INTRODUCTION TO TEXTILES OF MEXICO
The textiles of Mexico have a long history. The making of fibers, cloth and other textile goods has existed in the country since at least 1400 BCE. Fibers used during the pre-Hispanic period included those from the yucca, palm and maguey plants as well as the use of cotton in the hot lowlands of the south. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish introduced new fibers such as silk and wool as well as the European foot treadle loom. Clothing styles also changed radically. Fabric was produced exclusively in workshops or in the home until the era of Porfirio Díaz (1880s to 1910), when the mechanization of weaving was introduced, mostly by the French. Today, fabric, clothes and other textiles are both made by craftsmen and in factories. Handcrafted goods include pre-Hispanic clothing such as huipils and sarapes, which are often embroidered. Clothing, rugs and more are made with natural and naturally dyed fibers. Most handcrafts are produced by indigenous people, whose communities are concentrated in the center and south of the country in states such as Mexico State, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The textile industry remains important to the economy of Mexico although it has suffered setback due to competition by cheaper goods produced in countries such as China, India and Vietnam.
EMBROIDERIES OF MEXICO
Embroidery has a long history in Mexico. Most textiles from the pre-Hispanic era have perished, damaged by heat and humidity, but surviving cloth fragments prove that decorative stitching was sometimes used on clothing. When Spanish conquistadores reached Mexico in 1519, they were full of praise for the achievements of spinners, dyers, weavers and embroiderers. After the conquest, Spanish needlework skills – including a wide variety of stitches, many of which are thought to have originated in ancient Egypt, Persia and other parts of the Near East – were widely taught in mission centers. Further inspiration was later provided by textiles imported from China and the Philippines. Today Mexican women embroider home-woven and bought cloth with a vast range of stitches and designs.
After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Catholic nuns kept their churches provided with ‘whitework’. This term is used for textiles where the stitching is the same colour as the foundation fabric, usually white linen, and includes the technique of ‘deshilado’ or drawn threadwork. With deshilado, selected threads are pulled from the ground fabric; the rest are bound and reinforced with decorative stitching.
As in Spain, drawn threadwork was much used to embellish white linen christening gowns and bonnets, wedding shirts, altar cloths, surplices for choirboys, priestly albs and other religious garments. An intricate 19th-century altar cover in our collection features a broad central area of drawn threadwork. Diamonds, arranged in a lattice pattern, are filled with finely worked designs. These include spider monkeys, mermaids, women wearing hats and wide skirts, birds of many kinds, flowers, sacred hearts, crosses and hands.
Altar cloth, unknown, 19th century, Mexico. Bequeathed by Alfred Percival Maudslay. Museum no. T.67-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Girls of all social classes were taught needlework skills. Satin, or flat, stitches were often used for animals, birds, flowers and foliage; shading devices such as ‘long and short ‘ enabled embroiderers to achieve subtle colour changes. Although embroidery threads were mostly silk, cotton or linen, metallic threads were sometimes used for the clothing of the elite and for ecclesiastical work. With the technique known as couching, gilt threads and purl (very fine gold or silver wire) were laid across the surface of the ground and secured by a succession of small stitches.
In Mexico, as in Europe, samplers (or examplers) allowed pupils to practice their newly acquired skills. Samplers were a preparation for adult life. Makers knew that their needleworking skills would help them after marriage to organise their households and to manage their personal adornment and that of their families. They also provided them with useful memoranda of stitches and designs. For more experienced needleworkers, samplers served as a method of measuring and recording their attainments. Few if any samplers survive from the early decades of colonial rule, but examples from the late-18th and 19th centuries offer invaluable information about designs and embroidery techniques.
A beautiful linen example from our collection is embroidered with gilt thread, purl, spangles (small sequin-like pieces of glittering metal) and coloured silks to display a butterfly, birds, animals, flowers and religious symbols. The gilt thread is both couched and satin stitched. Shimmering silks are used for satin, long and short, outline and stem stitches, with French knots.
Sampler, unknown, 1770-1799, Mexico. Bequeathed by A. F. Kendrick. Museum no. T.91-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Crossed stitches, extremely fashionable in Europe during the 19th century, became so popular in Mexico that they eventually overshadowed most other stitches. By counting the warp and the weft of the ground, which was often linen, embroiderers filled samplers with densely spaced animal, bird and plant motifs. This style of work was popular for the decoration of tablecloths, bedspreads, pillows and other types of household linen.
A cotton sampler, rich in imagery and embroidered with cotton thread, displays stags with checkerboard patterning, a naturalistic cat, a flamboyant cockerel and other variously sized creatures, interspersed with decorative lines of floral and leaf-like patterning. The eagle with outstretched wings and a serpent in its beak, perching on a nopal (prickly pear cactus), commemorates the founding of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. When Spanish rule ended in 1821, this design became a popular symbol of Independence and national pride. Samplers of this type, characterised by the random placing of individual motifs, are known as spot samplers.
Sampler, unknown, mid 19th century, Mexico. Museum no. T.565-1919. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The functional aspect of sampler-making was often represented by the inclusion of darning and insertion stitches, together with areas of drawn threadwork and cutwork. Some makers included the letters of the alphabet, regarded as useful practice for the marking of linen. A linen sampler, dated 1870, was embroidered in silk by Virginia Samtibañes. A range of geometric patterns, stylised birds and plant motifs were worked in cross stitch. She has also included areas of drawn threadwork. Although the maker was carrying out a routine task as part of her training, her creativity and sense of design have personalised a standardised exercise. Samplers of this type are known as ‘band’ samplers. Arranged in orderly rows, designs like these served as border decoration for linen, domestic furnishings, costume accessories and purses.
Sampler, Virginia Samtibañes, 1870, Mexico. Bequeathed by Alfred Percival Maudslay. Museum no. T.288-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Glass beads were introduced into Mexico after the Spanish conquest. Colonial import restrictions kept glass beads in short supply until Independence, when increased availability made them popular for samplers, napkins and costume trimmings. One sampler, made by Encarnación Castellanos and dated June 1850, has small panels delicately embroidered with minuscule glass beads. Beaded designs include a spider monkey next to a house and a tree, and lines of floral decoration.
Sampler, Encarnación Castellanos, 1850, Mexico. Bequeathed by A. F. Kendrick. Museum no. T.92-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sampler (detail showing beaded sections), Encarnación Castellanos, 1850, Mexico. Bequeathed by A. F. Kendrick. Museum no. T.92-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Printed pattern books – common throughout most of Europe after the 16th century – remained rare in Spain and Spanish territories, where samplers continued to serve as design inventories. Even today, in indigenous communities where embroidery is regarded as an important skill, some girls still make samplers.
Our textile collection includes a rare and interesting group of 19th-century huipiles (traditional women’s tunics), probably made in the Mazatec town of San Bartolomé Ayautla, Oaxaca. One was plain- and gauze-woven on the backstrap loom from hand-spun white cotton, and assembled in three panels. Red cotton thread was used to satin stitch the symmetrically placed designs. Triangular urns of flowers, surrounded by birds, are a stylised version of the universal and ever-popular ‘tree of life’ foliage motif. The idea of a ‘World Tree’, important in many cultures, was part of the cosmology of the Aztecs, the Maya, and other ancient civilisations of Mexico. The neck opening (cut into the centre panel) and the armholes are bordered by wide bands of stitching. Two horizontal bands of floral motifs pattern the garment’s lower area. Interestingly, all the stitches are vertical; only the armhole area has horizontal stitches.
Huipil (woman’s tunic), unknown, 1800s, Oaxaca state, Mexico. Museum no. T.75-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Though the state of Oaxaca retains a large indigenous population, and many women still wear a home-woven huipil, this labour-intensive style died out several decades ago among the Mazatec. Contemporary examples are rarely as intricately worked. With industrialisation, the availability of commercially produced cloth and thread increased. The Mazatec huipil entered a period of transition, as women slowly abandoned this hand-woven style.
Another 19th-century example is made from a single width of bought cotton cloth. Seamed down the sides and hemmed along the bottom, it has an opening cut for the head. Densely spaced designs cover the entire surface of the garment. Worked with red and blue cotton thread, and a minuscule amount of wool, they include flowers, birds and a centrally positioned stag. The stitches – laid satin, stem and long-armed cross – have relaxed and loosened over time. Surface embroidery of this type, where very little thread is used on the reverse, is an economical form of decoration that is still practised today in many areas of Mexico.
Huipil (woman’s tunic), unknown, 1870 – 1900, Oaxaca state, Mexico. Bequeathed by Alfred Percival Maudslay. Museum no. T.28-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Indigenous garments are simple to construct. Their visual interest and elegance owe little to tailoring; instead they rely on the appearance and texture of cloth and the aesthetic appeal of design motifs. The maker of the ‘double-headed eagle’ huipil was highly-skilled, working with hand-spun white cotton on a backstrap loom, interspersing five picks (lines) of plain-weave with a single pick of gauze-weave to create the ground fabric.
Huipil (woman’s tunic), unknown, 1850 – 1907, Oaxaca state, Mexico. Bequeathed by Alfred Percival Maudslay. Museum no. T.264-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The eye-catching designs, brocaded with supplementary red cotton weft threads, are also woven. Cross stitch has been used to decorate the shoulder area and the square-cut neck-opening. A short section of cloth, woven as described, was added to each of the three panels to make the garment longer. The double-headed eagle, frequently represented before the Spanish conquest and repeated here, may be an ancient design. The N-shaped serpent, shown twice, is strongly reminiscent of the pre-Hispanic feathered serpent.
Huipil (woman’s tunic), unknown, 1850 – 1907, Oaxaca state, Mexico. Bequeathed by Alfred Percival Maudslay. Museum no. T.264-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Two of these huipiles were acquired by the celebrated British archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850 – 1931). Best known for his work in the Maya area, he also spent several winters with his wife at their home in Oaxaca, before moving to San Ángel, near Mexico City, and finally returning to Britain in 1907. Now in our collection, these garments embody the technical prowess and enduring heritage of Mexican weavers and embroiderers.
TRADITIONAL COSTUMES OF MEXICO
Mexican national clothing is very bright and beautiful. Actually, there are many different designs of traditional costume. Some of them are used for celebrations and holidays, some – for ceremonies, some – for festivals. The main characteristics of Mexican national attire are: sun protection (that’s why sombrero has such a wide brims and the clothing itself is made of natural materials), brightness (the fabric for garments is mostly colorful and heavily embroidered; a lot of colorful ribbons are used), and moderate modesty (the clothing is elegant, not shameless or vulgar at all; skirts are long, blouses are delicate; flowers are often used to beautify the costume, hairdo and headdress).
Traditional Mexican men’s costume has changed very little during centuries. But we can’t say the same about women’s clothing. Most of costumes were formed by mixing the culture of Native Americans and European people (mostly Spanish new settlers).
Mexican traditional attire. Photo from Mexican-clothing-co.com
The national clothing of Mexico is made of various fabrics: wool, cotton, silk, agave, and bark. Usually the colors of traditional dress are red, brown, green and yellow. Mexicans used to dye their clothes with natural components, but today they don’t have to do that.
Traditional men’s pieces of clothing
The most popular and well-known men’s pieces of clothing in Mexico are sarape, charro suit, sombrero, guayabero, baja jacket, and poncho.
Sarape is a vibrantly colored garment with a fringe. It is used as a shawl-like coat and also as a blanket.
Felted “stone” couch cushions and poufs
Charro suit is a special beautifully embroidered suit which is worn on the Day of the Dead. Sombrero is a Mexican hat with a wide brim. This hat is made of straw or heavy felt. It protects the body from the sun. This part of clothing is the most recognizable around the world. Guayabero is a lightweight shirt or suit which is used both as a casual and formal dress. It is made of cotton and very often is decorated with heavy embroidery. Guayabero is perfect attire for Mexican heat.
Man in national Mexican clothing. Photo from Globerove.com
Baja jacket is a Mexican hooded shirt which is very popular among Mexican and American youth. Mostly men wear it, but women sometimes also do. It is loved by hippies. Baja jacket usually is rather warm, it has a hood and a large pocket situated on the belly. Baja jacket is often colorful, with striped pattern and looks very youthful.
Poncho is one of the typical Mexican pieces of clothing that is well-known and loved all around the world. It is a warm outerwear. There are many different variations of poncho. For example, classical poncho is a simple piece of cloth with a hole for the head; it doesn’t have sleeves, but sometimes has a hood. Rainproof poncho is fitted with fasteners for the sides or has openings for the arms. It is more typical for men to wear poncho, but some women use it too.
We could dedicate the whole chapter to Mexican shoes, but we’ll make it short and tell you only the main information. There are several types of traditional Mexican men’s shoes: huaraches, Mexican pointy boots and Mexican cowboy boots.
Huaraches, Mexican pointy boots and Mexican cowboy boots
Mexican cowboy boots look pretty much like American ones. They were used by cowboys in Mexico from 1800s. They are made of leather (often exotic animal skin is used – armadillo, bull, ostrich, lizard), they can be high-heeled or flat-heeled, with high or low boot-top. Mexican cowboy boots usually have narrow pointed toes. Huaraches are the most common shoes in Mexico. They are sandals, rather simple to make. There is a great variety of huaraches. Usually they are made of leather (modern huaraches can be made of synthetic materials). Huaraches are always handmade. Mexican pointy boots are very unusual and astonishing. They have narrow and elongated toe. Sometimes their toe is up to 1.5 meter (5 feet) long and curved up to the knees of a man. Usually Mexican pointy boots are very colorful, often decorated with such elements as flashing LED lights, disco balls and even mirrors. They are often worn by bands, singers and dancers.
Traditional women’s pieces of clothing
The most popular and well-known women’s pieces of clothing in Mexico are huipil, quechquémitl, rebozo, Mexican skirts (they have various names in different regions – enredo, chincuete, posahuanco, refajo, enagua). Huipil is a sleeveless tunic, made from cotton or wool. It is worn with a skirt. The design of this piece depends on a region, beliefs, marital status and so on. Huipil is one of the most popular women’s clothing in Mexico. Quechquémitl is a festive kind of poncho. It is worn for parties, holidays and festivals. Quechquémitl should be handmade from handwoven cloth. Also it is often heavily embroidered. It is very colorful and beautiful.
Women in traditional colorful Oaxaca dresses. Photo from Nativepeoplephotographer.typepad.com
Rebozo is a shawl/scarf made from cotton, wool, or silk. The color and pattern of rebozo represent the region and community. This piece of Mexican traditional costume is used not only as clothes, but also to carry products and goods, even babies. Mexican skirts can be ankle-long or knee-long. They are made from cotton, wool, silk and lace. Very often they are wide, bright and embroidered. Mexican women also like blouses very much. There is a great variety of blouses. But usually they are beautifully decorated with lace, beads, colorful patterns, and embroidery.
Traditional Mexican dress designs
Every corner of Mexico has its own traditional dress design. Mexican women wear very beautiful and feminine dresses. For example.
Jalisco Traditional Dress
It is also called Escaramuza dress. It consists of a cotton blouse with a high collar, and stripes of embroidery; and a wide skirt. The skirt is very nice-looking, its waves are decorated with stripes and form a star of stripes on hips.
Jalisco Traditional Dress
Michoacan Traditional Dress
Dresses of this style are very sophisticated. They consist of a long skirt with ribbons or patterns; a long blouse embroidered at the bottom and around the neck; a belt; and rebozo. Embroidered aprons are also used.
Michoacan Traditional Dress. Photo from Pinterest.com
Tabasco Traditional Dress
This dress is very feminine and delicate. Women in this region like floral embroidery, bright ribbons and hair decorations with flowers. Tabasco dress consists of a white blouse with embroidery around the neck and on sleeves; black or colorful skirt with floral pattern. Accessories are welcomed.
Tabasco Traditional Dress. Photo from Mexican-clothing-co.com
Campeche Traditional Dress
This dress design was formed under the Spanish influence. It consists of a long wide skirt made of Spanish print fabric, often decorated with lace; a white blouse with a square collar and black embroidery; and rebozo.
Campeche Traditional Dress. Photo from Mexican-clothing-co.com
Chiapas Traditional Dress
These dresses are really unique and extraordinary. They are handmade; women from the town Chiapa de Corzo make these dresses. They consist of a wide skirt and a blouse (or dress), very heavily embroidered and decorated with ribbons. The background is black, and the embroidery is colorful and bright. Usually flower patterns are used.
Chiapas Traditional Dress. Photo from Skyscrapercity.com
Traditional Mexican accessories
There are a lot of accessories which go with the national Mexican costume. Accessories for women are: ribbons, ritual necklaces, amulets, tehuana headdress, and tzutes (woven piece of cloth – shawl or scarf). Women in this country like ribbons very much. They often wear ribbons around the neck, as a necklace. Also they use unusual materials as accessories. For example, seashells and fishbones are used.
Accessories for men are: cowboy hats and boots, sombreros and other wide hats made of straw and palm leaves, moral, and faja. Moral is a typical bag with shoulder strap, it is very popular in Mexico. Faja is a kind of sash which is worn with pants and capixay (pullover), and function as a belt.
Mexican people are very religious and superstitious. So they often wear different amulets and guardians which are believed to defend people from evil. Amulets are popular among both men and women.
ARTICLE BY PRACHI TENDULKAR