Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


This presentation analyzes three long-gone prehispanic textiles, a feat made possible due to the peculiarities of the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and the sixteenth-century Spaniards' dedication to detailed recordkeeping. From Columbus' first voyage in 1492 to Spain's final expulsion from the Americas in the nineteenth century, the Spaniards were exemplary recorders. Fortunately, this trait was particularly evident in the decades following the 1519-1521 conquest of Mexico, a period that yielded invaluable conquistador eye-witness accounts, administrative records and missionary chronicles. It is to the latter genre that we owe the data presented in this paper.

Of all the newly-discovered peoples in the Age of Discovery, the Aztecs of Central Mexico were the most fully documented, thanks in good part to the dedicated work of a remarkable Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), the Aztec's most encyclopedic chronicler. In order to convert the Indians, the early Spanish missionaries had to preach in the indigenous tongues. Fray Sahagun not only mastered Nahuatl, the Aztec language, but went on to compile an extensive account of their culture. When Sahagun died at age 91, his magnum opus was contained in twelve books that we now know as the Florentine Codex, named for the city where the sixteenth-century manuscript presently resides. This Sahaguntine corpus encompasses detailed information on a kaleidoscope of topics covering natural history, religion, secular life, and the stratified levels of Aztec society. Scattered throughout these books are long lists of names of Aztec apparel for various social classes and occasions, all presented in parallel columns of Spanish and Nahuatl.