The term Mexican blanket can refer to many styles of blankets popular in both Mexican and Southwestern cultures. People often use Saltillo serape, Falsa blanket, Navajo blanket, and Rio Grande blanket interchangeably, but there are differences. It's wise to know the differences before buying a Mexican blanket, particularly for those interested in these tapestries as collectibles.
As far back as 2500 years ago, ancient peoples used material to weave blankets. With the introduction of churro sheep in the Southwest, native women were able to spin yarn, and with simple looms, weave rugs and blankets. The wool from the churro sheep grabbed the strong dyes, and rich tapestries of colorful stripes were created. Because the width of the looms was only 30 inches, the rugs would be joined in the center with a seam, thus producing the symmetrical designs of larger pieces. Certain designs came to be recognized and associated with areas, and were named accordingly. For example, the Saltillo blankets are named for the capital city of the Mexican state of Coahuila.
Originally, the narrow Mexican blankets often referred to as serapes, or sarapes, were used in a variety of ways. They might be placed on the floor to serve as a mat for sitting or even sleeping. They were also worn by both men and women, draped across the shoulders. These blankets may have been worn as ponchos, but not nearly as often as Hollywood might have people believe. Mexican blankets were also used as saddle blankets and were sometimes hung in doorways to separate rooms. Today, Mexican blankets are often used for decorative purposes, as rugs, wall hangings or throws to add Southwestern flair to a living space. They are also marketed as yoga mats.
The long, narrow, striped blankets of bright colors (red, blues, browns and yellows) are most often recognized as Saltillo serapes. The Falsa blankets are also long, narrow and striped, but more often these blankets are striped in the same color family. The Rio Grande blanket often incorporates the diamond design, while the Navajo blanket may have stars and even Southwestern scenes, as these designs were popular with tourists.
At the turn of the 20th century, the authentic Mexican blanket industry declined. Mexican blankets, however, are still available today. The machine-loomed blankets, though vibrantly colored and relatively inexpensive, cannot match the artistry and craftsmanship found in early New Mexican tapestries. Blankets that date from the pre-Civil war era to the 1880s are especially hard to find. Oftentimes, Mexican blankets are as prized for their history as for their unique craftsmanship. Those who are interested in collecting rare Mexican blankets would benefit from the expertise of a reputable dealer. There are also modern woven works of art, following the Mexican tradition, available for purchase.
Most Mexican blankets today are made of synthetic fibers and can be machine-washed. Authentic Mexican blankets should be handled with extreme care, and cleaned, if at all, by a professional used to dealing with material artifacts.