Maya Textiles: A History

Written by Salome Greene. This video provides context to this article. If you can, please watch it before reading.

The Maya people have been weaving textiles for use in clothing for thousands of years. Today different towns and communities are known for their own patterns and motifs. For many years, the origin of these different patterns has been attributed to the Spanish Conquistadors. History assumed that, in looking for a way to distinguish peoples from different places for reasons like forced labor or tax collection, Conquistadors created an organizational system where each town or municipality wore their own pattern of weaving. However, today there are Maya people who are challenging the idea that these different patterns are a result of colonization. The Maya people know that these regional variations have been around long before any contact by the Spanish.

Brief History

The story of how Maya women came to know how to weave goes like this: at the beginning of time, the goddess Ixchel taught women how to weave, and since then, mothers have taught their daughters the same practice. And that was how it has been for thousands of years. Unfortunately, not many examples of ancient Maya textiles have survived throughout history because the wet climate of the region is not conducive to the survival of the organic material that was used to weave.

However, just because there is not much textile evidence today does not mean that there are not ancient historical examples of Maya weaving. In fact, there are a great many examples of weaving to be found in stone carvings and the Popol Vuh (a text of mythology and history of the K’iche’ people). These examples from pre-colonization contain images of textiles that share the same patterns as modern weavings that are still worn and used today. These ancient examples show that the existence of these different patterns pre-date any intervention from the Conquistadors. The narrative that the Spanish were the ones to introduce the important cultural tool of the different patterns, shows how history is almost always told from the perspective of the victor. In this case, the Spanish have received credit for something that has played a large part in Maya culture long before the Spanish even knew it existed.

Cultural Significance

Textiles and their patterns have played an important role in Maya civilization throughout history. Today it can be used to show pride in community as many Maya women still wear their Huipils, a traditional blouse that can range in length and style depending on the region of origin. Women and their families may also rely on weaving in an economic sense, as women can weave as a trade, and sell their art.

There is a great deal of variety amongst the different types of patterns even between communities that are not that far apart. Take the examples shown in the video linked above and in this post’s graphic. Vera showed off the pattern that is typical of San Lucas with the red and white and variety of colorful animals aligned. Carmen’s example from Panajachel shows a similar red and white pattern but with only cats in the color red. Panajachel and San Lucas are both located on Lake Atitlan, and display differences even within close proximity. When these two examples are compared to Raquel’s pattern from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, the variety is even more apparent. Raquel’s pattern is bright yellow with the image of the quetzal centrally located both on the front and back of the textile. These towns are only about 25 miles away from each other and there are significant differences between their styles.

The different patterns and motifs come in the form of various colors and symbols which all hold meaning. Colors like red and white, as found in the traditional pattern of San Lucas, can represent things like types of corn or blood and bone. Butterflies are a common pattern which usually represent freedom. The diamond is also a very common motif which is used to represent the weaver and her craft. Corn is also present in the patterns that make up the textile. Corn represents the creation of humanity with different colors representing different body parts: black as the eyes and hair, red for blood, and yellow for muscles. These are only a few of the many different colors and patterns that can be found in Maya textiles.

Textiles and clothing are an important part of the living Maya culture. The history and meaning behind it continues to evolve today.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic please check out these sources:

https://tramatextiles.org/pages/mayan-symbolism

http://threads-of-time.carlos.emory.edu/exhibits/show/essays/tiesbind

https://www.mayanhands.org/pages/weaving-and-culture

https://www.jstor.org/stable/26309220

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