Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Spinning and Weaving Tools

Throughout time some basic tools used in creating complex textiles have remained constant, such as the ones used for spinning thread: wooden spindles (smooth wooden sticks) and ceramic spindle whorls (disks threaded on the spindle). Likewise, the backstrap loom and the pointed flat batten used during weaving to pick up and pack down individual threads have been employed for millennia.

Spindle whorls (Mesoamerican examples can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here and Andean examples can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) are small round or disk-like ceramic pieces, used for spinning loose fiber into thread. The spinner gradually fed loose cotton, camelid fur, or agave fiber onto the spindle and spun it like a top.

Mesoamerican whorls were decorated with feathered serpents (one example shows the heads of feathered serpents and another shows its entire body), and sun/cardinal direction motifs (see here and here), geometry (see here and here), and flowers. Andean ones were either geometric (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) or figural (one figural spindle takes the form of a bird).

The carved bone batten is another elaborate weaving tool, its pointed ends used for picking up certain warps to create patterns and its wide blade for packing down wefts. By contrast, Andean battens are simple, flat wooden pieces with a small amount of carving to make a place for the weaver to grasp it. However, some Mesoamerican examples can be considered “art-battens.” One is carved with two caiman heads on the ends, symbolizing the place where the Earth meets the watery Underworld. A deceased man on his way there, 6 Caiman (to the left) is venerated by kneeling 6 Rain (to the right). The two large central heads discuss this scene, according to the speech scroll coming from the left-hand man’s mouth. This elaborate scene indicates this batten was placed in a high-status grave, perhaps that of 6 Caiman himself.

However, the Spanish colonists brought with them a new method of weaving on a treadle loom. This wholly new form engendered factory-like workshops in Colonial times. It led to such startling innovations as cutting long lengths of cloth with scissors, the European values overwhelming Native practices, diverting the tradition into new directions after 1500 AD. As seen in the Guna blouse panels, some of which depict scissors themselves, scissors revolutionized other cloth-working techniques throughout the Americas.

Tools and processes encapsulate tradition (continuity) and change (disruption) just as the textiles themselves do in their materials, forms, designs, subject matter, and functionality. Even today, the indigenous peoples may maintain their connection to their ancestors, often choosing to spin thread by hand despite the introduction of spinning wheels and commercial thread, weave it on simple looms they can carry with them, and produce versions of the ancient patterns. Indigenous cultures keep to the past while also moving into the future and always balance the two in new and interesting ways.

The backstrap loom is the most ancient type of loom in the Americas and is still used by most indigenous weavers today (see a modern Maya loom and a modern Mexican loom). A bar is tied to an upright such as a house post or tree branch. The warp threads—the ones that run vertically during weaving—are laced between this top loom bar and a lower one. A belt is tied to the lower bar and positioned around the seated weaver’s waist, when she leans back she puts the necessary tension into the warps.

In the middle of a backstrap loom is a third bar, called a heddle, which pulls up every other warp thread (via loops of thread laced around the chosen warps). Then the weaver passes a weft (horizontal thread) across the loom. Other unattached sticks are brought forcefully toward the weaver to pack down the wefts after each pass. As the woven portion gets longer in front of the weaver, she rolls it up on the lower loom bar. The whole loom can be taken off the branch, out of her belt, and rolled up like a scroll. It can be carried, stored, and taken out again to put in a few more rows when convenient.

The pieces made on the backstrap loom are typically up to about eighteen inches wide, since this corresponds to the weaver’s comfortable side-to-side reach and keeps the warp tension even across the loom. Many types of techniques can be accomplished using this rather simple technology, showing that weaving tools need not be complex to create elaborate and beautiful results.

However, in the 16th century the invading and colonizing Spanish introduced a European, foot-powered type of loom into what were called the Viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru (a wide swath of western South America). These large, stationary treadle looms would not fit in a commoner’s home, so they were for use in an Pronunciation Icon obraje or workshop, a factory-like setting, another new idea. Native labor was cheaper and so they, especially men, became the main weavers on the new loom. The Spanish obraje owners made considerable money, though their employees did not, although they produced enough fabric for internal consumption and for export to Spain, the Philippines, as well as Central and South America.

By the late 1530s, sheep’s wool and silk were imported into New Spain and Peru, then sheep and silkworms themselves were sent. The spinning wheel was also brought over, which displaced hand spinning to a degree; however, a great deal of hand work is still found in indigenous American textiles to this day. By 1580, areas like Oaxaca, the origin of one of the backstrap looms and the only treadle loom in the exhibition, had become some of the most productive areas for wool and silk cloth.

Importantly, one of the major changes in approach and even belief lay in the fact that the long lengths made on a treadle loom had to be cut off of it, a truly novel concept to the indigenous people. In ancient times threads were seen as having their own life force and so to cut them was to kill them. In addition, clothing was made from sewing together rectangular pieces, wrapping, and other techniques that did not involve cutting odd shapes to fit the human body snugly, as in European tailoring.

Today men operate most treadle looms, such as in Guatemala among the contemporary Maya and in Perú in the Ayacucho region. By contrast, most hand looms are worked by women. Spanish patriarchal culture was responsible for some of this shift to male workers, especially when “industries” rather than home or “cottage” production prevailed.

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