 2008:450-459)

The Tradition of Weaving.

Women, most certainly made up the majority of the weavers. Today, if asked, the women weavers of Chiapas Mexico say they "have been weaving sacred designs from the earliest times"(Greenfield, 2004:29). Aztec codex shows women weaving, and the importance of the ability to be a good weaver. ( The top picture is a tortilla making process) The cloth the Aztec women wove for clothing was deeply significant to the family, each family having combinations of designs, colors specific to them. They were identified by their clothing and it held traditional family significance.
Aztec weaver and teacher

Picture by J.B. Lavin

In the above depiction, they women are kneeling while working. Traditionally, in Zinacantan, Chiapas baby girls are prepped from birth to develop behaviors that help them learn to weave. It isn't a far stretch to think that historically young children received the same training. Dr. Patricia Greenfield is a developmental psychologist studying two generations of mothers teaching their daughters to weave on the traditional backstrap loom. According to Dr Greenfield, a girl's body and mind are conditioned for a life of weaving. She is encouraged as a baby to develop feminine skills by having cooking and grinding utensils, weaving tools placed in front of her. This practice is seen as early as A.D. 800, and is again documented in the colonial period. Another commonality is kneeling. The stresses on the leg bones of Zinacantec girls who kneel for long periods of time is visible in their morphology. This allows them to kneel easily for long periods of time as adults. This appears in the Paleontological record.(Greenfield,2004:30-31)

As I mentioned in the history of the highlands, ritual permeated the lives of the Maya, Toltec, and the Aztec. Much of the cloth made was given to the elite as tribute, and was used in ceremonies. This continued through the Spanish conquest. In the Colonial period, cotton mantles were one of the main forms of tribute, and some surviving Mayan codices refer to cloth as an offering, too. Today ceremonial garments are made by Mesoamerican women, in the form of Huipils. They are 2 or 3 rectangular pieces of woven cloth sewn together with openings for the head and arms. They are decorated with symbols specific to the weaver with flowers, gods, toads, and anthropomorphic figures. Few women can make the ceremonial huipil. In Magdalinas, Chiapas Mexico, the ceremonial garment made for the Saint Maria Magdalina statue can only be made by the weaver who is descended from the family of weavers through a religious weaving tradition. This tradition of the ceremonial huipil and the Saint mixes the old beliefs with the new. The Catholic Saint wears the Mayan huipil through the streets during the ceremony. Young girls pray to the Saint to become good weavers. The huipil itself is a matrix of ancient symbols portraying the many paths of the sun, the relationship of space and time, and other meaningful symbols. Other ceremonial huipils made and worn by the high ranking women place them in association with the gods..."she becomes one of the daughters of the rain god, fearful of the lightning, yet praying for rain"(Morris,1987:19).


With the development of cooperatives, and opportunities for craftspersons to design and sell wares, the weaver is sure to continue to be a trade passed down through the generations. However, many changes in the way cloth is made for the ever growing international markets has enabled weavers to produce more, faster. Most, if not all of the tourist huipils made today are from store bought cloth, with brocade, or machine made ribbon attached by the weaver. I purchased one myself while in the Yucatan, and although it is quite beautiful, I can see that it is not made in the traditional way. Yet, there is great interest in the traditional weaving process, and the co-ops are teaching on backstrap looms in Chiapas and other areas.


Chase, A.F., Chase, D.Z., Zorn, E., Teeter, W.(2008) 'Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record' Ancient Mesoamerica. v.19. p127-142 Cambridge University Press.

Greenfield, P.M. (2004) 'Weaving Generations Together' A School of American Research Resident Scholor Book, Santa Fe.

Morris, W.F.(1987) 'Symbolism of a Ceremonial Huipil of the Highland Tzotzil Maya Community of Magdalenas, Chiapas'. New World Archaological Foundation, Provo.

Scarre,C. and Fagan,B. (2008) 'Ancient Civilizations'. Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle River.


++ I have incorporated some of my modules and photos into my final project.


Lori's Profile;

I live in Melbourne and have been attempting to complete my anthropology degree at UCF, while working full time, since 2002. Recently, I was laid off and have the opportunity to go to school full time. (Yeah) My interest tends to be physical anthropology, however, I enjoy all the classes, and have not truly decided just where I want to go with this. As a Junior, I have to get my act together soon!!

In addition to Anthropology (which I can say is kind of a hobby) I am an avid wildlife photographer and spend most weekends camping, hiking, kayaking with my camera in hand. Eventually, I want to circumnavigate and photograph Florida via kayak. Being in the Florida outdoors all the time has heightened my interest in experimental Archaeology - like wild food gathering and processing techniques, and I have been dabbling in flintknapping - I am not very good! LOL BTW I am getting much better at my flint knapping. And, I am really excited about going to a Knapp in in January at the Steven Foster Cultural Center.

Module 14.
This site is interesting because it addresses the problem of lost traditions and the ease in which they can just be forgotton. In this article, a group from the Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City went the the small village of San Bartolo, Yautepec and found one older woman who still knew the craft of tejido weaving. They asked her to teach the craft to 10 children. That was 1951. One of those original children is still teaching today and says that 15 people in the village now practice the craft. Many start to learn, but quit. The craft is time consuming, and it is not a lucrative business, and the young people have other dutys, school and work. Tourists are the ones who are interested in the traditional practice.

Module 11

Here is a better picture of Monte Alban in a google earth format rather than just a JPEG. Below a link to a paper on Pre-Columbian textile industry... to be updated later.


Module 10.

Map of an area in Chiapas
In the Chiapas area, worls of bone, ceramic and stone are some of the only remains of the classic weaving period. Weaving, however, is very much alive and well in all of Mexico. Early weaving was a higlly traded commody, and still is today. Woven clothing was used in payment in tribute, displays of status, ethnic affiliations, and ceremonial uses. The designs were unique and complex, they made a statement about the person who created them.


Module 9.

Archaeological Textiles: A Review of Current Research Author(s): Irene Good Source: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 30 (2001), pp. 209-226 Published by: Annual Reviews Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3069215

Abstract: Archaeological textile studies are now recognized as a robust source of information for anthropological inquiry. Over the past two decades several important developments have taken place, enabling a more integrated approach to their study than in the past. Topics addressed range from the development of methods for analyzing degraded fibers to the comparative study of specific histories of textile and clothing traditions. Archaeological textile studies address relevant issues ranging from aesthet- ics and style to gender; from technological development to production and exchange economics. This chapter presents an overview of current research in the growing field of archaeological textile studies.

Module 8.
The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for the comparative study of the origins and interaction of ancient civilizations.

Woman's weaving cooperative

Module 5. Women's weaving cooperative.

Photo by: Christine Eber

lascruceschiapasconnection.com/ weavers.php

Module 7

Key words:

I am interested in how weaving cotton textiles play a part in the ecomomic, and political agendas then and now. Weaving was a big part of the lives of the Fromative period women of the Highlands, and held symbolic meaning. But, what I would like to know is how this industry impacted or was impacted by developement of commerce and trade.