Contemporary Maya cultures in Guatemala produce elaborate textiles using traditional methods for spinning, dying, weaving, and embroidering cloth that have been passed down by the women of their cultures for centuries. Each Maya region is known for its own version of colorful traditional clothing outfits, called trajes. While women in more rural areas continue to wear the traje as daily wear, men and the women who travel to larger communities for school or work no longer tend to wear traditional garments except for special events. In addition, rapid changes throughout Guatemala in the twentieth century have brought global trade, new technologies, and products such as commercially produced fabric and synthetic threads in many colors to these areas. Tourism has also profoundly influenced local artisanal customs, encouraging the making of products developed for the tourist trade.
Nevertheless, Guatemalan weavers remain proud of their traditional institutions, and today they are working to preserve and protect their ancient artforms. Weaving is a deeply meaningful and symbolic activity for the Maya that symbolizes birth and regeneration in Maya culture, while the designs and the specific styles of the traje indicate specific communities and cultural ties. Although Guatemala continues to modernize, and some methods and design elements have evolved and/or merged with those of other communities, Maya artisans still continue to create and to uphold their proud traditions of elaborate weaving techniques, the use of traditional backstrap loom, and fine workmanship.
This display focuses on the traditional Guatemala Maya woman’s traje, which consists of the huipil, a popover blouse-like garment that could be short or long; a long, wrapped skirt; a long sash; a rebozo or long shawl with many practical uses; and in many cases, a hat or an elaborate hair ornament.
This short huipil is made of hand-woven cotton cloth and constructed using a traditional pattern. Embroidered and brocaded designs on huipiles also tend to be highly traditional, not only symbolizing the natural world through flowers, snakes, birds, and other animals, but also complex, ancient symbols in geometric shapes. The elaborate green embroidered design that dominates the center of this huipil incorporates a complex symbol of the Maya cosmos: The corners of the large diamond shapes symbolize the four cardinal directions, while the colorful, small central diamond within symbolizes the sun and its path, and the center of the Maya world.
While clothing worn for traditional events and rituals continues to be hand-woven and decorated by Guatemala Maya women, the widespread availability of commercially produced fabric starting in the 20th century has made this material a more convenient and economical choice for everyday garments, as well as for less-expensive garments made for the tourist trade.
In this long huipil, commercial cotton cloth has been cut and sewn using traditional garment construction, and it has been personalized with distinctive, curvilinear, elaborate floral embroidery. While stitchery with commercially dyed embroidery floss was introduced to the Maya by Europeans, the creation of complex floral designs through brocade and embroidery have been used to embellish Maya garments for thousands of years.
Woven on a backstrap loom, this brightly colored cotton sash is a traditional garment worn by both men and women. The weaver used bright commercial dyes to create the elaborate, striped pattern of the sash using a method called jaspe. Jaspe is when bundles of thread are tightly tied together before dipping them in dye, which creates gaps and patterns where the threads block the dye from seeping into the cotton; weaving with these threads as a warp then creates feathery but clear designs. Simple jaspe takes the form of geometric shapes, as seen in this sash, while more intricate jaspe tying may create motifs of people, animals, or plants. Jaspe has become so popular among the Maya that some artisans now specialize in the technique, and rather than dyeing their own jaspe threads, Maya weavers often now send their thread out to be dyed by the specialists to create desired shapes and forms.
The rebozo is a highly versatile component of a Maya woman’s traje, serving as a shawl, a decorative wrap, a head-covering or padding for a burden, a wrap for transporting a bundle of items, or a child carrier. While this rebozo was woven of acrylic fibers that were dyed with commercial pigments, its geometric pattern is made using threads dyed using the traditional jaspe method, and the ends are hand-woven into an elaborate checked pattern and then hand-knotted into a thick fringe.
The tupuy hair ornament consists of a long, thick woven cord with colorful pompoms and tassels; the red cord is wound around the hair in a long, cone-like ponytail, while the tassels are allowed to drape freely down the woman’s back. This tupuy is clearly identifiable as associated with the Maya community of Cobán, where it symbolizes the powerful coral snake.
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