Textile Society of America



Virginia Davis

Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


The rebozo is a multi-function shawl worn by women in Mexico, 6 to 12 feet long and 24 to 34 inches wide. Approximately three-quarters of the length is woven; the remainder is fringe, most often elaborately worked: usually by half hitch or overhand knotting or by finger weaving. Place and identity are communicated by the yam, the color and design of the weaving, the style and technique of fringe finishing, and by the manner in which the rebozo is worn. My particular interest is the ikat rebozo. The Spanish for ikat is jaspe. Jaspe,(ikat), a system of resist dyeing a pattern on threads before weaving, was possibly known in precontact Mesoamerica. There is definitely evidence that other resist techniques, plangi and batik, were used pre-contact.

In my previous research on the jaspe rebozo which is to appear in Cloth and Clothing in Mesoamerica and the Andes, Margot Blum Schevill, Janet C. Berlo, and Edward Dwyer, editors, one major concern was technology - how these complex and labor intensive designs of overall cloth patterning are accomplished. The thoroughness of documentation of the Elsie McDougall archive, (McDougall 1935a, 1935b), which I catalogued, plus my experience as an artist working with the ikat technique provided a basis for a description of "how to". In executing the jaspe patterns, they are broken down into like design component elements which are grouped together to minimize the vast amount of tieing, then placed back in the original order at the time of assembling the warp for weaving. Similarity of such complex technique in Peru and Ecuador may point to diffusion via trade in Hispanic America. Conceptually this process provides a good example of sophisticated non-verbal manipulation.

Beyond technique, the rebozo in Mexican culture has a strong semiotic significance in terms of national identity and religion. The twentieth century Mexican artist and folklorist, Dr. Atl suggested that as the characteristic mestiza garment which is worn throughout the population, the rebozo could be the national flag (Murillo 1922). The history of the origin of the jaspe rebozo is quite speculative; often observers and travellers speak in general terms about cloth and garments rather than discuss the nuances of technique. Bernal Dfaz del Castillo speaks of seeing in the Texcoco market in 1524: "many sorts of spun cotton in hanks of every color, and it seems like the silk market at Granada, except that there is much greater quantity" (Diaz del Castillo 1956:213-16). In the history of the new world, the indigenous populations were vastly reduced by lack of immunity to diseases from Europe. The estimated population of 25 million at the time of the conquest was reduced by 80% by 1600 (Gibson 1964:6). Life expectancy was under 50 years, so the artisans working at the end of the 16th century would be the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people at maturity whose products were seen by Diaz at the market in the 1520's. Much preconquest knowledge, which resided with elites in any case, was lost. A new syncretic culture began to emerge. In design, the preconquest heritage could be a subtle touch such as the incorporation of the "S" symbol, "ilhuitl" which means in Nahautl day of the week or festival to be kept. Religious practice more markedly often had a subtext from preconquest belief and ceremony (Lafaye 1976:7-139). The significant image of the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared in 1531 imprinted on the tilmatl, a traditional cloak, of a poor indio, Juan Diego. In 1582, an ordinance of the Royal Audiencia of New Spain forbade mestizos, negros and mulattos from wearing Indian dress. This very likely was responsible not only for the preservation of indigenous Indian costume but also for the development of mestizo dress (Martinez del Rio 1971:9).