From brushes to clothing

Ixtle (sometimes spelled istle in English) is a term used to describe various fibers that have been obtained from native plants in Mexico since long before the arrival of the Spanish. It predates even the use of cotton, which was reserved for the elite. In the past, it was used for everything fiber can be used for, including clothing. The famous tilma (mantle) of Juan Diego, which bears the first image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is made of ixtle.

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Ixtle products are traditionally sold at stores called jarcierias, which specialize in rope, brooms, bags and cleaning supplies. (credit Carmen Flores)

The fibers come from a number of plants. In the north and center of Mexico, various plants from the agave, maguey and yucca families are used, along with roots of a grass called sacaton.  These plants tend to grow in semi-arid parts of the country, on soils not suitable for agriculture. The states with the most production of ixtle and ixtle-based products, include Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán and Hidalgo. The most prized ixtle comes from the agave funkiana plant, which grows in the Jaumauve region of Tamaulipas. Fibers from the young, inner leaves yield measure from 50 to 100 cm long and are almost white and as strong as sisal (henequen).

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Agave lechuguilla (colloquially called shin daggers in English)
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Traditional tools used to extract fiber from leaves
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Doll knitted from ixtle by Matilde Hernandez at the Amealco Doll Museum

Some of the hardest (often called Tampico fiber) was introduced to the US in 1969 with the name of “The Original Tampico Vegetable and Dish Brush) as a household cleaning tool. Another important fiber which can also be called ixtle (or pita) is derived from a completely different plant, the aechmea magdalenae, which grows in southern Mexico. This fiber is most often used for piteado, a kind of embroidery on leather heavily favored by Mexico’s charro (cowboy) culture. The best-known community for this work is Colotán in Jalisco. The popularity of piteado means that much of what is for sale is not done by hand, but rather by machine and some is even imported from China.

The fibers from succulents are related to henniquen. A few types of ixtle produce soft cloth, but the vast majority produce coarse fibers which can range from burlap-like to fibers that are almost stick-like. Harder fibers are used to make brushes, lariats, cords and belts. Softer fibers are used to make carrying bags, nets and other accessories. However, most of the ixtle fiber that is harvested in Mexico is exported to countries such as the United States and Germany, which uses it in a number of cottage industries.

Ixtle products from Durango (left) and Guerrero

There are no statistics as to the annual production of ixtle fiber in Mexico as it is generally done by family and other small concerns. The extraction of the fibers is not done industrially, as the fibers are delicate until they have been fully processed. Plants are harvested when they are about 4 or 5 years of age. In the case of yucca, the leaves must be boiled or steamed for hours first. After that the process is the same; leaves are gently pounded to separate the fibers from the pulp, the laid out to dry in the sun. This work is poorly paid, and relegated to those times of the year when it is to dry to grow crops. Despite this, it is an important economic activity in certain rural areas of Mexico, particularly for the Otomi of the Mezquital Valley of Hidalgo, where it has cultural as well as economic importance.

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Modern lamp made from ixtle fiber at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The survival of the ixtle industry is very much in doubt. It is labor-intensive and relatively expensive to produce.  Many ítems formerly made from ixtle are now made with plastic strips or cord.

Featured image by McGau

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