Most of the pre-Hispanic clothing that survives is for women. These include “enredos”, or wrap dresses, fajas, or cloth belts, huipils, a type of tunic, quechquemitl, which is a kind of rectangular or square short poncho. The last was originally worn directly on the upper body of a woman but today it is worn over a blouse. Loose-fitting sack dresses, called huipils in Oaxaca and guanengos in Michoacán, are often heavily embroidered with straight stitching, cross stitching and tucks with floral and geometric motifs.
A widely used garment in both indigenous and mixed race communities is the rebozo. This is a long rectangular shawl used both as a wrap and as a means to carry children or heavy objects tied onto the body. The rebozo came about during the colonial period, not in the pre-Hispanic era. The rebozo is a synthesis of three historical influences, the pre-Hispanic “mámatl,” the Spanish mantilla and the “repacejo,” an Oriental garment. This is a long rectangular piece of cloth with long fringes at both ends. Most rebozos are made with multicolored designs woven into the pieces using threads of different colors. Those of a single color are usually made of yarn or thread that has been tie-dyed to produce color variations in the final piece. This latter style is called “jaspe” or jasper and are usually woven on backstrap looms.
The rebozo has been produced mostly in central Mexico since the colonial period, with some of the best known producers in Mexico State and Michoacan. Tenancingo is one of the best known producers of craft rebozos, usually made of cotton but wool is also used. Traditional rebozos in the Lake Pátzcuaro area are often of white and blue over a black background and may be embroidered in tiny cross stitch.
Portion of a sarape
Few pre-Hispanic male clothing pieces survive since many Mesoamerican males went about nude or semi nude, causing Spanish authorities to force them to adopt European shirts and pants early. This early colonial style shirts and pants have changed little in indigenous communities and are now identified with indigenous groups, especially the Tarahumara in Chihuahua, the Tacuates in Oaxaca and the Tzeltals in Chiapas. Many male garments are heavily embroidered in multiple colors. Since indigenous pants lack pockets, many men carry decorated bags called morals. The only pre-Hispanic male garment to survive is the sarape, which is used only in certain areas of Mexico.
In addition to clothing, other items are woven such as bedspreads, blankets, hats, cinches and knapsacks. The designs for these are most often woven into the fabric itself, but embroidered stars, border designs, deer, and other can be seen as well. These items may be made with various fibers include those derived from the maguey plant.
One of the most distinctive aspects of indigenous handcrafted textiles is the use of embroidery. Indigenous motifs found on garments range from geometric patterns, zig-zag, spirals, moons, crosses and stepped frets. Thin cloth belts that wrap around the waist (fajillas) are common in a number of indigenous groups and are richly embroidered. The borders are often adorned with zig-zag edging, such as those of the Huichols. The Otomis use a moon pattern on these belts along with their morrals or carrying bags, and the Tarahumara tend to decorate theirs with triangular designs. Many of the embroidery patterns of the huipils in Oaxaca, also show pre-Hispanic influence. Flower designs are popular for embroidering women’s clothing among the Otomis, Nahuas, Huastecs, Huichols and others. Spirals and curved designs appear with frequency especially in the center and south of the country.
In addition to flowers, other themes from nature in woven and embroidered designs include plants, animals such as squirrels, rabbits, deer, armadillos, doves, hummingbirds, pelicans, seagulls and fish. Mazahua embroidered belts are known for their zoomorphic designs and those of Santo Tomás Jalieza tend to have images of large plumed birds. The cloth napkins of San Mateo del Mar have images of aquatic birds such as pelicans and seagulls, with those of the Tacuates of Santiago Zacatepec have borders with many diminutive animals such as centipedes, scorpions, birds, iguanas, cats, foxes and more.
Human figures appear with relative frequency as well. They feature prominently on the embroidered napkins of San Juan Colorado and as Danza de la Pluma dancers on the cloth belts of Santo Tomás Jalieza. Patriotic symbols such as two-headed eagles, the three colors of the Mexican flag and the eagle with serpent crest. These are most prevalent in the central region of the country among the Otomis, Nahuas, Huastecos, Huicholes and others. Christian symbols such as the cross, virgins, saints, angels and other elements were introduced by evangelists in the early colonial period. These appear on small and large pieces such as men’s shirts among the Tzotzil in Chiapas, in the fabrics of San Miguel Ameyalco, which feature churches, and the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in many textiles in the Sierra Norte of Puebla.
Popular sayings or phrases also appear especially in the textiles of the Purhepechas around Lake Pátzcuaro and in the state of Puebla.
Man working on treadle loom in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Two types of looms are employed in the making are handcrafted fabrics, the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom and the introduced European foot pedal loom. Traditionally, weaving, especially on the backstrap loom, was considered to be women’s work. Women still produce items such as kitchen cloths, tablecloths, carrying bags and ornamental items with traditional designs. Although considered primitive, the backstrap loom is versatile and allows for different techniques and combinations of techniques, some of which can be very complicated. It allows for the combining of different fibers such as cotton with wool or silk. Designs are woven into the cloth on this loom by changing thread colors and/or by adding items such as shells or other matter into the finished product. The backstrap loom is most prevalent in the south of the country.
The foot pedal loom was brought to Mexico after the Conquest. Unlike pieces done on backstrap looms, pieces done on these machines have traditionally been done by men with wool being the favored fiber. This type of loom is most extensively used in the center and north of the country. The principal advantage of this loom is that it allows for pieces of greater width than backstrap looms and has been used to create sarapes, rugs, blankets and more.