Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Modern Guatemala

Though the “Classic” Maya civilization waned ca. 900 AD, the Maya people have survived in eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of western Honduras. Today there are an estimated six million speakers of the many interrelated Mayan languages. Along with the famous ancestral history of pyramids and carvings, the modern Maya also inherited a distinctive tradition of dress, particularly in women’s ceremonial garments. A finely woven cotton rectangular blouse called, in K’iche’ Mayan, a Pronunciation Icon pot, or in Spanish, a  Pronunciation Icon huipíl, has persisted for thousands of years. Maya monuments depict queens in beautiful versions of this blouse, which were longer than they are now and worn loose over skirts. Since Spanish dress customs merged with ancient ones beginning in the 16th century, women today usually tuck their Pronunciation Icon huipiles into their skirts, following European clothing conventions.

Maya textiles are known for their fine cotton, the New World Gossypium barbadense, which was exported to the Mediterranean and became known as Egyptian or pima cotton. Besides snowy white, it also grows in a natural light reddish-brown shade, which astonished the Spanish and is still highly valued, and expensive, today. Interestingly, an ancient Andean Chimú shirt was also woven of this colored cotton, today called Pronunciation Icon cuyuscate. Natural dyes used by the Maya include indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa) for blue and the ink of a large sea snail (Plicopurpura pansa) for purple; however, synthetic dyes and fibers have become more and more prevalent in modern times.  

Most patterns are made by floating colorful threads across the surface of the cotton cloth as it is being woven, known as brocading, or technically supplementary wefts. Brocade produces angular patterns because it is worked into the grid of warp and weft. Some embroidery is also added, especially on men’s clothes and around the necks of huipiles. Finally, Maya weavers excel at a remarkable technique of tie-dyeing warp threads before stringing them on the loom where their patterns become apparent (known as Pronunciation Icon jaspe or Pronunciation Icon ikat in Indonesia). Textile artists are even able to write words (servilleta, perrajetzut) in the warps by careful pre-planning.

Since the early 16th century, women's clothing has tended to remain more traditional because they were not allowed to interact as much with the Spanish. In the colonies, many patriarchal Spaniards would not even address an indigenous female leader but only speak to her brother or son. For the Maya, this meant that the wide rectangular blouse and the wraparound skirt or Pronunciation Icon corte, (everyday 20th century, wedding, jaspé, double jaspé,) have remained the mainstays of feminine dress. A shawl or Pronunciation Icon perraje,  a Pronunciation Icon cinta or long headband wrapped into a disk, and a  Pronunciation Icon tzut or folded, multipurpose cloth (everyday man’s example, everyday woman’s example, tzut for a santo, jaspé tzut, jaspé tzut with writing), complete the outfit.

Men’s dress, by contrast, reflects their greater participation in the political, economic, and religious colonial world established by the European invaders. Tailoring lengths of cloth, an idea that was antithetical to pre-Hispanic peoples who felt thread had a life force that would be severed by cutting, was applied early to men’s clothing. The flaring short pants and fitted jacket with collar, pockets, and cuffs are clearly European in origin. Maya men also wore a shoulder blanket, much like the women’s shawl but coarser and larger, carried a large bag, and folded their tzutes on their heads, retaining certain time-honored garment types.

In this exhibition and catalogue, Maya textiles fall into four groups: Chichicastenango, wedding, santo/a-related, and jaspé. First, the largest indigenous market in the Americas takes place in the central Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango, where thousands flock to buy food and textiles every week. The Maya have long been entrepreneurial people, traders for the last two thousand years and more. In ancient times their most favored products were fine cotton textiles, salt, chocolate, and jadeite, among others. Today the tradition of selling finely brocaded and embroidered clothing continues unabated.

The colorful rectangular huipiles are characteristic of the various Maya towns, but “Chichi” has one of the most recognizable styles of all. The array of huipiles documents the gradual changes in basic format from 1910 to 2010. An embroidered radiating design around the neckline is an almost constant feature, as is snowy white or natural light reddish-brown cotton for the plain areas (giving over to brighter hues beginning in the 1960s). Skillful brocade, extra threads woven into complex patterns as the ground cloth proceeds, often features a red-maroon-purple palette. Three panels sewn together comprise the fanciest blouses, worn only on special occasions.

Second, wedding huipiles are composed of three parts to show their elevated ceremonial nature and often include white-on-white decoration for the bottom section, or throughout the blouse. While white may seem a Western choice, many ancient Maya depictions of huipiles show this color. Some feature the high-prestige color of purple; however, dye testing so far reveals that purples often come from a chemical aniline dye rather than the older colorant from a Pacific coastal sea snail (Plicopurpura pansa).

Third, confraternities, or Pronunciation Icon cofradias, generated by the Spanish, are perhaps the best example of syncretism, or the blending of indigenous Maya practices and Catholicism. Cofradías are a kind of religious brotherhood, initially only institutionalized in urban areas by the Spanish. The cofradías were tasked with overseeing the worship of the Catholic saints, particularly that of the cult of the patron saint of the community. Many communities have multiple cofradías, each responsible for a different saint and its cult. Incredibly hierarchical, the societies had ranked offices with opportunities for advancement for those who provided commendable service. Members would regularly meet to venerate their saint at its shrine.

Despite the Spanish intent that the system more readily facilitate Catholic conversion, the cofradías actually became a primary setting for the expression of local traditions. Local traditions are shamanic in nature, demonstrated in the sacred cloth, and have been for thousands of years in Mayaland. Shamanism involves the curing of ills—be they physical, natural, or social—by a spiritual intermediary who contacts the other realms via rituals and often in trance or trance-like states. Importantly, saint figures and their accoutrements (red camisa, green camisa, jacket, cape, belt, tzut) are treated in shamanic ways by the indigenous people: dressed as if they were alive, consulted, fed and given drink, and offered not only the Catholic candles but flowers, incense, and other items used in non-Catholic rituals.

Finally, an extraordinary type of cloth patterning has been perfected by the Maya.  This technique is one that few cultures explore, although it has been independently invented in various places and times. It is rare because it is so difficult and time-consuming; few artists can learn the technique well and spend the necessary time unless they are supported by others and have viable rewards for doing so. Even in Guatemala, most of these weavers live in one town, Totonicapán, or there is one specialist within a cooperative in other places.

Sets of warp strings and woven pieces using them show the process of Maya jaspé (also known as ikat) as it proceeds from simpler to more complex designs. This arduous technique involves planning out a design, stretching groups of threads between two rods, and tying off different sections. These groups of threads (three examples), known today as Pronunciation Icon cordeles, are then dipped in dye, usually indigo for traditional, handmade pieces, or a rainbow of chemical (aniline) dyes for machine-made ones (purple corte, double jaspé corte).

Where they have been tied off the dye does not penetrate, so those areas remain the original color of the thread. Untied, usually by children as their contribution to the family dress and economy, the threads are stretched out on the loom in the same order as they were for tying. Threads going the other direction (if the warps were tie-dyed then the wefts and vice versa) are added to make a complete cloth. For the very finest pieces, both warps and wefts carry tie-dyed patterns; a black-and-white double jaspé skirt is a remarkable example represented in the Carlos collection. It is, however, made on a machine, encapsulating how the long-held Maya values persist even in contemporary technological conditions. 

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