Aztec Textiles: Facts & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

To both the conquered and conquering people who lived within the Aztec Empire, art was a major part of society, and one of their most revered arts was textiles. In this lesson, we'll talk about the production, symbolic meaning, and history of textiles in the land of the Aztecs.

The Nahua People of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire is one of the most militaristic states of the indigenous Americas. Everyone's heard of the Aztecs. But, do you really know who they are? There was actually never a group named the Aztecs. The Aztec Empire consisted of the Nahuas, a diverse ethnic category of people in Central Mexico who spoke the Nahuatl language. There were many tribes of Nahuas - the most famous being the Mexica, who founded the city of Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec Empire - but they all shared some cultural similarities. For one, they all held the arts in very high esteem. For the various Nahua tribes either running or conquered by the Aztec Empire, arts were part of what defined their concept of civilization. One of their most important arts was textiles, woven fabrics or cloths.

Serape made in the traditional Nahua style

Nahua Textiles - Production and Use

For the Nahua peoples, textiles were an extremely important art form, but one that we actually know relatively little about. Why? Well, the hot and humid climate of Mexico isn't exactly conducive for the preservation of fabric, so much has been lost to history. Still, the Nahuas recorded much of their history, and Spanish priests recorded even more, so we have a good idea.

Traditional Nahua textiles were made with plant fibers from yucca, palm, maguey, or sometimes cotton. The fibers were spun into usable threads using a Mesoamerican style of spindle, the stone or clay components of which have survived and are found widely across Nahua archeological sites. After that, the threads were generally dyed and then woven using a distinct kind of loom called a backstrap loom. This was a wearable, portable loom that was strapped to the weaver around the waist and back, which allowed for a degree of mobility while weaving. Nahua textiles were very brightly colored and utilized a diverse color palette. Some textiles were woven with un-dyed materials, and later dyed in a technique similar to tye-dye. After being woven and dyed, many textiles were finely embroidered with various designs.

Textiles were a very important art form for Nahua peoples, and they were used widely. Rugs, blankets, and wall hangings decorated palaces and private homes alike. The common people wore woven tunics called huipils or poncho-like blankets called serapes, while the nobility enjoyed fine blankets worn over the shoulder to denote status and wealth. There were many, many kinds of these. For example, nacazminqui textiles were awarded by the emperor to warriors who had captured a number of enemies in battle. These blankets were defined by a two bold fields of color, divided diagonally. The colors used could indicate just how valuable this nacazminqui was, and therefore how important the person was who wore it.

Aztec lords in this Nahua text are identifiable by their robes

Textiles in Nahua History - Value and Symbolism

Clearly, textiles were an important part of Nahua societies, but their symbolic meaning did change over time. At the height of the Aztec Empire in the late 15th century, textiles were so valuable that they basically served as a form of currency. The emperor of the Aztec Empire would award textiles to nobles and distinguished warriors. Conquered peoples were required to pay tributes/taxes to the emperor, and many paid using finely crafted blankets decorated with designs of conch shells, jaguars, or other symbols of their nation. The first Spanish conquistadors to enter Tenochtitlán noted the immense public markets devoted to the selling of dyes, fibers, and completed textiles as well. This was one of the most lucrative economies of the empire.

Textiles recorded as tributes to the Aztec emperor

It's important to remember here that the Nahuas were a non-literate people. They didn't have a formal written language, but they did have an intricate system of symbols used to help the educated memorize and retain complex information. So, Nahua society was filled with symbols that people were expected to draw meaning from. This carried over into their textiles in a major way. Colors, patterns, and designs designated wealth and status, and even city of origin, family history, devotion to a particular deity, or career.

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