Otomi Textiles History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Mexico is famous for many forms of handicrafts, including its textiles. In this lesson, we'll talk about a specific kind of Mexican textile and see how it reflects the history of the region.

The Otomi

When we think about the Amerindian population of Mexico, who comes first to mind? Maybe the Aztec Empire, or the Maya of the Yucatán? Despite the fact that much of Mexican history focuses on these groups, this region has been home to dozens of distinct ethnic groups across history. While you can find Maya crafts still being produced in Mexico, you can also find the arts of many other groups, each of which has had its own unique impact on Mexican national culture.

One great example comes from the Otomi people of the central Mexican Plateau. The Otomi have developed an international reputation for their textiles, sometimes called Otomi fabrics and sometimes called tenangos after the valley where many Otomi people live. These textiles have become a major product associated with Mexico, giving the Otomi a bit more recognition in the land of the Maya and Aztecs.

Otomi Textiles

The Otomi textiles themselves are defined not by the way they are woven or dyed but by the process of embroidery. Hand-sewn designs are embroidered onto existing fabrics in generally brightly colored geometric or representative shapes. Images of animals and plants are very common, as are abstract geometric patterns. This style of embroidery produces textiles that are bright, complex, and lively and that have become a major source of fascination both in and outside of Mexico.

History of Otomi Textiles

So, where does this tradition come from? As opposed to many folk crafts that aim to preserve ancient traditions as accurately as possible, tenangos and Otomi textiles in general are living arts that blend historic and modern arts. The forms and shapes embroidered into Otomi textiles have ancient roots, dating back even before the rise of the Aztec Empire. According to many stories, these shapes were preserved in prehistoric cave paintings of the Mexican Plateau, giving artists of each generation a template from which to base their designs. Whatever the exact origins, Otomi designs symbolize the harmony between humans and the natural world and contain symbols connecting to ancient Otomi myths, stories, and rituals.

Over time, the Otomi adopted Spanish and other international styles of textiles, including embroidery. Embroidery was a traditional female craft in colonial Spain, and it was maintained by many families across Mexico for generations after the nation became independent. For the Otomi, those skills came in handy during the 1960s. A major drought wreaked havoc on the agricultural communities of the region and many Otomi turned to their traditional crafts to make money.

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