We examine the ways that textile production, exchange, and consumption were integrated into the political economy of the Gulf lowlands, Mexico, over the course of two millennia. Archaeological, botanical, and historical data concerning cotton textile production reveal that changes in the industry resulted from alterations in the cotton plant, shifts in the local political economy, and changes in the relationship of the Gulf lowlands to other key regions of Mesoamerica. Initially, textiles did not figure prominently in social displays, and there is little archaeological evidence for spinning of cotton thread. Subsequently, textile production may have been stimulated by elite substitution of locally crafted items for increasingly scarce exotic imports toward the end of Olmec times in the Preclassic period. The political and cultural stature of the Gulf lowlands increased during the Classic period in conjunction with a greater emphasis on cotton processing and use of textiles. During the Postclassic period, ruralization of once-key localities and possible conversion of the western lower Papaloapan Basin to a tributary status correlated with changes in the attributes of whorls and in representations of textiles.