Frida Kahlo and her iconic huipil style in 1938
Image from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art. Photo: Nickolas Muray
Living a "nomadic" life in Latin America for almost sixteen years provided an endless variety of different experiences and delights and not more so than in Mexico and Guatemala. I loved living in these neighboring countries and I still do. Learning about a new country including its cultures and history was a challenge and fascinated me.
Some of my favorite memories included learning about the Mayan culture and their traditions. In Guatemala the Mayan people are very widespread and included some of our neighbors. In Mexico, a much larger country, the presence of the Mayan culture is still very much evident in the Yucatan peninsula to the region of Oaxaca where we have each lived.
One aspect of the Mayan culture that engrossed me was their woven textile tradition and one I wish to share. Consequently, this posting is about the indigenous HUIPIL (Huipil [wipil] from the Nahuatl word huīpīlli [wiːˈpiːlːi]) of the Maya. I hope you enjoy.
Mayans have been weaving for over two thousand years. In the early 1500’s when Spanish conquistadors arrived they encountered incredibly beautiful textile weavings. Although there have been many changes in types of threads and designs over the centuries, the basic backstrap loom has changed little. In Guatemala and the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico weaving is an integral part of a Maya woman’s daily life and it is an important responsibility she passes on from generation to generation.
Weaving colorful cotton fabric was an art form among high ranking ancient Mayan women. The Mayas cultivated cotton and used natural dyes from plant, animal, and mineral sources. They used spinning whorls to create thread that was dyed vibrant red, yellow, green, and blue. A backstrap loom was used to weave patterns including Mayan glyphs (symbols), geometric shapes, plants, and flowers.
Before the Conquest, a woman was expected to weave for herself and her family and to produce ceremonial clothes for use in temples and as offerings. A fine weaver had status in the community as she did as late as the twenty-first century. Clothing and cloth also produced extra income when made for sale.
Children learned by imitation, watching their mothers spin, prepare yarn, warp the loom, and weave. By the age of twelve a Mayan girl had to take her weaving lessons very seriously and by the marrying age of sixteen she had to be an accomplished weaver.
During our first visit to Guatemala we visited a village outside of Antigua where we could watch the women weave on the traditional backstrap loom.
A group of traditionally dressed Mayan women and child in their colorful huipils, skirts, and shawls in Guatemala.
The backstrap loom has been in use in Mexico and Central America since the 1500's. Classic Maya ceramic figurine recovered from Jaina Island off the eastern coast of Mexico is of a weaver at her backstrap loom. This loom is sometimes called the hip-loom, or stick-loom. Although both male and female indigenous weavers produce cloth on this simple apparatus, it is largely associated with women.
The chest area is marked off with a red line inside of which are white chicken feathers delicately fastened with white, blue or green thread. The lower border has fringe made of the same materials and colors. It is the only garment in Mexico which uses the pre-Hispanic art of feather work today. This huipil is often used for weddings as it is believed that it ensures a good marriage.
The upper garment or huipil is the most important component of a woman's clothing. Nahua was the language of the Aztecs and is still spoken in many Mexican communities. The huipil can be short or long, of two or three backstrap pieces joined together, and with neck and arm openings. Designs are woven in as part of the weaving process as embroidery and may include ribbons or other trim.
The huipil has been worn by indigenous women of the Mesoamerican region (Mexico into Central America) of both high and low social rank since well before the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and subsequent Spanish expansion the huipil endured, but it evolved incorporating elements from other regions and Europe.
The huipil remains the most common female indigenous garment still in use. The huipil is most often seen in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Campeche, Hidalgo, Michoacán, Veracruz, and Morelos. In Central America it is most often used among the Mayas in Guatemala.
The huipils of Oaxaca are especially colorful and striking and this young senorita looks especially proud of hers!
The huipil is a loose-fitting tunic, generally made from two or three rectangular pieces of fabric which are then joined together with stitching, ribbons or fabric strips with an opening for the head and, if the sides are sewn, openings for the arms.
Traditional huipils, especially ceremonial ones, are usually made with fabric woven on a backstrap loom and are heavily decorated with designs woven into the fabric including embroidery, ribbons, and lace.
Although huipils may often look alike to the untrained eye, they exhibit great variety according to the weaver's ability and the arrangement of specific groups of motifs and color. Lengths of the huipil can vary from a short blouse-like garment or long enough to reach the floor.
The huipils and trajes (costumes) from the region of Tehauntepec, Mexico are especially beautiful and colorful with their gorgeous embroidery on velvet and satin fabrics. Frida Kahlo was especially partial to the huipils and trajes of Tehauntepec.
Ceremonial huipils are the most elaborate and are reserved for weddings, burials, and women with greater economic resources. The style of the huipil often indicates the class and ethnicity of the wearer. Huipils were important means of indicating one’s religion and tribal affiliation. Different communities tended to have different designs, colors, lengths, as well as particular huipils for ceremonial purposes.
Huipils and their accompanying skirts reflected distinct social classes. A plain huipil with a wrap-around skirt and hair braids intertwined with ribbons were typically worn by women of limited economic resources. More intricate elements, including ruffles, lace collars, gold fringes, and silk scarves reflected a higher social status. Many public fiestas granted entrance only to women attired in the highest gala clothing.
Contemporary Mayan women continue the tradition of fine weaving in the lovely huipils of Chiapas and Oaxaca in Mexico and in Guatemala. The ancient art of backstrap weaving is still thriving and an entire industry has developed around weaving and textiles. Numerous collectives and individuals produce shawls, spreads, bags, and clothing that have become popular with visitors and collectors from around the world.
Now if it was as easy as hopping on a handwoven Mayan textile rug and flying off for another visit to these wonderful areas of Guatemala and Mexico I would be very happy. Until then, I will just have to keep my memories alive through this blog.
I have created the following photograph album in order to share the amazing variety and beauty of the huipils that may be found in Guatemala and Mexico. It's as easy as clicking on the link following these two lovely ladies:
If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments I would sincerely appreciate hearing from you. It's as easy as leaving a comment on this blog page or sending an email directly to me. Until next time, wishing you happy trails and safe travels. Laura