Friday, March 17, 2017



                           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.  


Huipil ['wipil] (from the Nahuatl word huīpīlli [wiː'piːlːi]) is the most common traditional garment worn by indigenous women from Mexico and other parts of Central America including Guatemala.

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.

An artistic rendering of the meeting of the Spanish conquistadors and the Mayan people in the 1500's with the woman wearing a long formal huipil.

It is possible to find Mayan women still weaving with the traditional backstrap loom.

The bright colors and symbols of these huipils are traditional and each huipil reflects the origin and home of the weaver.

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.

 The weaving tradition continues in the smaller and more remote communities of Guatemala and to a lesser extent in Mexico.

These lovely ladies and their beautiful huipils were seen in the pueblo of Santiago Sacatepéquez in Guatemala.

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 huipil in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula is made of light cotton and embroidered with colorful designs in consideration of the hot climate of the region.

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.

This lovely lady and her colorful one-of-a-kind huipil is from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico.

The ceremonial huipil of Zinacantán, Chiapas is distinguished by its manufacture and symbolism. It is often made of white cotton with a square neckline or with a vertical opening with a button fastener. 

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.  

Amuzgo textiles are those created by the Amuzgo indigenous people who live in the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.  Amuzgo huipils have a sophisticated set of designs based on animals, plants, geometric shapes and more. Some of the designs are not obvious, such as the use of two connected triangles to represent butterflies, but all have a particular significance.

Mayan ladies visiting the town on Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala wearing their traditional huipils and hoping to sell other woven handicrafts to visitors.

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. 

Two lovely young ladies in their traditional vivid blue huipils are from Chichicastenango, a town in the El Quiché department of Guatemala, known for its traditional K'iche' Maya culture.

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 great variety of motifs and colors as seen in handwoven huipils is amazing and I admit to becoming more than "somewhat"obsessed with them while living in Guatemala!  

The colorful "cross stitching" embroidery and ribbon trim on this huipil is beautiful as is this indigenous woman. 

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 colorLengths of the huipil can vary from a short blouse-like garment or long enough to reach the floor.

Huipils are traditionally worn with wrap skirts which may also be embroidered with traditional symbols and designs.  These women were seen at the large weekly market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

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.

This collection of trajes (huipil tops with coordinating skirts trimmed in lace) we saw while living in Oaxaca City.  They are from Tehauntepec which is located in the southwestern region of Oaxaca state.  The legendary Frida Kahlo adopted this fashion which became part of her "iconic" look.

Traditional weaving is still found in the indigenous communities of Guatemala, and to a lesser amount in Mexico, but may eventually become a thing of the past.

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.  

Weaving a huipil under the watchful eye of the family gato (cat) is especially special to me as is the lovely huipil.  

The huipils and blouses of Chiapas are a combination of Guatemala embroidery and Mexico lace and cotton as seen in the municipal mercado in San Cristobal de las Casas.

One is never too young to celebrate and dress up as seen in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico where we lived after our return from living in Argentina. (please notice the coordinating sandals and jewelry)  

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.   

This lovely mother and child were neighbors while living on Lago Atitlan in Guatemala.  Aren't they beautiful! 

The people and embroidered huipils of Merida are simply beautiful!  

A beautiful velvet and lace "Frida Kahlo" traje from Tehauntepec, Mexico.

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

A pooped out husband after a day of huipil shopping in Guatemala. I am going to be so dead for publishing this photo, but the devil made me do it!  


  1. You know I love learning new things. Thank you for this, as always. I have long loved huipiles and love, really love, learning more about them. Excellent, as always.

  2. Love the photo of Fred relaxing. Hush! We won't tell anyone. I frankly was not familiar with the palabra "huipil", so appreciated the education. The photos were diverse and charming as were the photographed. Mi favorito sigue siendo el hermoso traje Frida Kahla que llevas puesto! -Guillermo del Pacifico