Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


At a lecture titled “Growing Up Aztec,” art historian Jill Furst illustrated Aztec childhood with images from the Codex Mendoza, an extraordinary, post- Hispanic pictorial manuscript from central Mexico. The Mendoza specified the lessons, punishments, and even the number of tortillas appropriate for boys and girls during each year of childhood. Interestingly, the Codex Mendoza showed spinning as the only instruction given to Aztec girls between the ages of four and thirteen years. In 1992, the University of California Press published a full color facsimile of the Codex Mendoza with a translation into English and with extensive interpretation in four volumes edited by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt. Following the editors’ dedication to those interested in studying MesoAmerica (“May you find a good road”), I read the Codex Mendoza for references and images specific to spinning, spinners, and cotton fiber. The work of Berdan and Anawalt made it possible to look at Aztec history from within the craft of hand spinning.

Questions about the Aztecs and spinning included: Why did the Codex Mendoza show that learning to spin was the only instruction given to little girls aged four to thirteen? Little boys learned a variety of skills. Preparing enough fiber and spinning enough yarn for a garment using a spindle takes considerable time, but did it require educating presumably half the Aztec population only in spinning? What else might the Codex Mendoza reveal about the place of hand spinning in everyday Aztec life? What roles the spinner play and what fibers did they spin? After a brief description of the original Codex Mendoza and the facsimile edition, this paper describes spinning, spinners, and cotton as revealed by the Codex Mendoza and suggests one connection between quantities of handspun cotton and female childhoods devoted to learning hand spinning.

The Codex Mendoza

The original Codex Mendoza has a colorful history. Anthropologist H. B. Nicholson has studied the Mendoza, the complex and ambiguous circumstances of its preparation, and the history of its travels among subsequent owners before it came to reside at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. Evidence indicates the Mendoza was prepared at the request of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza in Mexico City in the 1540s, some 20 years after Spanish conquest.