Archive for the '1.1 Research' Category

T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Choosing a subject – Aztec culture

The course notes begin with a brief introduction to textiles through history. Concepts include:

  • High value based in the skill, labour and materials involved in production
  • Moved between cultures in trade and exchange
  • Technology and skilled workmen also travelled
  • Uses include ritual, art, personal identity
  • Meaning in symbols and colours
  • Significant in economies, vulnerable to political events
  • Mass production and globalisation – loss of symbolic meaning; rapid turnover

In summary textiles “reveal insight into the time, place, culture and socio-economic conditions underlying their production” (OCA course notes).

For this project we are asked to research a design from a particular culture, to use as inspiration in our own work. Keen to work from original sources, I am taking advantage of a current exhibition at the Australian Museum and have chosen the Aztecs (see for the museum site).

Sculpture of skulls Aztec, 1250 - 1521 Basalt

Sculpture of skulls
Aztec, 1250 – 1521

Before visiting the exhibition I knew little about the Aztec – basically a central american people, warlike, given to ritual human sacrifice, short-lived empire ended by invading Spanish.

Some new (to me) information, largely based on signage at the museum, that I might be able to develop:

  • Respected and identified with earlier local cultures.
  • Saw themselves as descendants of the mighty Tolec.
  • Warriors wore animal regalia, believing the animal’s strength and spirit would assist them.
  • Stamps and body prints were popular, especially in ceremonies.
  • Skulls could symbolise life, fertility, health and abundance as well as the land of the dead. Bones make the seed to make new people.
  • Detail of replica eagle warrior costume

    Detail of replica eagle warrior costume

  • There were no original textiles, but this replica included some interesting techniques.
  • Fine cloth was highly valued. Being a mastercraftsperson earnt respect.
  • Cloth was a major part of the tributes required from conquered tribes.
  • Commoners were not permitted to wear cotton. They wore cloth from spun and woven fibres of the maguey plant.
  • Warriors wore protection of quilted cotton.
  • Trade items included cochineal, rabbit fur, turquoise, shells and feathers.
  • A spindle and maguey fibre would be given to a baby girl a few days old.
  • Crop gardens were created in the lake by enclosing an area with stakes and filling with dredged soils and waste material including human waste.
  • Some toys had wheels, but they were not used as a tool, and there were no horses or oxen. Everything had to be done manually.
  • Fragment of a brazier Origins unknown, about 1300 Fired clay

    Fragment of a brazier
    Origins unknown, about 1300
    Fired clay

  • I was fascinated with this fragment, suggesting the passage of time with a young woman’s face, surrounded by an old woman’s, and then a death mask.
  • Another work explored duality, combining living and decomposing sides in a single head sculpture.
  • More photographs of the exhibition can be seen on a new Resource page – click here.

    Throughout the exhibition were images taken from some of the codices produced by the Spanish soon after the conquest of the Aztec. They used the pictograms and glyphs of the Aztec, adding notations in Spanish. A lot of this material is available on the internet. I’ve only just started looking through it.

    From pictograms in Codex Ixtlilxochitl A3 Conte crayon on white cartridge paper, 110gsm

    From pictograms in Codex Ixtlilxochitl
    Conte crayon on white cartridge paper, 110gsm

    I’m trying to get into a very regular habit with sketchbook work. That’s being added to the Resources page too, starting here.

    From these initial steps I am feeling very positive about my choice of the Aztec culture as my focus. The lack of original textiles is disappointing, especially after the wonderful samples included in the Gold and the Incas exhibition at the National Gallery earlier this year – see for example here. I also have books with illustrations of early Peruvian textiles. The assignment requirements allow for looking at a number of cultures, but I think I should be able to find more than enough inspiration “limiting” myself to the Aztecs. I already see possibilities for both saleable products and more conceptual work, but will try to keep a very open mind as I continue research.

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

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak

    Codex Mendoza folio 108r

    Codex Mendoza folio 108r

    Codex Borbonicus folio 3 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 3 (detail)

    Much of the information available about Aztec culture is contained in pictorial codices – manuscripts containing pictographs and symbols. Although this was the system of writing used by the Aztecs, most of the codices existing today date from after the Spanish invasion, and include annotations or glosses in Spanish. Earlier documents were deliberately destroyed as part of suppressing the indigeneous culture, and in particular imposing Christianity on the local population. Many of the codices are available on line – in particular at and and they are fascinating to peruse.
    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    There are dangers however. As generally happens, the history is written by the victorious, for their own purposes, and could be selective, deliberately misleading, or simply misunderstanding the indigenous people. They are also subject to multiple modern interpretations.

    Take for example the wonderful cloak seen in the image above left, from the Codex Mendoza. Patricia Rieff Anawalt wrote The emperors’ cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances in 1990, investigating this image and others of possibly similar garments. A brief summary, illustrated by other codex pictographs (others I’ve found, not those used by Anawalt):

    Codex Magliabechiano folio 087 (detail)

    Codex Magliabechiano folio 087 (detail)

  • Aztec weavers could produce fine, highly coloured fabrics, lavishly decorated with feathers, precious metals and gems. The emperors’ cloak seems subdued and simple in comparison
  • Textile tributes were required of peoples conquered by the Aztec, and were used as gifts by the emperor. Analysis suggested the compact geographic distribution of tribute textile sources of the blue diaper pattern seen in the cloak aligned with the pre-Aztec kingdoms of Alcolhua and Tepanac, and before them the Toltec
  • Codex Borbonicus folio28 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio28 (detail)

  • The Toltec were venerated by the Aztec, who required that their leaders demonstrate descent from that line. Wearing a design associated with the Toltec asserted the legitimacy of Aztec authority.
  • Based on the etymology of the design’s Nahuatl name, Anawalt determined that indigo dye was used, with knotting or tying resist techniques. A series of experiments by master dyers suggested a combination of beeswax resist with the knotting.
  • Additional symbolism in the design included the green blue of the indigo, a colour associated with the Toltec; the step fret layout, linking to sky/earth dualism; and a suggestion of snake or crocodile skin, and thus “Serpent Skirt” the goddess Coatlicue, in the diamond-dot pattern.
  • Codex Mendoza folio 110v (detail)

    Codex Mendoza folio 110v (detail)

    Anawalt’s experiments and conclusions appear plausible – but not to Carmen Aguilera, who published an alternative view in 1997. Aguilera also notes the fine textiles available to the Aztecs, including fine mantles and fabrics woven with multicoloured threads, and decorations using rabbit hair and feathers, and suggests the dyed cotton proposed by Anawalt would not fit with the status of an emperor. Aguilera interprets the Nahuatl name as turquoise tile mantle, and cites the 16th century description by Aernando Alvarado Tezozomoc of “the royal mantle as a netlike garment worked with stones”.

  • Mantles and hip cloths were worn tied around the body.
  • Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 59r (detail)

    Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 59r (detail)

  • Some documents imply designs would be produced as part of the weaving, not dyed later. (On that, I wonder about the possibilities ikat style work would offer – dyeing warp and weft with indigo prior to weaving)
  • Aguilera agrees the Aztec sought association with the Toltec. However she suggests the high status of turquoise and its use in mosaics make it more likely for use in the mantle that the different blue of indigo
  • Aguilera cites numerous texts and images to support her suggestions.
  • Sisal, hemp and agave rather than cotton are raised as possibilities, but Aguilera suggests maguey as the main fibre. Although often a fibre used in commoners’ clothing, it is also associated with warriors.
  • Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

  • The dotted grid seen could be interpreted as tiles or beads of turquoise pierced in the centre to allow for threading on the knotted net.
  • Some inconsistencies in the first image could be explained as a misunderstanding by scribe or artist.
  • Based on patterning of Emperor's cloak A3  Watercolours and collaged paper on white cartridge paper 110 gsm

    Based on patterning of Emperor’s cloak
    Watercolours and collaged paper on white cartridge paper 110 gsm

    There is a later paper by Anawalt in rebuttal, which I haven’t been able to access – but I don’t believe which interpretation is more correct matters for my purposes. I’m looking for inspiration, not to make a direct copy.

    So far the cloak has appeared a couple of times in my sketchbook work. However even more than fairly literal design interpretations, I’m interested in trying to find more personal or emotional connections. For example there are the ideas of clothing as expressing identity and status, and seeking connections in the past to understand and make sense of oneself and one’s place in the world in the present.

    Tissue paper, folded and dipped into blue ink, then mounted on cartridge paper and stamped. A3

    Tissue paper, folded and dipped into blue ink, then mounted on cartridge paper and stamped. A3


    Aguilera, C. (1997) “Of royal mantles and blue turquoise: the meaning of the Mexica emperor’s mantle” In Latin American Antiquity 8(1) pp. 3-19. [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Nov-2014)

    Anawalt, PR (1990) “The Emperors’ cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances” In American Antiquity 55 (2) pp. 291-307. [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Nov-2014)

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1: Cultural fusions
    Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
    Stage 1: Researching source material – Aztec culture
    The Emperors’ Cloak

    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

    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
    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 (Accessed 19-Nov-2014)

    Codex Fejérváry-Mayer [online] Available from (Accessed 24-Nov-2014)

    Codex Mendoza (1541 – 1542 ?) [online] Available from

    Dutton, L. (1992) Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye Masters Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas [online] Available from (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 (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Los Códices matritenses (1558 – 1585) [online] Available from (Accessed 16-Nov-2014)

    Matrícula de tributos (1522 – 1530) [online] Available from (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 (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 (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

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 More Aztec research

    Outside the exhibition at the Australian Museum

    Outside the exhibition at the Australian Museum

    How does one approach “cultural fusions” if the other culture had beliefs and practices that we would regard as repugnant in the present day? In many ways the Aztec culture was very hard. They were warriors, conquerors, who exploited other peoples, demanding huge quantities of tributes. They carried out ritual human sacrifice – of war captives, their own people, of adults and children. Apparently minor civil infractions could lead to enslavement of commoners and execution of nobles. Harshness was a part of everyday life – for example children who were lazy or disobedient could be punished by pricking with thorns, or being held in the smoke of burning chillies. One approach could be to wonder how future cultures may view my own – the situation of Australia’s indigenous people, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, lack of choice for the terminally ill, attitudes to the environment … and who knows what which I take for granted as normal and necessary. It could also be that some challenging aspects of Aztec culture were “played up” by the Spanish and the indigenous tribes who supported them in the conquest, as a partial justification. I’ve found it more helpful to learn a little about underlying reasons for actions.

    Xipe Totec A3 black and white conte crayon on kraft paper

    Xipe Totec
    A3 black and white conte crayon on kraft paper

    Xipe Totec, the “flayed one” was the god of spring and renewal. Each year victims were defeated in ritual battle, sacrificed, then their skins removed and worn draped over the bodies and head of priests or young men. After 20 days the priests would emerge from the rotting skin – reborn. From death came life, just as seeds come from the husk of corn and can germinate. The god was appeased, and there was hope for a good harvest. The innocent tears of children sacrificed to Tlaloc, god of rain and lightening, helped to ensure plentiful rain. Smoke rising from the burning heart of a victim could replenish the strength of the gods to fight the darkness and ensure the sun rose.

    Sculpture of skulls Aztec, 1250 - 1521 Basalt

    Sculpture of skulls
    Aztec, 1250 – 1521

    Bones were the seed of new life, part of the cycle of existence. Some Aztec people would offer themselves for sacrifice, rising to dwell within the heavens, a birth into a new life like a snake shedding its skin. A warrior who died in battle would rise with the sun god each day, and eventually be reborn as a hummingbird or butterfly.

    Primeros Memoriales folio 250r (detail)

    Primeros Memoriales
    folio 250r (detail)

    I drafted the above a few days ago, probably with the main intention of acknowledging, “dealing”, with something unpleasant so I could move on to other things. Was I being gentle to myself, not taking risks, not pushing? Was I picking and choosing the “nice” bits of another culture?

    Codex Azcatitlan

    Codex Azcatitlan

    Some individuals would sacrifice their own blood, their own lives. Other victims were unwilling, their lives taken from them because of someone else’s beliefs, someone else’s needs.

    p10_complete_01My final work for A Creative Approach was Aged Care (more at 16-Feb-2013). My topic was our torture of the elderly, and particularly “Nancy” – forced to live, trapped in a nursing home in a web of other people’s beliefs and needs. She’s still there, almost five years now, the last six months eating mush while our dental service gets around to providing new dentures. I try to visit most weeks – undoubtedly the worst hour of the week. Nancy’s treatment is no more gentle, no more merciful, no more about her the individual, no less about other people’s beliefs and customs, no less a sacrifice than what the Aztecs demanded.

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

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Research – Aztec design influence

    I’m at the end of the time I’d allocated for this Stage. There’s more I wanted to write about, but for now I’ll finish with a visual roundup showing some art and design with Aztec influence.

    Textiles and fashion
    aztec_fashion Sources:
    Vasare Nar
    Charlotte Nash
    Various images
    Huipil attributed to Malinche
    Codex Ixtlilxochitl
    Background – my sketchbook

    aztec_pattern Sources:
    Elementary students in Lower School Kincaid
    Sophie Gray
    Vasare Nar
    San Miguel Zinacantepec Mantle
    Huipil attributed to Malinche
    Patterns based on image in Codex Magliabechiano
    Various photographs I took at the Aztec exhibition at the Australian Museum (some photos later manipulated in the computer). Artifacts include fired clay stamps (1250 – 1521), section of a warrior brazier (fired clay, pigment, about 1500), mural fragment (wall, Teotihuacan, 200 – 900, clay, stucco, pigment), sculpture of Yapatecuchtli (1200 – 1521, fired clay), concrete wall tiles from Pyrmont incinerator Sydney (1934, designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin).

    Art influenced by Aztec design and culture
    The works I have found generally link back to the Aztecs as a source of legitimacy, pride and revolutionary statement.
    David Alfaro Siquerios Proletarian mother (1929)
    Diego Rivera Murals in the Palacio Nacional de Mexico. Details of stairway (1929-30) and corridor (1945). Photographs by Mary Ann Sullivan
    Papercut, 1980s © Trustees of the British Museum
    José Clemente Orozco The Epic of American Civilization mural at Dartmouth (1932 – 34)
    Xavier Viramontes Boycott Grapes, silk screen poster, 1973

    All websites accessed November 2014

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


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