Mayan Weaving: A Magical Art

The reign of the ancient civilization of the Maya may have faded away with the Spanish conquest in the Americas, but important cultural elements continue to survive today. The study of artifacts from regions of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize reveals a sophisticated people with highly skilled artists. Although cloth and textile works deteriorate over time, researchers are able to piece together evidence from more permanent works of art, excavated weaving tools at various sites, and the practices and traditions of Mayan people living today to reveal the importance of fabric in ancient Mayan culture. Ceremonial clothing and the act of weaving itself can be better understood by looking more closely at a specific item of clothing like the huipil.

The huipil, “usually elaborately brocaded on a backstrap loom, is a traditional garment that continues to be popular and has great social significance” and the square-cut blouse is still a main component of  Mayan women’s clothing (Odland 6). In the case of the huipil, much of the current analysis about that “social significance” (Odland 6) is left to the imagination because fabric does not last through the centuries and we cannot assume that just because people do something today that they did it in the same way and for the same reasons as hundreds of years ago. Still, in looking to the past: “The continued importance of cloth as a prestige good during the Classic Maya period (C.E. 250-900) is demonstrated by representations of elaborate robes on women of high rank on Maya stelae, whose elite status is confirmed by the associated inscriptions” (Brumfiel 863). The sacred act of weaving, mainly by women, and the ceremonial role of the huipil is present in many works within the Classic Maya timeframe. This makes it an ideal research framework for Mayan textile art.

Although there is a tendency in Maya studies to place ancient traditions on a linear continuum through the present within a single paradigm or divide artifacts into high art and folk crafts, male or female, permanent or ephemeral, these boundaries cannot possibly be drawn with certainty. Indeed, as explained by art historian Pasztory: “While pre-Colombian art reveals a great richness and variety of traditions and implicit aesthetics…it is a passive body of material on which aesthetic theory can play its games and test its various ideas” (Pasztory 325). The attraction remains, however, to attempt time travel through the vessel of a surviving people who still link the ancient past with the ever-changing present. It is, therefore, still significant to ask what the current understanding of huipil designs and practices of the Classic Maya period say about the women who produced them as artists and to explore how this connects them to the weavers of today. In doing so it becomes clear that women weavers interpreted communal signs into sacred objects for ceremonial use, that their connection to the home and hearth added to the perceived supernatural powers woven into prestige garments and this benefited their societies, and that even in later huipil production there remains a traditional connection to place, community, and sacred use. Furthermore, looking at these intersections more closely can help position women’s crafts within their rightful place among the fine arts while exploring the inextricable link between the artist’s social position and her means of expression.

Women in Classic Mayan civilization fulfilled an important role by weaving cloth for ceremonial use according to the prescribed designs and practices.  Art historian Carolyn Tate rightly concludes that: “Unlike the secrecy or lack of recognition accorded women as potters and papermakers, women are explicitly associated with and respected for weaving in Maya society” (Tate 89). Historical evidence reveals that weaving stands out as a female art form that was also publicly acknowledged as such. It was not only significant that a huipil was woven in a certain way, but also that it was woven by a woman or by certain women. Weaving also reveals details about social hierarchies and positioning (Tate 89). If the represented colors, signs, and intricacy of designs mattered to social order, then the artists themselves were an integral link in this communication process that translated ceremonial symbols and designs into thread and garment. It’s important to remember, however, that “Maya art consistently reflects and refracts collective beliefs” (Looper 36). The final product was never an individual artist’s personal design, but a handcrafted rendition of pre-existing and limited symbols and signs laid out by tradition and religious guidelines (Looper 36). Weavers would have a pattern to follow, entrusted to them for later use in a successful ritual or ceremony, and the design would have an impact on their community large. Even if the work they produced wasn’t entirely personal, the sense of responsibility surely was.

There is also evidence, however, that sets the Maya apart in the region for their unique “cult of the artist” that “glorified individual achievement” (Pasztory 323). In this way, Mayan weavers would have some sense of an individual ruler or dynasty to produce for as well as a specific regional style and ceremonial function. In any case, “within the short span of Classic Maya art (A.D. 250-900) there is a wide variety of regional styles, as each Maya city… has its own genres and forms” (Pasztory 323).  Even within the possibly strict regimen allowed to women weavers, they were human beings and not machines, and there would also have been a local aesthetic and a focus on the specific needs of each community and time period. Most designs are related to water and fertility (Looper 36) but individual interpretation in emphasis and execution would allow weavers to make the appropriate choices for the situation at hand. Handwork remains highly individual, so even two weavers would use a variety of combinations of symbols, or have their own rendering of the same signs.

The artifact most clearly showing a huipil design from the eighth-century is the limestone panel, lintel 24, at Yaxchilan in the rainforest of Chiapas. Here, a figure of a woman is wearing a huipil with a repeated pattern of rhomboids, each with a diamond shape surrounded by triangles turned outwards within it (Morris 57). In its re-creation by scholars, the pattern is described as having a “vertical border of skybands with hocker [birthing position], X, cross, interlace, portal, sky variant and earflare motifs” and was pictured as part of a harvest offering celebrating the birth of Bird Jaguar as the ceremonial clothing of Lady Xoc (Looper 58). Unlike other reconstructed designs, this one is dense and richly brocaded. The patterned border has more variety in symbols and a greater complexity in motifs. It also reflects the impact of the huipil as a vehicle for meaning and communication at the time it was produced and in its afterlife as a stone effigy. The important event took place not just in the moment it happened, but also  in the weaving of the huipil and later in the carving of the stone. Undoubtedly, the artist herself played an integral part in this longer process. More interestingly, the role of the weaver also went beyond the physical realm of the woven object.

Mayan women were also believed to have had a supernatural connection to weaving that  infused the garments they produced and increased the fertility of the ceremonies they were connected to. This could be seen in actual designs.  Some huipiles picture rows of quatrefoils [four-leaved designs] that “equate the surface of the textile with the surface of the earth, both pierced by such openings” (Joyce 76). In this way, the woven blouse is itself a portal between the heavens, underworlds, and earth. The pathway is actually created by the weaver during a sort of magical production process. Even more profound is the ancient Mayan belief that conception, birthing, and weaving are all equally connected to the moon goddess (Prechtel and Carlsen 123), so that women are seen as giving life to a huipil in the same way as to their own child. This adds another level of sanctity to the act of weaving and further establishes the unique contribution women made to this highly personal art form. Even the main weaving tool, the backstrap loom, in its proximity to the body can be seen as a living part of the weaver’s birthing of a powerful ritual object.

Furthermore, Carolyn Tate makes the observation that: “Women were probably conceived as having a heightened connection to the spiritual realm of ancestors and the forces of cosmic order and disorder”(Tate 99). If this is true, then the place of women in the home; taking care of food, children, and comfort had a ritual function as well as a social one. Their body, through weaving hands,  would not only create a sort of living huipil, but the blouse would be connected to the gods before it was even used in a ceremonial way. This represents inspired art in the most literal sense as the entire community would understand the magical meaning of a singular blouse. If stone replicas were produced depicting the huipil, then this would carry over to later generations as well.

Looking specifically at the huipil in lintel 24 once again, the sheer amount of thread used in the design is also an indication of its importance. If the display of wealth was part of the function of the heavy set crosses enclosed by diamonds and the thickly brocaded borders, then the artist commissioned to handle this expensive finery would have a unique and coveted role within the royal sphere and society at large. Part of the prestige of the garment itself would be in the spiritual connection of the weaver. This is meaningful, because, though there were possibly few weavers of the highest stature, all women would have to weave for their daily needs in normal, unadorned clothing as well. The act of weaving in itself, since it also had a deeper spiritual and societal meaning, connected Mayan women at large to a higher calling through a quotidian activity. This double-sided purpose of the huipil, on the one hand a sacred object connected to matters of cosmological importance, and on the other hand, a necessary piece of clothing rooted firmly in the mundane, is one aspect of the textile that has remained through the centuries.

Although links can be made between ancient Mayans and modern Mayans in weaving traditions and other areas, it is crucial to remember the vast amounts of time and history between the two. The scholar, Pyburn, describes a theoretical climate in which ‘the Maya of today are invariably said to be living in the past, and are therefore subordinate to their mysterious but culturally pure distant ancestors” ( Pyburn 116). This attitude draws conclusions about the present day Maya that denies them an autonomous and independently valid culture. If they are compared to some previous ideal, it always places them in an inferior position. At the same time, Pyburn also warns against setting “out with the assumption that the Maya were traditional and premodern” and challenges scholars to “ask if they might have been progressive and modern” (Pyburn 117). If this thinking is applied to the huipil, then there is room for the notion that artistic, societal, and spiritual ideals of the Classic Mayan period could still play a vital role in the minds of contemporary Mayan weavers. It also allows for additional interpretations of the purpose of weaving among the Ancient Maya; like those of a modern marketplace and a class of skilled artisans with economic motives. What persists, however, is the cloth, and as it stands, not much remains from the past. The current generation of researchers is eagerly in service of locating and preserving Mayan textiles, albeit of more recent production.

The huipil of today still carries significant cultural meaning to modern Mayas in their connection to place, sacred ritual, and position in society. The traditional blouse “indicates by design, trim, and construction the occasion for which it is intended, the wearer’s economic status, age group, and expertise weaving on a backstrap loom” (Kellman 38). Textiles of Mayan communities are also still distinguished by their regional styles that show “whether figures or images are meant to be naturalistic, geometric, or flat, or whether colors are to blend one into another or to be separate, bright, acidic, or contrasting” (Kellman 38). Understanding of the multiple layers of meaning in the huipil is greatly improved by having living artists to explain their process and connection to weaving. The design and symbols used in the cloth situates them within a social group in a specific village and language category. They are aware, however, of the ancient designs and their sacred ceremonial usage and have been exposed to older revered huipiles that adorn the saint statues throughout the Catholic churches of Latin America. Therefore, even if women weavers are firmly in the present, past practices and mythologies in oral traditions, folk tales, and inherited practices undoubtedly still influence them.

The oldest remaining cloth huipiles in Chiapas date back around 150 years and the weavings on them are not ancient Mayan glyphs, which were outlawed by the Spanish, but colorful geometric patterns. The Classic rhomboids and quatrefoils are still used, however, as are the signs recognized as toad, monkey, snake, and butterfly (Morris 54).  Far from disappearing due to Spanish colonial attempts to stamp out native beliefs and traditions, huipil creation was revived in the late 19th century in places like Santa Maria Magdalenas where a local woman had a dream of a saint ordering her to make a new blouse and bring it to the church (Morris 55). This same woman went on to teach the old brocade techniques to other villagers based on the found huipil design and this same process spread to neighboring villages until weaving became widespread once again. As in the Classic Mayan period, it was women who felt a unique calling to weave and it remained a spiritual endeavor that connected the artist to religious ceremony and societal relationships. Further, these weavers in Chiapas once again started using the same designs of the diamond, cross, toad, and hocker that are visible on the huipil of Lady Xoc on lintel 24. Instead of the symbols adding a supernatural realm to the textile, though, they tell a story of the past and link the weaver and wearer to a larger society and longer history of Mayan tradition. The Classic Mayan realm of moon goddess weavers giving birth to a huipil to connect heaven and earth may have closed but modern weavers have held on to the personal and spiritual meaning of their still valuable position.

Textiles are an unlikely artifact to keep track of history, tradition, and cosmology. They are lightweight, fragile, unimposing, and ubiquitous. Cloth lies close to the body of the living, of the dead, and of the sacred and magical. It is fitting that Mayan women are associated with textiles just as it makes sense that the moon goddess is connected with weaving for the ancient Maya. If “one of women’s fundamental roles is to creatively transform objects, influences, materials, and ideas in order to appropriate them into indigenous culture” (Berlo 130)  then the weavers of today and yesterday are still in dialogue about ceremonial signs and language, visual markers of place and space, and societal responsibility for the perpetuation of a people and a culture. Moreover, in preserving huipiles and gathering their history, researchers are shifting the everyday craft of weaving clothing and other textiles to its rightful place among the fine arts of ancient civilizations. The medium might be ephemeral but the impact has lasted centuries.