Perhaps one of the most iconic handcrafts of Mexico… and one of the most misunderstood. It appears in books, movies (especially Westerns) and in its bastardized “blanket” form, in countless tourist-trap markets.
It is a men’s garmed with both indigenous and European origins, a fusion of the two textile traditions. One the indigenous side, its predecessor is the “tilma,” a rectangular cloth that was used as a kind of cape, a blanket and even for carrying loads. This is the cloth on which the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appears for the first time, on a tilma belonging to Saint Juan Diego. The European predecesor is most likely the “manta jerezana (of Jerez)”, which itself is the result of Spanish and Arab textile fusion. This garment was popular with the conquistadores and early colonizers and generally made with wool. The name is most likely from Nahuatl. There are two possibilities for the origin, both from words with a general reference to textiles.
It developed gradually during the colonial period in various parts of central Mexico, so there is no credit to a single inventor. Its making and use reached its peak in the 18th and early 19th century, primarily in central Mexico, but also found in parts of the south and north. It was considered indispensable for those men who worked as laborers, fieldhands, cowboys as well as people who lived in rural areas. Most were rugged, coarse garments, but very fine versions were made for ranch owners and even city dwellers for use in certain festivals. Though often associated with rural workers, in reality the garment was popular among many strata of society. During this time, most were made by small workshops dedicated to this one garment, primarily in central and northern Mexico.
The garments popularity was due to its versatility. It could be used similar to a coat but also as a blanket, groundcover and even rain gear. The widespread production of sarapes led the regional variation and different techniques for making them. They could be simple sheets of cloth or adornments such as velvet, clasps and buttons could be added. In the latter colonial period, the best sarapes came from Puebla and Tlaxcala, which still produce fine sarapes today.
Mexican Independence, the Industrial Revolution and other factors led to significant changes in how sarapes and other textiles were made in Mexico. During the Colonial period, they were made most often with pedal looms that the Spanish introduced in central Mexico. Mass production of sarapes shifted from Puebla and Tlaxcala west-and northward and production industrialized, using mechanized looms. This was further reinforced with the rise of cotton and wool production in the north of the country, especially in Durango and Coahuila.
The popularity of the sarape faded with the industrialization of Mexico, but it remains iconic and often appears at Independence Day celebrations and similar events. Colors can be bright or muted, and depend on the region the garment comes from. They tend to be earthier in the north and brighter further south. The most authentic are made from cotton or wool, but those of synthetic material are unfortunately ubiquitous. Many of these are mass-produced in Tlaxcala (and even imported from Asia). The thread used almost exclusively commercial for economic reasons. They can and sometimes are woven by hand but more often done by machine. Most common sarapes are made industrially for markets sensitive to price, such as lower-class markets and the tourist industry. But fine, handwoven pieces with intricate patterns and other decoration can still be found.
Traditional sarapes are made in Tlaxcala, Chiapas, Aguascalientes, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, State of Mexico and Oaxaca as well as Coahuila, where the city of Saltillo is located. Patterns are still regional, with the most recognized being those from Saltillo, Gualupita (State of Mexico), and Chiautempan (Tlaxcala). However, other notable designs come from San Bernardino Contla, Tlaxcala, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, the city of San Luis Potosí, and Guadalupe, Zacatecas (one of several known landscape designs). Thicker wool serapes are found in areas with colder winters, such as Masiaca, Sonora or Bacavachi, Chihuahua with thin, delicate versions coming from warm climes such as that of Zongolica, Veracruz. Designs can range from geometric patterns, pure stripes, single-color, figures of people and animals to entire images of local landscapes.
The best known name is the Saltillo sarape, which makes many mistakenly believe that the garment originated there. In the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, some of the finest sarapes come from this area. Interestingly enough the establishment of a sarape industry here was due to the migration of indigenous peoples from the state of Tlaxcala north to “civilize” the local nomadic tribes. The style became popular in northeast and parts of central Mexico. Later it became popular in the US, especially in New Mexico and California. Unfortunately, most of what is seen in tourist markets are terrible imitations of the Saltillo style, gaudy and useless.
The traditional colors of Saltillo sarapes comes from the former use of natural dyes, especially the cochineal insect (for red tones) and indigo for blue and purple. Other colors such as green and yellow were obtained from various native plants. Saltillo sarapes were developed on horizontal looms which allow wides of no more than 80cm, leading to two halves which are sewn up in the middle, leaving a space for the head. Distinguishing Saltillo design elements are found in the center, background and edges. The central motif is geometric, usually a rhomboid or circle which contrasts with the background and stands out when the garment is worn. Other geometric patterns tend to be horizontal as well as the lines. Backgrounds are intricate mosaics with colors generally limited to blue, brown and white. Edges are often crosshatch or diagonal patterns.
The popularlity of the Saltillo sarape today is in no small part due to its depiction and art and cinema in the 19th and 20th centuries. Foreign artists and writers documented the garment extensively. It was also popular in the western United States. In the 20th century, it made many appearances in Western films.
The National Anthropology Museum has an excellent collection of the garment, with nearly 500 examples.
Featured image by Andrés Monroy Hernández taken at the Sarape Museum