Spun fiber was used to produce clothing, and also products such as hammocks, bags, and fishing nets. Different objects required variations in material and thread quality. Cotton and agave were popular fibers, but other plant fibers were probably also used; wool was not introduced until after European contact. Due to the tropical environment, actual textiles have not preserved from the pre-Columbian era. Instead, evidence for textile production is found through archaeological artifacts such as spindle whorls and bone tools, and also as painted decoration on figurines.
Spindle whorls in different forms. Woman spinning. Trique woman from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Spindle whorls are perforated disks, generally made of baked clay (perishable materials such as nuts or fruits may have also been used but did not preserve). Whorls functioned as fly-wheels to maintain the inertia of spin as the raw fiber was twisted into thread. Smaller whorls were used on wooden spindles placed in a ceramic bowl, while large whorls may have been used in drop-spinning where the spindle and whorl were spun to the ground from a standing position. Whorls come in different shapes, from shallow disks to hemispheres, to conical. These variations, including the different weights, change the spinning properties and are suited for different qualities of thread.
Many of the spindle whorls from pre-Columbian Nicaragua were decorated with incised patterns, usually radiating out from the center hole. A common design resembles a spider web. Since ‘spinning’ and ‘weaving’ are often associated with spiders, this pattern may relate to religious affinity with the pan-Mesoamerican “Spider Grandmother” deity.
Bone tools from Santa Isabel, Rivas.
Pre-Columbian weaving was done using a back-strap loom. These were highly portable, and could be used within the household compound with one end attached to a tree or post while the other end was wrapped around the weaver’s back to maintain tension. A variety of weaving tools were associated with the loom-kit. These were generally made of wood, although some bone implements have been found that were probably used for decorative embroidery: needles, awls, battens, etc.
16th century Aztec woman weaving. Mesoamerican goddesses with weaving tools.
In Mesoamerica, spinning and weaving were strongly associated with female gender ideology. Ethnographic sources suggest that the ancient Nicaraguans probably shared these beliefs. Within this ideology, spinning and weaving became metaphors for sexual reproduction. Girl children were indoctrinated into spinning and weaving practices as part of their gender identity, and associated tools were symbols of womanhood. Specific goddesses were closely linked to textile production and related symbols.