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Aug 23

Hunting Down the Netted Bag in Chiapas, Mexico

Chiapas-style netted bags worn in procession in Chamula

The quest for the Chiapas-style netted bag, and how it was made, would soon be fulfilled but not without a precarious journey. Riding into the cloud forest above San Cristóbal into the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, the clouds were so thick at times that our very capable driver and textile companion, Rebecca, had frayed nerves. The rain came and went as we wound our way to the village of Magdalenas Adalma–the steep road crumbling in parts, then turning down dirt roads, potholed and filled with water. We drove to an area where agave plants grew by the side of hand-built wooden homes and stopped.

We were greeted by children, shoeless, mud squishing between their toes. A random path of narrow wooden planks led us from the car into one of the structures. Quickly women and more children arrived, plastic sheets laid down on the top of the dirt floor, and their recently made jewelry, netted bags, and weavings were displayed—the “store” was now open.

Maguey netted bags ready for purchase

A few days before this adventure, we were asking our guide, Chip Morris, detailed questions about the netted bags and where we could find quality ones. Chip, having lived in Chiapas for some 40 years, knows many artisans who make traditional products and knew to bring us here. He’s also the author of A Textile Guide to the Highlands of Chiapas.

The Stripping of the Maguey
Chip conversed with a local man, Pedro, who then led us outside to where the very succulent maguey plants were growing. (Maguey is from the genus agave plant, grown specifically for its fiber, not used for making mezcal.) Grabbing a machete, the man cut a leaf from the base of the plant, placed is on a well-worn wooden plank constructed specifically for stripping the fleshy, green tissue from the agave leaf, and the process began.

Stripping fiber from the maguey leaf

Thigh-Spinning and Plying
Once the fiber was extracted, it was ready to be spun. Being spinners ourselves, we couldn’t wait to see this and share it with you (click for video).  (While watching this video, you’ll hear children outside squealing with delight. It’s because my husband/photographer Robert Medlock played with them using a phone app of a silly cat that performed tricks when touched.)

Stripped maguey fiber ready for spinning

Have you spun short-length plant-fiber on your thigh? We were told that it takes a lot of practice to spin quality cord for bags and after watching this process, I can see that it’s not easy, nor is it fast.

The Netted Bag
Once this tightly twisted cord was spun, the making of the bag began (click for video). It’s constructed around a simple frame with a wooden base and two metal uprights at each edge. Made sideways with a linked construction, there is only one seam that gets sewn together at the end. (Note: The netted bags made here in Chiapas are different from the ones found in Guatemala as described in Kathryn Roussos’ book, Maguey Journey: Discovering Textiles in Guatemala).

Alas, we didn’t have many hours to spend watching a bag made from beginning to end, but we saw plenty finished. To wear, a simple leather strap is attached with its length fully adjustable to the wearer. Due to its construction and the nature of the spun fiber, the finished bag expands for carrying many items, and contracts when emptied.

Linda and Chip wearing bags

We left with some raw fiber, some spun cordage and a few maguey bags.  Maguey bags in the ClothRoads Store

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