Traditional Maya textiles are crafted individually by highly skilled weavers who incorporate bright colors and intricate patterns. Since Pre-Columbian times, Maya textiles have been highly developed and highly valued, serving not only as a component of blankets, clothing, and other functional objects, but also as a way of showing status and region.
Textile weaving has traditionally been a women’s art among most indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya. While men did certain limited kinds of weaving, such as making belts or sashes, the creation of textiles was associated with goddesses of conception, birth, and weaving; the making of textiles was considered parallel to the processes of conception, gestation, and birth, and spinning and weaving therefore became a way to define femininity. Maya women developed many different, complex weaving techniques and styles using the traditional backstrap loom, which was imported into Mesoamerica from South America around two thousand years ago. While the backstrap loom limits the width of the textiles to the reach of the woman, it is also a highly practical, mobile, and versatile loom that allows the weaver to produce many different types of textiles. The treadle or foot loom was later introduced by the Spanish to the Maya, and today this loom is used by both men and women; the treadle loom is considered to be a machine, however, and the textiles produced are not considered to be handmade.
While contact with Europeans has changed traditional Maya textile designs and styles very little, the Maya have adopted and adapted new materials and techniques throughout their history and prehistory to develop and improve their textiles. They began using cochineal, a native Guatemalan insect, in ancient times to create vivid red dyes, and indigo was imported from southern Central America to create the famous Maya blue hues as well as green pigments. Mollusks were also imported to the area to create a lavender-purple dye.
The Maya traditionally used maguey fiber and cotton to create their textiles, but they also adopted wool when the Spanish imported sheep to the Maya region, and this fiber became especially popular in colder mountain towns and regions. The Spanish also introduced the silkworm to the Maya region, and silk was readily adopted to provide fine embroidery and elaborately woven fringes on Maya textiles. When synthetic dyes were invented in the late 19th century, the Maya also embraced the durable, vivid hues that they produced.
Since ancient times, each Maya community has developed a variation of traditional Maya dress with specific patterns, colors, and designs, and traditional clothing therefore serves as a “cultural identity badge” for their town and region. Because men often go to cities to work, they have largely adopted Western dress, but many indigenous women still proudly wear the traje, or traditional dress, including the huipil, or blouse; the corte, or skirt; the faja, or sash or woven belt; and the tzute, or headcloth, sometimes along with a bolsa, a pouch or bag, and for special occasions, a cinta or headdress. While women continue to make and wear the traditional traje of their community, today one may see different versions of Maya dress in the same town, as Maya women may also move to another community when they marry, but continue to wear the traditional clothing of their own town, or they may also simply wear the clothing of another town in order to appear more worldly and to show that they have traveled extensively.
The Colorful Huipil from Tactic, Guatemala is unfinished, but the design indicates that it was likely meant to have a squared neckline like the other two huipils in this exhibit. The neckline of a huipil indicates the wearer’s age; a squared neckline would be worn by a young woman, while a slit neckline would be worn by a mature woman, and a V-shaped neckline would be worn by a young girl or adolescent. The style of the huipil is also revealing, as it indicates that the Maya woman had one of two major matrilineal family connections. Women with a “Comalapan” matrilineal family connection wears a huipil with a band that runs across the blouse at shoulder height, while women with a “Sanmartinecan” matrilineal family connection wears a huipil with more color and bands throughout the blouse, as with these huipils.
The individual motifs and colors on huipils are also revealing. On the Colorful Huipil and on the Red, Blue, and Green Huipil, flowers and plants represent the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, and the center of the flower could also represent the sun. The zigzag motifs may signify serpents, a popular design in Highland Guatemala; serpents are associated both with weaving and rain, and they may also represent a messenger for the Mesoamerican sun god. Also representing the sun on these huipils is a diamond-shaped geometric motif that represents the sun traveling around the earth; this motif also symbolizes the Maya concept of the cosmos, or universe, as well as the four cardinal directions. Finally, the four-legged creatures depicted on the Colorful Huipil may indicate dogs, which are native to Mesoamerica and are favorite pets.
On the Red and Blue Striped Huipil, meanwhile, the two dominant colors are used boldly and are likely more symbolic than its simple pattern. Red possibly references passion, power, strength, or determination in Maya color symbolism, while blue can reference skill, virtue, tenderness, or calm. The seam down the center of this huipil and on the Red, Blue, and Green Huipil also confirm that these were made traditionally, on a backstrap loom, which limits the width of the cloth to the length of the weaver’s reach. Researched by Christina Bradshaw and Elizabeth Haughey
The pleated neck opening of this garment indicates that it is not a small huipil or blouse, but instead is a contemporary Maya child’s garment, made with a huipil-like neckline. Children are frequently dressed in pleated or gathered garments, while the elderly never wear these features. Also identifying this as a child’s dress are the cuffed and gathered sleeves, which are not seen on huipils. The embroidered motifs of hearts and flowers around the neckline is placed in bands as seen on some huipils; the flower may refer traditionally to the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, but the heart is a contemporary motif, and accordingly it indicates love. Researched by Christina Bradshaw
Maya women have not worn cintas, or traditional headbands, for everyday dress since the 1950s. Cintas are still produced and worn, however, for ceremonial and festival use, as well as being made for sale in the tourist trade. The wrapping of the cinta around and/or through the hair resembles a halo set upon the head, and similar headdresses can be seen on depictions of women in ancient Maya sculptures and ceramics dating back at least to the Classic Period (250-900 C.E.), illustrating a continuity of traditional dress for nearly two millennia. Much like with the huipil, the cinta was traditionally made with town-specific colors, motifs, and designs; the large pompoms at the ends reveals that this cinta is from the Maya town of Totonicápan.
The motifs on the woven band of the cinta include flowers, which traditionally symbolize the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration; arrow shapes, which may represent stylized birds in flight; and zigzags, which may represent serpents. The large X-like motifs composed of two chevrons could symbolize a number of things, such as the pattern on the back of a serpent, or, if it relates to Pre-Columbian motifs, it may represent a crossroads–a frightening place of great power, where women who died in childbirth would attack travelers and wreak vengeance for their violent deaths. Researched by Christina Bradshaw
Fajas, which are waist sashes or woven belts, are among the few textiles that men traditionally make. In ancient times, men would make these on a backstrap loom, the traditional loom still used today by women for making handmade Maya textiles; today, however, fajas are made on a belt loom or treadle loom. Fajas were traditionally made of maguey fiber, which comes from the same plant used to make tequila and mezcal, and this makes the belts stiff and durable; the maguey has been mixed with wool fibers to make the surface of the belt softer.
The black-and-white striped base design of these belts may represent the concept of duality, with the black symbolizing pessimism, sadness, or death, and the white symbolizing purity, cleanliness, wisdom, justice, or loyalty. The colorful tassels with small pompoms at the ends on the faja from Sumpango are similar to those used to decorate belts from the town of Chichicastenango, and this may be an adopted motif. These tassels and the patterns of multicolored rectangles on the other faja in this exhibit, may carry many different meanings in Maya color symbolism; however, even more striking than the many colors on the second faja is the evolving pattern that turns into a bold zigzag, which may relate to ancient serpent symbolism. Researched by Christina Bradshaw and Elizabeth Haughey
The Purple and Yellow Striped sash may be worn around the waist as a faja, or it may also be worn over the shoulder. The particularly bright colors of this textile may incorporate Maya color symbolism, which can have many and variable meanings. Purple or violet can indicate goodness, education, jealousy, or sleepiness, while yellow can indicate health, intelligence, wealth, or infidelity. In addition, this sash has elaborately embroidered designs of plants and stylized horses in blue, which can indicate skill, virtue, tenderness, or calm; in orange, which can indicate ambition, pride, appetite, or happiness; in green, which can indicate fortune, activity, hope, or calm; and in red, which can indicate passion, strength, determination, or power. Researched by Elizabeth Haughey
Ornately brocaded cloths such as this textile were often multipurpose and may have been used in a wide variety of ways. It may have served as a toalla, or towel; as a servilleta, a type of napkin; a delantale, or apron-like garment; or as a tzute, an all-purpose utility cloth that was carried or worn as a head cloth. As this textile is elaborately woven with a variety of motifs, it more likely served as a delantale or a tzute. Weavers often experiment with the designs of these cloths, incorporating new and traditional motifs and creating new configurations of pattern. The motifs on this cloth include geometric zigzags that may represent serpents, but these zigzags also form diamond shapes, which may represent the sun traveling around the earth, the universe, and the four cardinal directions. Another prominent motif is a bird with a long tail. This likely represents the quetzal bird, which has a long tail of blue-green iridescent feathers that were highly treasured, and this bird still serves as an important Maya symbol. Researched by Christina Bradshaw
While it may be based on a bolsa, a traditional bag, this small pouch has a zipper and lacks a strap, and it was therefore likely made for the tourist trade rather than for a woman’s traje. Nevertheless, this pouch shows many traditional features. The fabric was produced from cotton using traditional weaving techniques, and the horizontal rows of color are typical of cloth made on a backstrap loom. Traditional thread-dying techniques, called ikat or jaspe, are also incorporated into the weaving. In these techniques, skeins of thread are dyed with patterns before weaving, and the woven design appears attractively wavy and watery. Researched by Elizabeth Haughey
For more information, you may contact the researcher(s) noted in the title of this exhibit entry, or Dr. Billie Follensbee, the professor of the course, at BillieFollensbee@MissouriState.edu