Textile Production and Use at Mission San Diego de Alcala 1769 – 1834

Susan M. Hector, Ph.D.


Reproduction Mission-period Spinning Wheel at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

It is an unfortunate fact that cloth – fibers, textiles, and fabric – are poorly preserved and thus not well represented in the archaeological and historical record. Although some areas, such as New Mexico, have collections of historic period textiles dating back centuries, here in San Diego we do not have any preserved textiles from the early historic period. I decided to look at records and documents related to Mission San Diego de Alcala to help me understand the types of fabric and textiles produced and used in Old Town San Diego during the Californio period, roughly spanning the time from Mexican independence to territorial control by the United States (1821 – 1848). It is my hope that this information will support living history interpretation and programs.

Workshops for textile production were located at every mission, since each was intended to be self-sufficient. Weaver Antonio Henrique taught weaving to the neophytes throughout the California mission system and his Native wife taught the Native American women and girls how to spin (Schuetz-Miller 1994: 187). Beginning at Mission San Diego, she taught carding, spinning, and weaving at the southern Missions (Webb 1952: 210). Henrique made spinning wheels, warping frames, looms, combs, and taught the weaving of woolen cloth at the Native mission workshops (Engelhardt 1920: 147). According to Engelhardt, he taught the neophytes how to weave different types of woolen cloth, including “Sayal Franciscano”, a coarse fabric worn by the missionaries (and probably the native people). In a report from 1797, the mission in San Juan Capistrano reported that the native women pick and spin wool and cotton.

Seeds for plant fibers – hemp, flax, and cotton – were planted at the California missions as part of their agricultural program. Royal orders were issued in 1793 for hemp to be grown to support shipbuilding in New Spain. The hemp fiber would be made into rope for rigging. This was most successful at the southern missions. In 1810, Mission San Diego shipped 44,781 pounds of hemp fiber to New Spain for rope manufacturing; however, after this year neither the funds nor ships were available to carry the resource (Archibald 1978: 120).

Cotton was grown in San Diego as well. The mission started growing cotton in 1819, but that year was a poor yield; in 1820 conditions improved and 14 arrobas (approximately 350 pounds) were harvested (Archibald 1978: 175). According to M. Duflot de Mofras, attaché of the French legation to Mexico from 1841-42, “The cotton raised is of a superior quality, but men are wanting to cultivate it…” (Engelhardt 1920: 244). As will be discussed below, the cotton harvest was stored at the mission at the time of secularization.

But the major textile production was in wool. The importation of Churro sheep into San Diego for use by the mission community was part of the Spanish strategy of establishing independent settlements that would expand and support the Spanish empire. Since the Churro sheep and their history has been discussed previously (Hector 2015), this information will not be repeated. Engelhardt (1920: 244) noted that at one time the mission had 32,000 sheep grazing on their lands.

Most of the Churro fleece was used in its natural colors of black, white, brown, gray, and tan. The missions also imported dyes from the port of San Blas, which was a hub for moving goods from New Spain into Alta California until 1810; after that date, and the withdrawal of the Spanish government from California, the port was closed and other means were used to transport goods (Archibald 1978).

The imported dyes were brazilwood (wine red), campeche/logwood (purple and black), and zacatascal (yellow) (Bancroft 1963: 658). Indigo (blue) was identified in numerous invoices to the missions (Webb 1952: 213-214). Zacatascal is Cuscuta spp., a type of parasitic dodder from Mexico. It is also called “zacatlaxcalli” and produces a yellow dye. Many species of dodder have been used historically as a dye plant, usually with alum as the mordant (Shibayama et al. n.d.). Local wildflowers were also used by the mission dyers, most likely to produce yellow or a pale color. Cochineal (red) may have been used, although it was a very expensive dye and was strictly controlled by the Spanish government. Brazilwood was a much more economical red dye to use.

Many of the padres preferred to wear imported cloth, and did not like to wear the fabric produced by the missions (Archibald 1978: 129); this preference is evident in the mission inventory. The native neophytes and gentiles wore most of the wool fabric produced, and perhaps suffered because of it. Due to a lack of water and ability to clean and launder clothing, the wool fabric was rarely washed. In 1816, one missionary blamed the filthy wool clothing for the high mortality of the native population (Archibald 1978: 157). Fabric and textiles were given to the native people as gifts for conversion or baptism, although these items were often returned in disgust over the insistence by the padres to wear European style clothing (Duggan 2000).

When the Mexican government decided to close the missions and turn their land holdings into private ranches, the churches were required to prepare inventories of their possessions so they could be sold. At secularization (1834), Mission San Diego’s inventory cited 6 looms (2 identified as useless), 16 spinning wheels, 12 pairs of cards, and 3 combs (two for flax and one for blankets) (Engelhardt 1920: 341; Webb 1952: 210). The inventory also includes an extensive list of textiles. A close look at this inventory provides important information about how fabric was produced and used at the mission.[1]

The first inventory is dated September 20, 1834 and covers items in the church (Engelhardt 1920: 335 – 339). As might be expected, the list includes vestments and ritual clothing used by the priests. What is surprising is the large number of these items, which include garments made from satin, damask, velvet, fine woven tissue, lace, braid of silver and gold threads, and embroidery. Many of these were made of silk, and were dark red, white, black, green, and purple in color. Other items were made of striped dimity, chambray, muslin, and a currently unknown fabric called islanda. which could be a type of cotton. Curtains, towels, and altar cloths were also listed, including four curtains made of printed cotton from India and referred to as “very fine and new.”

In New Spain, the church was a major consumer of imported fabrics such as velvet, damask, satin, and brocades, using these rich fabrics not only for their vestments but for ceremonial church coverings (Phipps 2014). Printed cotton fabric from India was imported to New Spain by the Manila galleons during the 16th through the 18th centuries (Benson 2008; Fisher 1994: 125; Phipps 2014). These were referred to as Indiana or Indianillas. Madder (red) and indigo were used in India to produce the block printed colors on these fabrics. There was some production of printed cotton fabric in Mexico, where cochineal was used instead of madder (Phipps 2014: 10 – 11). It was certainly less expensive to do the printing in Mexico than to import the printed cotton from India. The Santa Barbara Presidio community, for example, received printed cottons from Mexico when they requested Indiana cloth (Perissinoto 1998).

Of most interest to my research was the list of items from the San Diego mission warehouse, inventoried on September 25, 1834. This list is likely to contain items made at the mission for everyday use and for clothing the neophytes. From the beginning of the mission system, they supplied clothing and fabric for the local native population, both to preserve modesty and as gifts (Duggan 2000).

Some of the fabric stored in the warehouse consisted of luxury yardage, presumably for making priests’ clothing and church goods. These fabrics are sangaleta, which is a silk fabric with patterned weft designs, and Indiana cotton, printed with large flowers. The inventory listed 18.5 varas of Indiana (over 16 meters) and 29 varas of sangaleta (over 24 meters). That is a lot of fabric, and very costly fabric at that. In addition to these items, the inventory listed another 14 varas of fine Indiana (almost 12 meters). There were 22 varas of scrap Indiana as well. Clearly this yardage was intended for construction of clothing and furnishings, since 23 copper thimbles, buttons large and small, and sewing thread was also listed.

Of particular interest in the inventory is this entry:

19 pounds pita floja

This is ixtle, which is plant fiber (Aechmea magdalenae) used as warp for Saltillo serapes (Wheat 1994: 58). Agave fiber is sometimes used as a substitute for the bromeliad. In this form, it is sometimes referred to as henequen. Although I am tempted to suggest that perhaps local agave fibers, which were spun by the Kumeyaay as part of their traditional fiber technology, were used for this item, I doubt that they were. Pita floja is listed many times in the requisitions and invoices associated with the Santa Barbara Presidio community (Perissinotto 1998). Therefore, I have concluded that this material was imported from Mexico. But what of the association with Saltillo serapes? I can only conclude that both in San Diego and at Santa Barbara weavers were using the preferred ixtle for a traditional warp and were weaving serapes with yarn spun from local wool as weft.

Another item of interest to me was bulk cotton, listed as:

25 arrobas algodon

This bulk cotton was stored in the textile shop with the spinning wheels, carders, and looms (Engelhardt 1920: 341). We do not know if this cotton, which was grown in mission fields, was for internal production or export like the hemp fibers. An arroba is approximately 25 pounds, so that is 625 pounds of cotton. It takes less than a pound of cotton to make a shirt, so based on my experience growing, spinning and weaving cotton that’s a lot of cotton – plenty to spin and weave at the mission and to trade.

I eliminated the imported luxury fabrics that were stored in the warehouse from consideration since they were not made at the San Diego mission. This left a relatively small group of items. I suggest that the following are the textiles that could have been made at the mission[2]:

2 piezas (2 bolts of 20 meters) of blue manta (fabric for a cloak or blanket)

3 piezas (3 bolts of 20 meters) of plain white manta

18 varas (15 meters) of plain white manta

21.5 varas (18 meters) of plain white manta

13 varas (11 meters) of blue manta

1 vara (0.84 meter) of rotten blue cloth

173 blankets

3 piezas (3 bolts of 20 meters) of bayeta (baize – a loosely woven wool flannel)

1 pieza (1 bolt of 20 meters) of jerga (crudely woven fabric, often used as floor covering but also outer clothing)

Manta would have been an easy fabric to produce at the mission. It is a plain woven wool, not fine, and used both as clothing and for blankets (as the saying goes, clothing by day, bed by night). Daily clothing for both priests, monks, and neophytes was made out of manta cloth. The question is, was it woven at the mission in these lengths? A pieza or bolt of fabric was a length of approximately 20 meters. Would a mission period loom be capable of holding a warp of 22 meters (20 meters of fabric plus approximately 2 meters of waste beyond the woven fabric). As a weaver myself, and having seen the large floor looms used in New Mexico, I know that a 20 meter warp is not unusual if a warping reel is used to wind the yarn. A fast weaver can easily produce a meter of fabric a day. So it is possible that these lengths were made at the mission.

Churro sheep produce a fleece that is long staple, glossy and silk-like in sheen, and low in lanolin. It is ideal for handspinning and weaving, particularly in areas where there is not an abundance of water to wash the fleece (Wheat 2003). I spun a series of singles yarns from Churro wool, and dyed them with a sampling of natural dyes that would have been available during the time that San Diego’s mission was active (Photographs 1 and 2). The long staple of the yarn produces a fine single, and was easy to produce on both a spindle wheel and a flyer wheel. This material could be used for embroidery or weaving without plying. A two-ply yarn could be used as either warp or weft, although more traditionally as the warp yarn.


Photograph 1. Handspun Churro singles dyed with, left to right: Undyed dark brown, madder, indigo over rabbitbrush, marigold, medium indigo, dark indigo


Photograph 2. Madder, rabbitbrush, and undyed brown Churro singles with inch scale

Bayeta, which was called sabanilla in New Mexico, was woven only if Churro sheep were available (Wheat 2003: 71). This fabric, which is loosely woven and was sometimes brushed into a flannel for outerwear, was the base material for traditional colcha embroidery (Benson 2008: 60-61). Later, cotton was used as the base material for colcha embroidery, and commercial yarns were used instead of handspun Churro singles. Without the glossy Churro yarn, the pieces lost their luster and quality.

Jerga fabric was also a commonly produced cloth. It was woven as a twill, in checks or plaid. Although most commonly woven as floor covering, it was also used for outer clothing, including shawls (Minge 1994). It is worth noting that twill weaving on a treadle floor loom requires at least three harnesses. We do not know what kind of looms were at the mission.

The 173 blankets listed in the inventory were probably made from these types of coarse, plain cloth. Lucero and Baizerman (1999: 12 – 13) noted that wool utilitarian cloth was produced as yardage on a loom for everyday use: work clothes, bedding, floor coverings, and blankets for “… laborer, farmer, Indian.” The imported fabrics were used by the upper class military, landowners, and priests.

There are also arguments against these items having been produced at the mission. The detailed requisitions and invoices related to the Santa Barbara Presidio community list all of these types of cloth as having been obtained from San Blas (Perissinotto 1998). Or, it could be that as soon as fabric was woven, it was used or distributed to the neophytes or other Native people – and not stored.

The final piece of evidence for textile manufacturing at the mission is the list of items stored in the workshop (Engelhardt 1920: 341). The following items relate directly to textile production (Spanish terms were translated using Ponce de Leon 1910) :

4 looms

2 useless looms

2 spinning wheels

2 ½ hackle sets for preparing hemp or flax (hackles come in sets ranging from         coarser to finer to first split and then comb the fibers)

1 reel for winding yarn

12 pairs of handcards

1 comb for making manta cloth (wool comb; should be in pairs)

14 spinning wheels used by young women

10 rods for beating (fulling) wool (called baquetillas in the inventory but the word is           property spelled baqueteos)

The specific mention of a wool comb for making mantas is a direct statement that this fabric was manufactured at the mission. The list indicates that wool, at least, was combed, carded, spun, wound into skeins, and woven into fabric.


Inventories from the missions and presidios demonstrate that the colonial Spanish had access to the world’s textiles. European linen, Chinese silk, and Indian printed cotton fabric were all available in abundance at the missions, presidios, and pueblos of California while Spanish government ships were supplying the colonies. This ended in 1810, due to conflicts that led to Mexican independence in 1821. However, even after Spanish government support of the colonies ended, privately funded Spanish ships continued to bring goods from Mexico and Peru (Archibald 1978: 123-124). In addition, other trade resources opened up, although with higher prices and shipping charges. Smuggling had always been a source of goods, particularly ships from the United States trading for pelts. The economic independence of California from New Spain in 1810 resulted in some very lean years, but also provided opportunity that had been illegal previously under Spanish control (Archibald 1978: 140-141).

By the time Old Town San Diego was settled, in the early 1820s, Mexico had opened up trade with the United States. Goods came west on the Santa Fe Trail (to Los Angeles), and by ship from Boston. Hides were shipped to the east from California, and returned as shoes and other leather goods. Commercial yarns were available after 1821, and were shipped from the eastern U.S. Saxony yarn, a 3-ply Merino dyed with plant and mineral dyes, was available as a replacement for single and plied handspun Churro (Fisher 1994: 158).

What dyes, if any, were imported into San Diego for use in producing textiles? Between 1769 and 1810, the mission had to order dyes from San Blas or smuggle them from elsewhere. Between 1810 and 1821, goods were obtained from a variety of both legitimate and illegal sources, including Yankee traders and Spanish ships (but not government ships). Peru was also a source for shipped goods.

After 1821 and Mexican independence, dyes could have been obtained from the world’s markets, most likely brought by ship from the eastern US. We know from the 1834 inventories that the mission community was still spinning and weaving at that time, and assume that they were dyeing as well. Dyes used in the early 19th century US included the same ones imported from San Blas, as well as madder, walnut, woad, and many other dyes (Bemiss 1815 (1973); Ellis 1798). I propose that beginning with the Mexican rule of California a wide variety of dyes would have been available in San Diego, both at the mission community and in the growing town. However, no dye house has been identified in Old Town San Diego.

The mission inventory from 1834 is direct evidence that spinning and weaving took place in the workshop; the unknown is what textiles were made there. Again, we know that coarse wool fabric was produced; it is possible, and likely, that the mission workshop was used to make a variety of other textiles as needed.

It is most likely that spinning, weaving, and dyeing was practiced in Old Town both before and after the mission was secularized – at least for durable wool fabric. This would have been a continuation of the practices at the mission, and with 32,000 head of Churro sheep it is assumed that they were sheared for their wool. Production of jerga, manta, sabanilla, and serape fabric would have been possible, and if so these were made of dyed fibers from Churro sheep. The historic record and inventory lists from the mission provide direct evidence for textile production in early historic period California.

Photograph Credit: All photographs by Susan M. Hector

References Cited

Archibald, Robert

1978   The Economic Aspects of the California Missions. Academy of American             Franciscan History, Washington, D.C.

Bancroft, Hubert Howe

1963   History of California. Volume I – 1542-1800. Wallace Hebberd, Santa             Barbara.

Bemiss, Elijah

1815   The Dyer’s Companion. Dover Reprint 1973.

Benson, Nancy C.

2008   New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery and the Women Who        Saved It. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

Duggan, Marie Christine

2000   Market and Church on the Mexican Frontier: Alta California 1769 – 1832.             Doctoral dissertation. New School University.

Ellis, Asa

1798   The Country Dyer’s Assistant. E. Merriam and Company. Brookfield,     Massachusetts.

Engelhardt, Zephyrin

1920   San Diego Mission. The James H. Barry Company, San Francisco.

Fisher, Nora

1994   Colcha Embroidery. In: Rio Grande Textiles, pp. 119 – 131, edited by Nora Fisher. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

Hector, Susan M.

2015   Spanish Colonial Textile Production and Spinning Wheels in San Diego, California. Manuscript on http://www.Academia.edu.

Lucero, Helen R. and Suzanne Baizerman

1999   Chimayo Weaving. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Minge, Ward Alan

1994   Efectos del Pais. In: Rio Grande Textiles, pp. 5 – 21, edited by Nora Fisher. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

Perissinnoto, Giorgio

1998   Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

Phipps, Elena

2014   New Textiles in a New World: 18th Century Textile Samples from the Viceregal Americas. Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, Paper 898. Digital Commons, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Ponce de Leon, Nestor

1910   Technological Dictionary: English-Spanish and Spanish-English. Volume II – Spanish-English. Hirschfeld Brothers, Limited. London.

Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K.

1994   Building and Builders in Hispanic California 1769 – 1850. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Presidio Research Publication.

Shibayama, Nobuko, Elena Phipps, and Lucy Commoner

n.d.      Identifying Natural Dyes to Understand a Tapestry’s Origin. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.   http://www.metmuseum.org/research/conservation-and-scientific-research/identifyin-natural-dyes. Accessed 4/15/2015.

Webb, Edith Buckland

1952   Indian Life at the Old Missions. University of Nebraska Press.

Wheat, Joe Ben

1994   Saltillo Serapes of Mexico. In: Rio Grande Textiles, pp. 58 – 63, edited by Nora Fisher. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

2003   Blanket Weaving in the Southwest. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.


[1] Various sources were used to identify and translate the inventory items. Engelhardt noted that the handwriting and illiteracy of the scribe who noted the items resulted in misspellings. Sources included Fisher 1994; Ponce de Leon 1910; and Wheat 1994; thank you to Larry Felton, who did substantial research to identify sangaleta.

[2] A vara is 0.84 meter and a pieza was a standard bolt of whole fabric measuring approximately 18 – 20 varas, estimated here as 20 meters.

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