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Maguey Journey

By Kathryn Rousso

Publication Year: 2010

The name maguey refers to various forms of the agave and furcraea genus, also sometimes called the century plant. The fibers extracted from the leaves of these plants are spun into fine cordage and worked with a variety of tools and techniques to create textiles, from net bags and hammocks to equestrian gear.

In this fascinating book, Kathryn Rousso, an accomplished textile artist, takes a detailed look at the state of maguey culture, use, and trade in Guatemala. She has spent years traveling in Guatemala, highlighting maguey workers' interactions in many locations and blending historical and current facts to describe their environments. Along the way, Rousso has learned the process of turning a raw leaf into beautiful and useful textile products and how globalization and modernization are transforming the maguey trade in Guatemala.

Featuring a section of full-color illustrations that follow the process from plant to weaving to product, Maguey Journey presents the story of this fiber over recent decades through the travels of an impassioned artist. Useful to cultural anthropologists, ethnobotanists, fiber artists, and interested travelers alike, this book offers a snapshot of how the industry stands now and seeks to honor those who keep the art alive in Guatemala.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xiv

Maguey began to play a part in my life when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala in the late 1980s. This is because, like everyone else living and working in the campo (countryside), I had a morral (net bag) in which I carried my daily necessities. At the time I was unaware of how maguey was used to make net bags and related utilitarian objects and, more important, ...

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pp. xv-xvi

In addition to the maguey workers who welcomed me into their lives, many other people provided guidance and support, and without all of them this book would not exist. Margot Blum Schevill has been a mentor, friend, and inspiration from the beginning. JoAnne Stabb, Gyongy Laky, Barbara Shawcroft, Victoria Rivers, Susan Taber Avilla, Dolph Gotelli, and Emily ...

Part I

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pp. 1-6

The land of maguey encompasses a region where many similar customs, such as the use of maguey, exist. While the most intense maguey culture has been in central Mexico, Guatemala is another place of importance. Distinguished from neighboring Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador by international borders, the republic is made up of many geographical regions, ...

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2.People of Maguey

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pp. 7-8

Historically, the people working with and using maguey products were of the lower class. This is widely documented in Anawalt’s book in which she writes about clothing in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Cotton, a luxury good, was imported from the coastal region to the highlands and made into upper-class attire, while the commoners wore maguey articles (Anawalt ...

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3.The Western Highlands

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pp. 9-23

I began my work in the western highlands, a mountainous region inhabited by several Maya groups. Here colorful traje (traditional clothing) is woven on backstrap and treadle looms, and a corte (wraparound “skirt”) and huipil is the standard woman’s attire. In a few areas men wear traje as well, including colorful pants, shirts, hats, and morrales. To get to my first site, the...

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4.The Central Highlands

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pp. 24-29

The central highlands surround Guatemala City, and I am most familiar with this area because it is where I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Slightly lower than the western region, the term “eternal spring” is often used in reference to this zone as most of the year the climate is considered perfect. Several volcanoes loom over large fertile plains, and much ...

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5.East and North

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pp. 30-42

I left the central highlands in style. on my way to the capital, the Antigua bus broke down with a horrible noise and much smoke. We were in the middle of Avenida Bolívar, one of the main arterials into Guatemala City, and, as it was rush hour, there was a mass of gridlocked cars, with hundreds of angry, honking drivers. Suddenly, the ayudante’s job description ...

Part II

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pp. 45-50

The succulent maguey plant grows in many geographical and climatic con-ditions and is endemic to a region from the southern United States into South America, as well as the Caribbean....

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7.Fiber Extraction

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pp. 51-70

The first step in transforming a thick, green leaf or penca into a beautiful textile product is to extract the inner fibers. Ancient agave fragments discovered in a Mexican Coxcatl

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8.Colors and Patterns

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pp. 71-73

White or light yellow is the natural color of maguey fibers; for any other color, dyes are necessary. In most of the country, bright pink, green, yellow, and purple aniline dyes are favored because they are easy to use and relatively inexpensive, plus the colors are bright, which is preferable. The powdered dye is sold by the ounce in local stores. However, aniline-dyed ...

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9.Spinning Fibers into Strands

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pp. 74-83

Spinning joins together short fibers into continuous usable lengths, with the simplest strand called a single or single ply (Emery 1966, 9). These can be plied by twisting (or “laying,” a rope-making term) together two or more singles, with the direction opposite to that of the single (Emery 1966, 10). Maguey strands are 2-S or clockwise-twisted single strands plied together ...

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10.From Strand to Product

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pp. 84-107

Maguey items are made using non-loom, or hand-constructed, and loom-woven techniques. Some methods are very portable and do not take much working space or tools, and can be made outside or inside. others require large tools and space and are usually worked outdoors. As with all handiwork, it is always obvious if more than one person has worked on the same ...

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11.Maguey Products and Their Uses

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pp. 108-111

Lazo or soga (rope) comes in all lengths and thicknesses. Cordeles or gusano de pino (pine worm) is a loosely spun length of maguey with inserted pine needles, used for decoration. Maguey rope is used for many things, such as being woven into beds (Wisdom 1940, 134) and, when finely spun, as ...

Part III

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12.Maguey Economics

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pp. 115-121

Besides being utilitarian, the primary role of maguey products is economic. This is not new, and when I inquired about maguey’s origin, many people told me that the land “gave” their grandparents maguey as a way for them to make money for survival if crops failed or there was insufficient agricultural land. In the words of a woman from San Pablo la Laguna: “La ...

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13.Maguey in Transition

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pp. 122-126

As in many places around the world, early inhabitants worked with what they had in their immediate surroundings to create items necessary for their daily lives. When the possibilities of the fibrous maguey plant were discovered, the tradition began. As clothing was desired, maguey fiber was spun and woven into articles of dress, and when different-sized bags for...

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pp. 127-131

Maguey is possibly the oldest continuously used plant fiber in the region. Osborne writes: “The spinning of fibers from vines and fibrous leaves was practiced long before cotton was woven into textiles” (1956, 81). When enhanced by its value as a historical record and a visual language (see appendix 1), maguey is very important. However, globalization and...

Appendix 1: The Language of the Bag

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pp. 133-134

Appendix 2: Bags, from Beginning to End

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pp. 135-136

Appendix 3: Fancy Saddlebag Components

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pp. 137

Appendix 4: Mayan Terminology

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pp. 139-141


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pp. 145-148


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pp. 149-153

Further Reading

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pp. 155-157


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pp. 159-162

About the Author

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pp. 163

E-ISBN-13: 9780816502271
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816526987

Publication Year: 2010