It was the goal of the Spanish padres that each of the California missions be self-sufficient, producing all that they needed right there on the mission grounds. In the early days of the missions, blankets and cloth for clothing came from Mexico by ship. However, the missions soon had large flocks of sheep which provided the wool that they needed to make their own cloth.
The sheep were sheared each spring. The native Californian men soon became very skilled at using the steel shears, which the padres brought from Mexico. A shearing team of men could shear about 3,000 sheep in one day.
When the fleeces had been cut from the sheep, they were cleaned by the women and children. The children helped to pick out bits of brush and thorns. Then the fleeces were put in large kettles and washed with soap to remove some of the oils that are natural to sheep’s wool. They were then spread out over the bushes or on racks to dry. In spite of this cleaning process, blankets sometimes ended up with burrs or pieces of thistle woven into them.
The first spinning wheels and looms on which the mission workers spun the yarn and wove the cloth were made by Spanish carpenters. Father Lasuén, who had become the leader of the California missions after Father Serra’s death in 1784, reported in his diary in 1792 that he had arranged for a craftsman named Antonio Domingo Henrique to make the journey from San Diego to Monterey, stopping at each mission along the way.
At each mission, Henrique made spinning wheels, looms, and other equipment needed for weaving cloth. Henrique also showed the mission workers how to card (straighten) the strands of wool, spin them into yarn, and weave the various types of cloth. One type of cloth made at the missions was a coarse woolen cloth called Sayal Franciscano.
After the wool fleeces were cleaned and dried, the strands of wool were straightened using brushes made from spiny seed pods. At this point, the wool was ready to be made into yarn on the spinning wheels. The yarn was then woven into cloth on the wooden looms.
Both men and women worked in the weaving workshops at the missions. The Native Californians were already highly skilled in weaving baskets from reeds, sumac, willow roots, and bark. They wove baskets in many shapes and sizes. Some were so firmly and finely woven that they would hold water.
At the missions, Indian women continued to weave baskets. Mission San Antonio de Padua was especially known for the beautiful handwoven baskets made there. The Chumash Indians of the Mission San Buenaventura area were also known for their finely-woven baskets. Many Native Californians soon became as skilled in weaving cloth on the looms as they were in basket weaving.
The woolen cloth woven at the missions was used to make blankets and serapes. A serape is a small blanket with a hole in the middle so that the blanket can be put on over a person’s head and worn like a jacket or poncho. A lightweight woolen cloth called jerga was woven for making clothes.
Each mission had a weaving workshop where cloth was made for that mission. This workshop was part of the square of buildings that enclosed the central courtyard.
At one point Mission San José reported that there were five looms in operation there, producing about 150 blankets each week, plus another loom that was used to make serapes. A weaver could make about 10 yards of woolen cloth in a day.
Mission San Francisco de Asís and Mission Santa Clara were known for the quantity and excellence of the weaving done there.
Weaving was also a major industry at La Purísima, where it is estimated that 40,000 woolen blankets were woven over the years. Not only did the mission workers supply blankets for the mission, but for the soldiers at the presidios as well.
In the early 1800s an artisan weaver named Mariano Mendoza spent some time at Mission San Juan Capistrano, teaching the Indian women about weaving. In addition to the large quantities of blankets and serapes, the workers produced woven carpets to cover the adobe floors.
Cotton and linen were also woven at the missions. Cotton and flax plants provided the fibers from which the yarn was spun. Cotton material was used to make much of the clothing for the mission Indians. The Indian women also made the gray cloth for the robes that the padres wore.
Each Native Californian who lived at the mission was given one blanket each year. Each man received a pair of pants every six months, and a shirt every seven months. The women each received a skirt and a blouse every seven months. The cotton and woolen clothing was new to the Native Californians, who were accustomed to wearing cloaks made of animal skins or aprons woven from reeds and grasses.
The cloth woven for the women’s clothing at the mission was often brightly colored. The yarns were colored with dyes made from plants and flowers. Indigo (blue) was a popular color.