Teacher's Resources - Glossary

Francisca Perez weaving cloth

Image: In the Textile Museum's fibrespace, Francisca Rivera Pérez, who speaks Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, weaves cloth on a backstrap loom. Students from David Lewis Public School in Toronto, Canada look on.

Alpaca - Domesticated camelid (relative of the camel) with long silky fleece; believed to be a domesticated variety of the guanaco; with the llama, native to South America.

Amaranth - A nutritious plant that grows wild in various forms all over the Americas. Considered a noxious weed by most North Americans, it was harvested in Mesoamerica and its seeds consumed as a protein source.

Archaeologist - An anthropologist whose field of study is human history. Archaeologists employ a scientific approach to the acquisition of their data through controlled excavations. Recovered material culture (objects crafted by humans, structures, etc.) and the nature of its distribution and deposition are studied to reveal more about the lives and customs of people of the past.

Backstrap loom - The lengthwise threads (warp) are stretched from a fixed device such as a post or tree to a belt that a person wears around their waist. By backing away from the post or tree, the user can pull the warp threads into tension. The threads are separated into two parts by means of string heddles, making a space (shed) so that a weft thread can be passed between the two sets of threads. The two sets of warp threads are then reversed and a weft thread passed through again. By repeating this process, fabric is woven.

Burnishing - A process of producing a polished, shiny surface by rubbing a smooth stone over the surface of pots or bowls after the application of a clay slip.

Calavera - A skull or skeleton that regularly appears in Day of the Dead celebrations, often made of sugar, chocolate or amaranth. As a symbol it conveys the inevitability of death while still suggesting wit, mischief and humour.

Ceramics - objects made of clay and fired, or baked in a hot fire, to make them durable. ­­­

Cochineal - Mexican red-scaled insect that feeds on cacti; the source of a natural red dye in the Americas.

Epigrapher - A person who studies systems of writing, particularly the decipherment of ancient texts.

Gauze - A transparent fabric with a loose open weave created by twisting weft threads as they pass through the shed.

Hand modelling - The potter works the clay with his or her hands and hand tools without the aid of mechanical devices such as a potter's wheel.

Huipil - A loose brocaded blouse worn today by Maya women in Mexico and Central America. A form of huipil has been worn in the region since ancient times.

Indigenous - To be indigenous to a land or region is to be native to it. The native peoples of the Americas are the indigenous people of that land. Their ancestors were the first human beings to call that part of the world home, making them distinct from settlers who came to the Americas after 1492 during the period of European colonization.

Incising - In pottery, the cutting of closely-spaced lines and designs into the surface of the pot before it is fired.

Kiln - A purpose-built oven for the firing of ceramics.

Matte or semi-matte - A dull surface finish far less glossy than burnished black or red ware.

Mould - Many identical images in clay can be made quickly by using a mould. The moulds themselves were made from wood or clay, in one or two parts, and were used to make figures, faces, or details of sculptures. In some instances moulds were used even when quantities of an image were not planned, for instance with Moche portrait vases depicting actual people.

Ofrenda - An altar where personal possessions, food, flowers and holy figures are placed to honour ancestors and deceased loved ones.

Pit Fire - Few instances of kilns or purpose-built ovens for the firing of ceramics have been excavated archaeologically or identified in the ancient Americas. Most pottery was fired in open bonfires, sometimes in shallow pits.

Plain weave - Also called tabby, the most basic one-over and one-under interlacing of fabric woven on a loom.

Ply - To twist single threads in either an S or a Z direction (clockwise or counter-clockwise).

Polychrome - A painted or glazed surface of three or more colours.

Poncho - Ponchos are worn throughout the Andes today. A form of poncho was won in ancient in various styles and places. The poncho is a large, untailored woven cloth with a slit in the middle so that it can be slipped over the head. It is worn as a sleeveless garment

Serape - A long brightly-coloured shawl; worn mainly by Mexican men.

Serpent - The serpent is a sacred image in the Americas, as a cosmological symbol linked to creation and the duality of life and death, the upper- and underworlds, as well as for male/female symbolism.

Shamanism - The shaman was a key figure in ancient American societies. In many indigenous communities today, the shaman is still a key and often relied upon person. The shaman is usually a very charismatic and spiritual leader, who is looked to by their community to provide guidance. They advise on courses of action based on consultations with otherworldly beings or forces. The shaman's role is based on their ability to communicate with the otherworld of deceased ancestors and revered deities. Shamans often possessed expert knowledge of the potent plants of the region, which might be used for medicines or as vehicles for achieving transcendent states of consciousness (where otherworldly communication occurs). Shamans were healers, diviners and leaders.

Slip - A fine, liquid form of clay applied to the surface of a vessel prior to firing. Slip fills in pores and gives a uniform colour.

Symbol - A figure, mark, character or object that stands for something by definition, association or convention among a group of people.

Weaving - Creating a piece of cloth by interlacing strands of yarn, such as wool or cotton.