During the second half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, a number of weaving centers flourished in northern Mexico that produced brilliantly colored, finely woven wearing blankets, or serapes, for the affluent clientele of prosperous mining communities and sprawling cattle and sheep ranches. Saltillo in the state of Coahuila, more than 500 miles north of Mexico City, was the most famous of these textile manufacturing towns; its name gradually become associated with any fine blanket of the region, although other towns, including San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosí, also produced good quality serapes.
The origin of the serape as a distinctive item of outer clothing for men is unclear. Not indigenous to Mexico, it is nonetheless part of the textile tradition that developed in Mexico during the colonial period. Both native American and European elements went into it. In Aztec Mexico, a smaller rectangular manta, or man's wearing blanket, called tilmatli in Nahuatl, was woven on a backstrap loom and worn with the two upper corners tied together at the shoulder or at the neck. The Saltillo serape is larger and worn in different ways: over one shoulder, wrapped and draped like a shawl around the body, or as a poncho, since many have neck slits. Serapes, highly prized prestige items of clothing in Mexican society because of their fine weave, striking colors, and harmony of design, were very popular among riders of horses because of the suitability for life on horseback. Painters of the time depict vaqueros (cowboys) and horsemen wearing this colorful garment. When not in use, it was rolled and tucked behind the saddle.