In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15, 2019), this week’s Object Of The Day posts celebrate Latinx design and designers’ works in the collection.

This rather ordinary looking band is actually extraordinary.

Made in Mexico during the Spanish colonial period (likely mid-15th- early 16th c.) it is composed with a Spanish aesthetic, but entirely made using the materials and techniques of the Aztecs. The white areas are woven of the spun downy feathers that come from a goose, and the grays, reds and yellows are yarns of spun rabbit hair. These materials—the spun feathers and spun rabbit hair were mentioned by Hernán Cortés, Conquistador of Mexico, in a letter to the Queen of Spain, after his army captured Tenochtitlan—now known as Mexico City– in 1519. He described the large quantity of textiles and garments with feathers and rabbit fur that were given to him. He mentions the great marketplace in the central plaza where sellers of these and many other luxury materials were available. While to date no rabbit hair or spun feather textiles have been identified from the Aztec period or earlier from preserved archaeological examples, we can see from documents such as the 16th century Matriculata de Tributos (tribute lists) that the making of feathered textiles was a very important part of Aztec society prior to the arrival of the Spanish.[1] The Matriculata shows in colored images, page by page and village by village, the number of feathered mantles, along with bundles of feathers, jade, bags of cochineal dyestuff and other goods that were owed to the king, Moctezuma, annually.

Artisans who worked with feathers were called Amanteca, and they worked in a district of the Aztec capitol known for these specialized craftspeople. Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan friar who, along with a group of native scholars and scribes, meticulously documented many aspects of the Nahuatl (Aztec) culture in a monumental publication, “General History of the Things of New Spain.” In the multi-volume book, spinning of feathers (called yvitlatzavalj) was specifically described. In Book 10 Chapter 25, he wrote:

The feather seller [is] a bird owner. She raises birds; she plucks them. She plucks feathers
she treats them with chalk. She plucks feathers from the back and the breast; she peels
downy feathers. She spins split ones. She spins feathers—spins them into an even thread,
trims them. She spins them loosely, she spins them firmly; she uses the spindle, turns them
loosely about the spindle, turns them firmly about the spindle.

She sells soft, spun [feathers]; long, even thread, trimmed, loose, loosely woven; white
feathers tail feathers, chick feathers, back and breast feathers, darkened ones, brown ones
goose feathers, domestic duck feathers, Peru duck feathers, wild duck feathers—black, white, yellow, bright red tawny, carmine colored.[2]

The textile, a tapestry band with additional separately woven but matching narrow edgings, came into the collection of the Cooper Hewitt very early in its collecting history as a gift from John Pierpoint Morgan, who had purchased a group of Colonial Latin American textiles from a collection in Spain. Attached to the band was a small tapestry fragment of a different textile, with a very different type of floral design, but also made with the rabbit hair and feathers, now part of the collection with accession number 1902-1-374-b.

A collaborative research project that focused on the identification of the materials of this special textile was conducted in 2003-2006. This study was published in 2006 and is available online through the University of Nebraska digital commons: Phipps, Elena and Lucy Commoner, “Investigation of a Colonial Latin American Textile” (2006). Textile Society of America Symposium. Proceedings. Paper 358. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/358

Elena Phipps, Ph.D., is an independent scholar who teaches textile history at UCLA. A former conservator and special curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she has published a number of books and articles on textile culture, techniques and history. Her recent publications include Cochineal Red, the art history of a color (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010) Looking at Textiles (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013) and The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth: ancient roots, new directions (Los Angeles: The Fowler Museum, 2013), among many others.

[1] F. Berdan and J. Durand-Forest, Matriculata de Tributos, Graz, 1980.

[2] A. Anderson and C. Dibble General history of the things of New Spain: Florentine codex / Bernardino de Sahagún Santa Fe, N.M. : School of American Research 1950-1982, p. 92.

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