Updated: Sep 9, 2018
Spirit, power, grace, and art. It’s the exquisite combination of the weaving tradition of the Mayan world in Guatemala.
It is well known that hand-woven textiles from Guatemala are the most stunning in the world. For thousands of years, the women of Guatemala have dedicated their lives to passing down this talent. Traditional Mayan textiles are crafted individually by highly skilled weavers who incorporate bright colors and prismatic fabrics, putting painstaking care and effort into their designs. But the background of the Mayan spirit is what makes their work so intensely beautiful. The Mayans cultivated maguey fiber and cotton, while using natural dyes from plants, seeds, flowers, wood, leaves and mineral sources.
“Nature is very important, it is our mother. This is why we use only 100 percent natural dyes.” NERIDA
Mayans have been weaving for over two thousand years. In the early 1500’s when Spanish conquistadors arrived, they encountered incredibly beautiful weavings. Weaving is an integral part of a Mayan woman’s daily life and is an important responsibility she passes on from generation to generation. When a baby girl is 3 weeks old, the midwife bathes her in the temascal (Maya sweat lodge). The girl's mother gives the midwife her baby daughter’s weaving instruments, all miniature in size, including strands of thread, a tiny weaving loom, scissors, basket and needle. The midwife opens the newborn’s hands and passes each instrument over them, praying that the baby girl will become a proficient weaver, and maintain the ancient weaving art traditions as her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother did.
The Huipil ( wee-peel )
The most prevalent and influential women’s clothing item for Mayans is the Huipil, which is still worn by modern-day Mayan women in Guatemala. The word actually comes from the Mayan language of Nahuatl and means “my covering.” Huipiles are created using a backstrap loom which, according to National Geographic, has been used by Mayan women for 1,200 years. Huipils often are used to represent one’s religion and/or community belonging. Every village has their own designs, colors, and lengths as well as particular Huipil for ceremonial purposes. It was uncommon and often disgraceful to wear a huipil design from another community within one’s village; although, it was a sign of respect to wear a community’s huipil when visiting another village.
“By making these handmade textiles with natural dyes and colors, we are keeping our ancestral Mayan culture and traditions.” NERIDA
The design of the huipil expresses cultural identity and artistic personal skill. Each woman weaves her own history and philosophy of the universe into the garment, thus breathing new life into the beautiful fabrics to create stunning, one-of-a-kind pieces. Additionally, the weaving can identify where she’s from, it can tell you something about her interests, her family, her marital status, her social status, her religion, and her beliefs.
The Mayan textile weavings of Guatemala are detailed with exquisite patterns and symbols which hold representative meanings for indigenous populations in each region of Guatemala. Weavings for both ceremonial and everyday use continue to be important to Mayan culture. Similarly, colors have distinctive meanings to the regions where the cloth is woven. Because they take so long to make, huipiles are considered very valuable and are often one of the most expensive items a Mayan family owns. One huipil may take more than 5 months to a year to be made, depending on the complexity of the design. Today, although some of the representations have lost their traditional meanings, the skill of weaving these beautiful patterns is carried forward in indigenous communities, and hopefully this cultural knowledge will preserve into the future.