The Agave plant, native to Mexico, is best known as the main ingredient in making tequila and mezcal. However the fibres used for weaving, also known as ‘ixtle’, have been extracted from maguey, a genus of the Agave, for thousands of years.
In this modern age, this craft is increasingly under challenge. As cheaper synthetic fibres flood the market demand for the original product decreases and risks disappearing all together.
Don Pedro has been making maguey bags from the age of 12. He explains that the leaf of the maguey is cut at the stem. Cutting the leaves stops the plant from flowering giving it a much longer life. The leaf is then laid on a plank of wood wedged to the stomach. He uses a machete to scrape away the green pulp leaving a raw fibre. He shows me some old photos of this labour intensive process.
The fibre is coarse and strong, yet feels silky to the touch.
Once extracted, several strands are spun together using a thigh-spinning technique. The strands are rubbed along the length of the thigh in one direction and then back causing the strands to spring back in a counter motion and twist around each other into a very fine cord. It is a unique process which takes years to perfect.
The cord is woven using a linking stitch around a wooden frame with two metal posts that maintain the width.
The decorative rim of the bag is hand-sewn using a large needle. Finally the bag is formed by sewing a single seam together. The darker colour is achieved through a smoking process over an open fire. It is finished by adding a simple leather strap.
The net structure enables the bag to expand when full and contract when empty.
A common sight in markets of southern Mexico, you will often see locals hang the strap from their forehead leaving their hands free.
Other products made using maguey include ropes, fishing nets, textiles, and sandals.