T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Research – Aztec textiles

There may be a few fragments of actual Aztec textiles, but very few. Climate, soil and customs (for example burning of cloth in funerary rituals) have contributed to that. However there is a wealth of information available. I’ve already written about the Emperors’ cloak (17-Nov-2014). This post is a more general view.

Codex Mendoza Folio 58r (detail)

Codex Mendoza Folio 58r (detail)

The Codex Mendoza includes pages showing the education of Aztec boys and girls. Girls were given spinning tools as infants during the naming ceremony. They were instructed in spinning from the age of 3, and spinning independently by age 6.

Codex Mendoza folio 60r (detail)

Codex Mendoza folio 60r (detail)

By age 14 girls would be weaving on backstrap looms. The same source suggests boys would be taught a range of skills, but for girls the focus was preparation and spinning of fibres. Some notes from Hand spinning and cotton in the Aztec Empire, as revealed by the Codex Mendoza, by Susan Strawn:
Codex Fejérváry-Mayer page 38 (detail) Xochiquetzal, fertility goddess reputed to have introduced spinning and weaving

Codex Fejérváry-Mayer
page 38 (detail)
Xochiquetzal, fertility goddess reputed to have introduced spinning and weaving

  • Commoner women would use light spindles for cotton to be paid as tribute, and heavier spindles for family clothing in maguey, palm or yucca fibres.
  • Noble women would work in cotton, possibly augmented with feathers and rabbit fur.
  • Filled spindles were associated with fertility.
  • Large volumes of fibre, spun yarn and woven cloth were required in regular tributes from conquered regions.
  • The focus on teaching all girls to process, spin and weave may have been required to meet Aztec demands.
  • Matrícula de tributos (details from various folio)

    Matrícula de tributos (details from various folio)

    The Matrícula de tributos (Registration taxes) illustrates a huge range of designs in the textiles given in tribute. Some notes from Textiles recorded: fashion reconstructed through Aztec Codices by Jenifer Siegler in which she focused on diagonally divided and jaguar related designs:

  • Importance of textiles shown by tributes required and sumptuary laws (formal rules on who could wear what)
  • Particular capes were given to warriors after specified numbers of captured prisoners – Nacazminqui textiles.
  • A wide variety of combinations of colours and designs
  • Codex azcatitlan Coronation of Tenochca Acamapichtli, receiving the crown, cloak and staff - attributes of power

    Codex azcatitlan
    Coronation of Tenochca Acamapichtli, receiving the crown, cloak and staff – attributes of power

  • The blue and white tie-dyed design important in many, but the graphic design of the diagonal seems to take precedence
  • “The variations in the woven and dyed designs might indicate more subtle differences in the status associated with these textiles” – possibly rank (note parallel with heraldry)
  • Extra skill and labour required to create diagonal design – again suggesting higher status
  • Jaguar skin motif created with feathers (on a cotton or maguey backing), woven, painted or actual pelt (an uncivilized connotation)
  • Labour intensive, leading to a question around value in lower status fibres
  • Jaguar motif used in male and female clothing
  • My side notes on Siegler’s paper include ideas for creating feather effects (actual feathers could cause quarantine issues in postage), trying ikat technique (patterned pre-dyeing of warp and/or weft) to create the blue diamond pattern; heraldry; what achievements do we celebrate; and questions about how we determine value – materials, production time, use, fashion…

    Los Códices matritenses Primeros Memoriales  image DG037143

    Los Códices matritenses Primeros Memoriales
    image DG037143 (detail)

    Indigo was the dye suggested for the Emperors’ cloak, but cochineal was another important dye for the Aztecs. This has an Australian connection. The first white settlers are believed to have attempted to establish a cochineal industry, introducing prickly pear. Other species were introduced in the 1840s. It became a huge pest, over-running millions of hectares of farming land, with the introduction of the cactoblastis moth in the 1930s achieving a huge reduction in what remains a significant pest.

    In its own environment the cactus was useful, providing a home for the cochineal insect and apparently, in this illustration, a support for a backstrap loom.

    Codex Azcatitlan (detail)

    Codex Azcatitlan
    (detail)

    Some notes taken from LaVerne Dutton’s 1992 Masters Thesis Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye:

  • Tribes from the Oazaca highlands paid “a tribute consisting of cochineal, indigo, and finely woven textiles”.
  • Widely traded by Aztec merchants who travelled long distances. Exchanged items included “obsidian spear-points, cochineal, red ochre, rabbit-skin cloaks, and bells … bartered for quetzal plumes, jaguar and other skins, and amber”.
  • As well as trade uses included as a dye, paint, cosmetic, medicine, and a stain for teeth.
  • Lampblack was used for blacks
  • I have found a source for both cochineal and indigo, and am hoping to experiment with both – something of a step for me, as I have preferred to use the more controlled, repeatable colours of synthetic dyes in the past. I’m also attracted by the mention of bells – perhaps something sound-producing could be included in a work.

    Noblewoman sculpture Matlatzinca Dacite-andesite, pigment In exhibition at Australian Museum

    Noblewoman sculpture
    Matlatzinca
    Dacite-andesite, pigment
    In exhibition at Australian Museum

    With cloth so important and so valuable, fine weaving was a way for a commoner woman to gain respect and perhaps become a noble. A rich or noble Aztec man could take many wives (a wife only one husband), and the wealth generated by wives’ weaving was an important part of the domestic economy.

    From Women and weaving in Aztec palaces and colonial Mexico by Susan Toby Evans:

  • Secondary wives – perhaps “concubines” in other cultures – would receive respect as creators of valuable goods.
  • Some households had women as head, and Aztec women could take responsible positions.
  • “Adult Mexica women were considered to be autonomous beings and not the dependents of men”; “norms for commoner men and women were complementarity and equivalent legal rights”
  • Little archaeological evidence of textile skills is available, with the exception of spindle whorls. Found at all Aztec sites, the numbers are disproportionately high in palaces – presumably due to high concentration of adult women.
  • Codex azcatitlan

    Codex azcatitlan

  • Fine textiles had value in trade and as gift exchange – diplomatic, celebration, reward – and displayed in household as evidence of status and wealth.
  • The Spanish-imposed move to monogamous marriage had significant economic consequences.
  • The introduction by the colonisers of higher-productivity equipment (spinning wheels, treadle looms) and factory methods also impacted textile production. Operated by men, women were isolated in the home.
  • Sheep were introduced.
  • The market changed – new elites favoured European (style) textiles over traditional.
  • References

    Codex Azcatítlan (1501 – 1600) [online] Available from http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84582686.r=Codex+Azcat%C3%ADtlan.langEN (Accessed 19-Nov-2014)

    Codex Fejérváry-Mayer [online] Available from http://www.famsi.org/research/graz/fejervary_mayer/index.html (Accessed 24-Nov-2014)

    Codex Mendoza (1541 – 1542 ?) [online] Available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Codex_Mendoza

    Dutton, L. (1992) Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye Masters Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas [online] Available from http://www.cochineal.info/pdf/Ch-2-Pre-Columbian-Mexican-Peruvian-Textiles-Cochineal-Thesis.pdf (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Evans, S.T. (2008) “Women and weaving in Aztec palaces and colonial Mexico” In Walthall, A (ed.) Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History University of California Press. [online] Available from http://anth.la.psu.edu/documents/Evans_2008ConcubinesandCloth.pdf (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Los Códices matritenses (1558 – 1585) [online] Available from http://bdmx.mx/detalle/?id_cod=34#.VHFtHPmUdXM (Accessed 16-Nov-2014)

    Matrícula de tributos (1522 – 1530) [online] Available from http://bdmx.mx/detalle/?id_cod=22#.VHFYkvmUdXM (Accessed 22-Nov-2014)

    Siegler, J. (2008) “Textiles Recorded: Fashion Reconstructed Through Aztec Codices” Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii [online] Available from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/242/ (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Strawn, S. (2002) “Hand spinning and cotton in the Aztec Empire, as revealed by the Codex Mendoza” Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts [online] Available from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/420/ (Accessed 13-Nov-2014)

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Research – Aztec textiles
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1: Cultural fusions
    Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
    Stage 1: Researching source material
    Research – Aztec textiles

    2 Responses to “T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Research – Aztec textiles”


    1. 1 Lyn November 25, 2014 at 11:36 pm

      Very interesting, especially how women had, before the Spaniards came, close to equal footing in society.

      • 2 fibresofbeing November 26, 2014 at 5:16 am

        Pretty much all the gods had both masculine and feminine aspects, and women in childbirth were regarded as warriors. Not entirely “different but equal”, but very different to “civilized” europe at the time.


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