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The Beautiful History and Significance of Guatemalan Textiles

The Mayan women of Guatemala were weaving and dyeing fabric for over two thousand years before the Spanish arrived and they are some of the last indigenous people who continue to wear hand-woven clothing. Even today a Mayan woman seldom refers to herself as "Mayan", but as being "de corte" or "of the skirt".

As you travel across Guatemala, you will notice hundred of styles of traditional dress used in the different communities. The Maya perceive each town or village as a unique social and political entity that is the foundation of life and which centers the person in the universe. Traditional dress is an expression of their communal and individual identities. Huipile [blouse] and skirt designs convey the person's place of origin and identity, but also incorporate ther own taste and design skills.

Recently, there has been a greater emphasis on wearing traditional clothing as a way to ensure the survival of their history and culture. In Guatemala’s National Assembly women often wear their huipiles to official events. Rigoberta Menchu, who won the Noble Peace Prize in 1992, wore her traditional huipil and skirt to receive her award in Norway. By wearing traditional clothing, women in important positions empower other Mayan women to do the same and highlight the importance of their cultural heritage.

Backstrap Weaving: Backstrap weaving is a part of the culture of the western highlands of Guatemala. Young girls begin learning how to weave at about 7 years of age. By the time they are ready to marry, they are extremely skilled weavers.

Backstrap looms are fairly simple devices, but it takes incredible skill to master the art of using them. They are comprised of 6 or 7 rods, often handmade by the weaver. The back rod is tied to a tree or post while weaving and the other end has a strap that encircles the waist and the weaver can move back or forward to produce the needed tension. The backstrap weaver usually sits on the ground or small stool.

Mayan women use their backstrap looms to create their clothing and household textiles such as throws, shawls, bedspreads, baby wraps, and table runners. They can narrow the rods to make a 4-inch belt or expand them to 24 to 26 inches to make wider items. And, if a piece like a bedspread needs to be wider, two or more pieces are joined together with heavy embroidery stitches.

Women use cotton yarn for their weaving and in some villages they dye the cotton yarn with natural plant dyes. Many still tint yarn by hand and today they can also purchase ready-made dyes that can expand their color choices. Symbols in Mayan Weaving: Hundreds of symbols have been identified in Mayan textiles. While some of the original meanings of the symbols have been lost, many still hold significance for Maya communities, especially those relating to good, evil, fertility, and agriculture. The weaver selects a combination of symbols to portray a mythological story and no two weavings are identical.
Mayan Gods are frequently depicted with jaguar attributes. Diamonds represent the universe and the path of the sun in its daily movement. The butterfly, with its wings spread, represents freedom. Undulating designs symbolize the fertile earth with its abundance of plants and animals. Patterns with three vertical lines refer to the ancestors. Flowers and plants represent the cycle of life, fertility, and death. Colors can also hold meaning. Red often reflects passion, power, and strength. Blue can refer to skill or virtue.
In a globalized world in which fashion and décor have become more and more uniform and less based on cultural traditions, Mayan weaving stands out as an increasingly rare exception. You can find many excellent examples of Mayan bedspreads, quilts, throws, pillow covers, table runners, bags and wall hangings at our Fair Trade store here.
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