The Otomí People: Meeting the Makers of Our Ayate Washcloths

Every product tells a story, but not many of them involve a matriarchal society of indigenous people.

hands weaving ayate

If you’ve purchased — or even just noticed — one of our ayate washcloths, you might have wondered exactly where they come from and how they are made.

The journey from production to your door begins with the Otomí, a group of Native American tribes that live in central Mexico, primarily in the states of Queretaro, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo and Michoacán. Most of the men travel to cities so they can work higher-paying jobs and send money home. The women who remain become pillars of the community, and they generate income by weaving and selling ayate.

These artisans start the process by harvesting leaves from the maguey plant, a variety of agave. Maguey grows in plains, cliffs, coastal dunes and mountain peaks, typically in somewhat dry climates with average temperatures of around 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The preferred elevation for these plants is between 1,000 and 2,000 meters above sea level, according to a woman who works with the Otomí.

maguey plants

It takes about eight years for maguey to mature. At this time the fibers from its leaves are ready to be the key ingredient in ayate. During the plant’s lifespan there are about 10 years when it can produce these fibers.

Once the leaves are cut, the women roast and carve them. After rigorous washing and combing, the ayate threads can be extracted and prepared for weaving.

The weaving involves an ancestral technique that is passed from one generation to another. From the time they are children, women learn the skill so they may eventually become leaders and continue the tradition.

By selling ayate washcloths to brands, many Otomí are able to radically improve their economic conditions. The commerce also incentivizes the preservation of an important part of their culture. At Public Goods our members are part of that story.

If you want to learn more about the Otomí, visit Otomí Nation. Once you feel like an ayate washcloth is used up, we encourage you to donate it to a composting facility or compost it at home. Also, check out our ayate bath strip, a new version of the ayate wash cloth that is ideal for cleaning your back during a shower.

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