Although the term “basketry” will be used in this article, it really does not adequately describe this branch of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. The Spanish term for it literally translates to “stiff fiber handcrafts” as what is produced is significantly more than baskets. It includes the use of all kinds of fiber stiffer than those used to make fabric in the traditional sense, from thin tree branches to the course threads produced by maguey and henniquen plants. Most items are indeed meant for the carrying and storage of food and other goods, but the variety of items made are far wider than this.
Basketry is most likely Mexico’s oldest handcraft, predating both the handling of fire and the making of pottery (which of course is dependent on fire). The need to carry and store food along with other raw and worked materials is a primary need, and baskets provide a lightweight and sturdy solution. But by the time the Spanish arrived, indigeous peoples had devised a wide array of goods made from various kinds of stiff fibers including sandals, boxes, mats, sombreros and much more.
Unlike pottery, basketry items are completely biodegradable and expendable, which makes the study of their evolution extremely difficult. There are no complete specimens dating before the 1960s. Pieces, fiber fragments and impressions in pottery are the only direct evidence and these are generally found only in sheltered areas with extremely dry climates. From the colonial period, there are some depictions of basketry items found in codices and other records. These show that there used to be an even wider array of basketry items than today.
In the 19th century, more pictographic evidence comes in the way of drawings, etc. often done by foreigners documenting their experiences in the country. In the 20th century, academic research into handcrafts began after the Mexican Revolution. These records show effects on the craft due to environmental change. For example, a large number and variety of basketry items were made in the Valley of Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century, but it eventually disappeared as the areas five lakes were drained (and almost completely destroyed) and modern urban sprawl drove out most handcraft traditons.
Basketry in Mexico overall shows a mixture of both indigenous and European influences in design and technique, with the indigenous dominating, especially outside central Mexico. There are two reasons for this. First, indigenous basketry was highly developed and sophisticated. One important example of this is the petate, a large mat which was (and to some extent, still) used to wrap goods, dry seeds and other foods, sleep on and even wrap the dead. Fine petates were as sophisticated as any European tapestry. The petate was so important to indigenous life until relatively recently that there are a number of idiomatic expressions related to life and death based off of it.
One reason why the indigenous character of basket making survived relatively intact was that unlike a number of other crafts, basketry was considered to be a completely domestic production, and was not regulated by authorities. Many indigenous techniques and designs continue unchanged, especially in areas outside of Mexico City region and with large indigenous populations, as Spanish had less cultural impact in these areas. Important traditions continue in the states of Sonora, State of Mexico, Michoacan, Veracruz, Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula.
The stiff fibers used vary greating depending on the flora of the region, with about 80 species from 20 botanical families. The most common are various types of reeds and rushes harvested from shallow lakes, ponds and slower- moving rivers and streams, but a number of more unusual materials are used as well. These include willow and other thin tree branches, yucca leaves, palm fronds (from many species), yucca leaves, long pine needles, dried lily plants, wheat and rye straw, and long thorns and other parts of cactus and other succulents. The oldest technique is coiling, with the best-known example of this being the corita baskets of the Seri and other peoples of northwest Mexico. This is followed by twisting of more pliable fibers, such as bullrush leaves and ixtle fiber from maguey. Weaving like techniques (often close to European style baskets) are found with reeds, thin branches and palm frond work.
In addition to petates, other distinctive items include boxes, fans (for building fires especially in braziers), carrying bags (often from ixtle) and sombreros. The last are found in quite a few areas of the country with some of the lightest and finest made in the Yucatan penninsula. Dolls and decorative items from corn husks is an important craft in Oaxaca.
The making of basketry items has benefitted from interest in Mexican handcrafts in general, first by artists and intellectuals after the Mexican Revolution and then from the tourist and collectors’ that bloomed after the mid-20th century. But basketmakers have not benefitted as much as those in other fields. One reason is that the ephemeral nature of baskets, lasting only a few decades at best, make them less suited as collectibles. Another is that the vast majority of items are made by communities far from tourist centers, generally for local markets, and face competition from cheaper modern alternatives.
One important exception to this is the corita basket of Sonora and Baja. Until the rise in popularity of ironwood carving, these baskets were the main handcraft sold by the Seri people. The success of this basket probably has much to do with the area’s proximity to the United States and their similarity to more expensive baskets made by indigenous peoples in the US. southwest.