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May 11

Maguey, Ancient Wonder Plant

Let’s follow our ancient plant path and explore the wonders of the fiber maguey. Its fascinating history rivals that of hemp fiber. 

By any other name…
Maguey is a native plant of Mexico and Central America, but you may know it by a more common name, agave. Maguey is a Native American word that refers to all of the large leaf plants in the Agavaceae family – a family with at least 300 species. Agave americana is also known as the century plant and is used as an ornamental in many countries. Maguey grows from the inside out, forming a rosette that takes two to three years to mature. It flowers once in a lifetime and then dies. However, if the leaves are cut and used in the production of fiber, the plant will live for many more years as the plant continues to produce new leaves instead of flowering.

A Rich and Useful History
Archaeological evidence suggests that maguey was a major agricultural product in Mesoamerica and some groups may have depended on maguey for survival. The fiber contained inside the thick, tough leaves has been used for centuries to make nets for fishing, baskets and bags for carrying and storage, mats and blankets for sleeping plus clothing and sandals. Maguey is used as live fencing that controls cattle and prevents erosion. It can be formed into rope, used as fuel, and made into paper – very important paper. Ancient records and ritual calendars were painted on maguey and ancient Codices from Mesoamerican cultures illustrate lives linked to the use of maguey. And those sharp spikes at the end of the leaf – they make excellent needles. Maguey is truly a wonder plant.

Fun Food Facts
Our hearty succulent survives long dry winters by storing liquid in its heart. Throughout history the plant provided food and drink in a variety of forms. The “meat” in the lower stem and leaves could be roasted and eaten and sugar syrup made from the heart of the maguey. The heart sap is also the source of pulque, a sacred drink of the Aztecs, still made today, and the distilled sap makes mescal and tequila. Some species of agave produce a higher quality fiber, but all of these products come from this wonder plant.

Prep, Spin, Create
The fiber preparation for maguey is complicated, difficult and messy work that must be done outdoors. The large leaves are trimmed then processed with water, fire or steam, depending on regional preferences. The inner fibers are then scraped and laid out to dry in the sun. Next, the fiber is spun on the leg, or using a hand spindle or home-made spinning wheel. Once spun, artisans create a variety of bags and nets using looping and linking techniques, weaving or knitting. Types of bags and techniques vary from region to region.

Kathy Rousso Update on Maguey in Guatemala
Here’s the latest maguey news from Guatemala direct from researcher Kathy Rousso…
“Historically the abundant, native maguey plant provided many important items in Guatemala including cordage and net bags. Until recently maguey bags were a common accessory for Mayan men, who’s traditional clothing does not have pockets. Long walks to markets, milpa (corn and bean) fields and neighboring villages, with the need to carry supplies, food, merchandise and personal items required bags of various shapes and sizes. As with their clothing, technique, design and style, bag variations are distinct to each community. When the Spaniards introduced horses, maguey was also found to be perfect for making equestrian gear.

Today, in many regions there has been a decrease in the production of maguey products because the younger generation is lured to more appealing opportunities; a shortage of material because of disease or farmers removing maguey plants for more valuable crops such as coffee; a lesser local market due to more desirable “modern” products, plus synthetic materials have replaced traditional ones. In contrast, in a few communities leaders of organized groups are reintroducing natural dyes, teaching new techniques and designs for creating contemporary products which appeal to the international market.”

Thanks to Kathy for the use of her wonderful images and insightful collaboration!

If you want to see a video on maguey production in Chiapas, Mexico, go here.

Judy’s recommended reading:
An authoritative guide to maguey in Guatemala.
Rousso, Kathryn, Maguey Journey: Discovering Textiles in Guatemala, 2010, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

For exploring a variety of linking and looping textile structures take a look at:
Collingwood, Peter, The Maker’s Hand, 1987, Lark Books, Asheville, NC and Interweave Press, Loveland, CO.

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