Mayan Weaving and Embroidery

Traditional highland weavings, and woman using a backstrap loom, Guatemala.

Mayan Woman weaving using a backstrap loom, Guatemala, 1979.

For the Mayans, weaving has been a way for women to express creativity and technical skills through her demonstration of cultural values onto textiles. Women held a great responsibility to transfer the cultural values on to material objects that may then be passed down as teaching objects.

A women’s virtuosity was often demonstrated through their  backstrap loomed textiles. The detail and precision with which Mayan women weave is a way of communicating the complexities of Mayan culture, religion, and core values, and the more skilled a woman was with weaving, the more revered socially she became.

The woven textiles of Mayan culture have also played hugely significant roles in spiritual space among the Mayan people. In addition to daily clothing and  regalia , Mayan textiles were woven to cover a variety of spiritually significant objects such as ritual tables, candles, and even fireworks.

 

Huipil Maya Tsotsil<br />

Huipil Maya Tsotsil, Maria Elena Lowe, 2018

Huipiles are perhaps the most exemplary articles of traditional Mayan clothing. Huipiles are identified through their decoration, motifs, color combinations, and how they are worn. These identifications serve as symbols of the wearer’s ethnic identity as well as indicates their social and economic status within the community.

 

Huipiles can be used for daily wear (often plain, undecorated), ceremonies (fragile materials, labor intensive), and mourning (black and lilac thread).

 

Motifs such as birds, corn, human figures, diamonds, triangles, and other plant and animal forms are shared across regions. The design, color usage, placement, and overall execution of these motifs serve to distinguish members of different towns from each other. Anthropologists today have identified over 150 different municipal styles of dress. Western trade and the introduction of machine looms and synthetic dyes have complicated and commercialized the traditional huipiles, but Mayan women today still continue to use and wear the huipil, and place a great emphasis on the use of traditional design forms to celebrate their heritage and strengthen their ties to their communities. Huipiles motifs and design change over time, and can tell stories of the town's history that go generations back by introducing a difference in technique, rendering of motif, or color.

Andean Culture History

Mayan women have used a  backstrap loom since the pre-Columbian era. This portable loom, made out of sticks, a belt, and thread was tied around the weaver’s body and a stationary tree or post. The weaver then created tension on the loom by moving her body backwards and forwards, opening and closing the sheds, and using a rotating wooden batten through the threads.

While the loom itself is very simple, the backstrap loom requires special skills in body control, as it requires stillness, balance, kneeling for long periods of time, and quite a significant amount of strength.

 

Map of Chiapas from <a href="https://geo-mexico.com/">Geo Mexico </a>

Map of Chiapas provided by Geo Mexico 

Maria Elena, of the grasshopper clan, grew up in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Her mother was one of the last indigenous weavers of Oxchuc, a Maya Tzeltal community. Maria Elena learned to spin, color, weave, and embroider using all natural fibers and dyes from her mother and grandmother. 

This intricately woven piece features a pattern of diamond shapes that represent the eye of God, or the Creator. The four points also represent the cardinal directs and the four elements of nature: earth, air, fire, and water. In such weavings, combining depictions of animals, plants, and the eye of God reflect the unity of the cosmos.

Maria Elena continues to preserve this weaving tradition with other indigenous women of Mexico through a group called Hermanas Lu'um Cooperative.

Huipil Maya Tsotsil Detail

Huipil Maya Tsotsil Detail, Maria Elena Lowe, 2018

Vocabulary Words: 
  • backstrap loom: A loom consisting of sticks, rope, and a strap that is worn around the weavers waist. The loom is tied to a stationary tree or post, which allows the weaver to create a tension in the warp through the movement of their body.
  • regalia: traditional Native dress, most often reserved for ceremonies.
  • ethnic identity: A sense of belonging based on one's ancestry, cultural heritage, values, traditions, rituals, and often language and religion. From: International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), 2015.
  • huipile: a loose, boxy blouse traditionally worn by Indian women of Mexico and Guatemala
  • mofif: a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition.
  • pre-Columbian: relating to the history and cultures of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492
  • batten: a strip of squared wood used to hold thread in place on the warp during the weaving process