Travel to Guatemala’s markets and you might catch a glimpse of their exquisite textiles, which boast beautiful patterns in bold colors. But did you know? Weaving is not just a signature Guatemalan handicraft, it’s a tradition that spans generations and goes back thousands of years!
An Ancient Art
Guatemalan weaving originated over 1,500 years ago with the ancient Maya civilization. According to legend, the Maya were taught to weave by the moon goddess and cosmic weaver, Ix Chel. For the Maya, woven textiles were not just practical, they were also symbolic, demonstrating wealth and status.
All Maya women were taught to weave regardless of their rank. However, wealthier women often used finer materials and learned to make more complex pieces. In fact, weaving was so integral to women’s lives that each baby girl was blessed in a special weaving ceremony. Here, a midwife would bathe the girl while miniature weaving tools were passed through the baby’s hands. The midwife would say a prayer, asking the gods to help her become a skilled weaver like her foremothers.
How Its Made
The process for crafting traditional woven textiles remains largely unaltered since the reign of the Maya. Guatemala’s central and western highlands are home to a few artisan communities that still employ the original methods, and also teach their daughters to do the same. Their textiles are woven from cotton yarns, which are first dyed using local materials. To achieve the desired colors, the weavers choose plants like hibiscus flowers (pink), carrots (orange), quilete herbs (green), and bark from avocado trees (beige).
Once the yarns are spun and dyed, the fabric is then woven on a backstrap loom. These looms are simple, portable devices that the weavers often make themselves. They’re also the same style of looms that the ancient Maya used, and are frequently seen in their art (Ix Chel was sometimes depicted with a backstrap loom). To use a backstrap loom, a weaver fixes one end to a tree or stationary post, then loops the other end around her back with a leather strap. This arrangement allows her to achieve the proper tension necessary for creating strong and sturdy fabric.
Guatemalan Textiles Today
While the demand for woven textiles has changed over time, traditional weaving is still sometimes used to make items like wraps, skirts, ponchos, and household textiles. The most famous woven garment from Guatemala is the huipil, a style of woman’s blouse. You can find huipils for sale in Guatemala or occasionally pick up vintage ones in specialty shops in the United States.
However, a recent interest in textiles from tourists and foreigners means traditional-style textiles are also available from many fair trade organizations. These organizations work with artisans to create modern pieces that blend original fabrication methods with contemporary aesthetics. It’s a little bit of old and new mixed together!