History of Wool in Mexico and America Central




The first recorded contact with the Maya by a Spanish expedition under sail occurred in 1502 in waters off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula: A lone trading canoe carrying cotton cloth approached a Spanish sailing ship.

Over the many initial months during their movements through the Caribbean islands, the explorers described “noble savages living in a state of nature”. Of two minds, these same Spanish sailors simultaneously felt a puritanical repulsion aroused by the indigenous islander’’s complete disinterest in the use of clothing. Stone Age indigenous were living in a Stone Age condition on most of the Caribbean islands. Yet in Mexico, only 150 miles away across the Yucatan channel from Cuba, the far more complex Aztec and Maya societies were in many ways comparable to the civilization of ancient Egypt.

Within that simple log canoe, the fascinated crew were fascinated to lay their eyes upon clothed paddlers and especially surprised to see their fine fabric wares. Intrigued by the encounter, the sailors knew these cloth bearers were ““reasonable men”” from an advanced culture.

Overland penetrations by foot and horseback began into the Yucatan and south-westward to the Pacific coast. From the coastal flat plains they headed eastward again. After the military conflict with the Aztecs at Mexico, Pursued by remains of Aztecs and sub-Aztecs, Spanish military and their sub-Aztec guides rode into the mountain highlands which rise suddenly from the plains and which we know now as Guatemalan territory. The few Aztecs still in pursuit could not travel in the new unstable geology of Guatemalan highlands.

Following swiftly was the arrival of the first sheep seen in the Americas, along with apparata to make wool thread, and treadle looms for the weaving of wool into wide cloth. By the time of the placement of the first Spanish colonial capitol at Iximché in 1524, Maya artisans were already grouped into guilds. Fray Antonio de Remesál saw sheep grazing in the Almolonga valley (Ciudad Vieja, Sac.) in 1532. Two more moves for a colonial seat followed. By the time of arriving in Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, the new garrison town now known as Antigua had become a social and economic underpinning of the colonial presence.

Before the introduction of the European treadle loom, the indigenous Maya of today’s Guatemala wove cotton cloth using a narrow ‘backstrap’ loom arrangement with which they produced fabric for their clothin of cotton.. The backstrap loom was portable and connected to a tree or nearby post, then held taut by a strap wrapped behind the waist of a kneeling weaver. Over at least the previous 1,500 years, and possibly over many more millennia using cotton, the Maya had already reached a level of symbolic meaning with intricate designs explaining their cosmology, their view of their position in a cosmos using many colors and patterns distinguishing each language group, towns, and even social positions within communities. Fibers from other indigenous plants including maguey and corn were also used in their weavings.

Backstrap looms remain in common use today by the Maya, still producing their own fabrics. These looms yield narrow cloth lengths, “varas”, widths that can be sewn together forming wider pieces. It was in this way that ceremonial cotton serapes are known to have been assembled for use by the Cofradía, honored Maya men who assist in opening and closing of early Jesuit and Franciscan churches.

This system of attaching narrow lengths of cloth to form a wider cloth panel is seen repeated in the earliest wool blanket material as clothing in serape shape, sewed in the middle with an opening for the head. Similar serapes evolved with the head opening omitted, composing the earliest blankets. Such blankets in black and very deep brown wool remain in use in Maya highland towns today.

In Guatemala, early large ceremonial serapes were seen by a natural geologist, the Swedish explorer Gustavus Eisen, during a visit in 1882 for Phoebe Hearst. He returned in 1902 to find a source of jade and to collect textiles and minerals again for his sponsor, Phoebe Hearst. The result of the expedition was the first comprehensive collection of textiles from Central America. The oldest Guatemalan Mayan textiles that have been conserved were collected by foreigners during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There are no Spanish colonial era textile remains. Only miniscule fragments have been recovered at archeological sites such as Rio Azul.

In Momostenango and Chichicastenango Eisen found wool “serapes” (small wool wraps and chamarras) used as shoulder covers, saddle blankets for horses, rain protectors, and to carry small burdens. These serapes were a part of men’s costume in various warp and weft patterns that included two natural colors. They were rectangular treadle loom textiles with geometrical designs and yarns colored red and blue. Some were used by members of the Cofradía, religious brotherhoods, during rituals. The collection of Eisen is considered one of the most important due to its date, the number of pieces, and documentation.

It has been suggested, perhaps if only by the date of Eisen’s collecting, that woolen blankets began to be decorated with color and designs at approximately the turn of the 19’th century. Scarce record exists of what the indigenous introduced as design into their wool, indicating that either there was no interest, it was not practical to do so, or that whatever decorated wool blankets that did exist were not seen outside of indigenous homes. It can be supposed that the Maya were certainly decorating their useful domestic wool objects earlier on before the nineteenth century. Evidence of decorated blankets appers in sketches or paintings by travelers of domestic Maya scenes. Because the traditional habitat is dark, and the Maya lived and worked out of doors, woolen bedding material have eluded traveling artists. As utilitarian objects, pre-Eisen era domestic blankets were used and washed until they wore out. Yarn was salvaged and re-cycled into new pieces, as it still is today.

While it is not known that the indigenous Maya immediately introduced patterns and symbols into wool weaving for their own use, available techniques for coloring cotton thread do suggest that a crossover to wool would have been quick for wool blankets to become decorated with patterns and symbols in colors before the late 19′th century, regardless of the situation that artifacts do not survive. Dyes fix more easily to wool than to cotton. A cultural need to adorn wool would have been irresistible and inevitable.

What is known is that the Maya weavers with wool in the 1500’s were asked to make blankets for the first monasteries, military and hospitals in Santiago de los Caballeros. These early blankets ordered for colonial military and religious institutions were composed of controlled or uncontrolled mixtures of natural wool colors that correspond to 16’th century Basque peasant blankets. Examples of such institutional-style blankets appear in 1850’s era photographs of Guatemalan hospital interiors and military barraks. These same blankets might be mentioned by Ann Rowe, Weavings of Guatemala. Nevertheless, she identified one blanket design we have in our own permanent collection as being a reproduction of the early Basque Peasant Blanket that was used by Spain and in the New World at Santiago.

Eisen collected four blanket-sized, geometrically designed pieces of wool cloth which are now in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley. He also collected 3 bed-coverings, sheets (sábanas) of treadle-loomed cloth which contained ‘tie-dyed’ and solid colored yarns in weft bands. These could have been coarse cotton sheets.

It is reasonable to imagine indigenous serapes were placed over bedding at night, then to be worn during the day. In this way, utilitarian wool ‘chamarras’…blankets… with color and designs might have come into use much earlier than the mid-late 1800’s, later on to be provided for sale to the new urban colonial houses specifically as bedding accessories.

The nearest corresponding culture producing blankets was in Mexico. Observations there would widen an understanding of what may have been happening in wool fabric in Guatemala. In the meantime, indigenous men in Mexico and in Guatemala were wearing wool pants, skirts or ‘faldas’, outer protective work garments of black wool still seen in Maya Quiche and elder Maya men in the Eastern Lake Atitlan region today. Wool skirts and clothing guards of black and brown wool are still seen today. These became prevalent throughout Mexico and in the Central American isthmus, an indication that wool was adapted as protective and functional material before it became decorative for a consuming socio-economic class.


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