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Guatemalan Textiles History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Guatemala was once home to one of the greatest civilizations of the Americas, and as such, has a lengthy artistic heritage. In this lesson, we'll talk about one art form in particular that has continued to define Guatemalans to this day.

Textiles of Guatemala

Things can define people. Don't even pretend it's not true. This isn't actually a bad thing. In fact, some things have managed to define entire cultures for literally hundreds and hundreds of years. This is certainly the case in the Central American nation of Guatemala. This region, part of the lands once occupied by one of the most complex civilizations of the ancient world, has been a center of textile production since time immemorial. The fabrics and cloths produced in this jungle-filled region have connected Guatemalans to their past, impacted their present, and will likely go on defining their future.

Colorful textiles of Guatemala
Textiles

Maya Textiles

Let's go back to the origins of textile production in Guatemala. In ancient times, these jungles were home to the Maya people, one of the largest and most complex civilizations of the ancient Western Hemisphere. The Maya lived in tightly organized city-states, practiced advanced architecture and astronomy, and were the only culture in the hemisphere to develop a true system of writing. The Maya did a lot, but one of their most revered artistic traditions was textile production.

According to Maya traditions, the people were taught to spin plant fabrics into yarn and weave them into textiles by the goddess, Ix Chel. Ix Chel was a moon goddess, earth goddess, and embodiment of wisdom, fertility, and female virtues - depending on which form she decided to take on a particular day - who was said to have woven the cycles of life. She is often shown wearing a backstrap loom, which is the traditional Maya loom. This loom is actually worn by the weaver, strapped around the back and waist, and anchored to a tree or similar object.

The fact that the Maya have a goddess of weaving tells us something about the importance of this tradition. It was revered above nearly all other art forms and practiced by noble and common women alike from a young age. While the Maya filled their world with characteristically colorful and vibrant woven textiles, perhaps the most significant was a traditional garment called the huipil. Each huipil was carefully and intricately designed to feature symbolic images and patterns that went far beyond simple aesthetics.

Weaving was a semi-sacred action that connected women to Ix Chel and was as much a form of philosophy as it was an art. Each weaver's design reflected themes of history, personal identity, spirituality, and cosmological philosophy, which other people within Maya society would have been able to understand.

Maya huipil
Huipil

Textiles in Guatemala Today

In the ancient world, Maya textiles were recognized and revered as pinnacles of artistic achievement. After the arrival of the Spanish, many Maya cultural forms were destroyed, but weaving remained. Why?

Well for one thing, it took a long time for the Spanish, who were focused on Mexico, to build up a sizeable European community in Guatemala, so their colonial presence was less intense. Also, Maya people needed clothes, and the Spanish saw no harm in Maya women continuing to weave. If anything, the colorful clothes helped them identify the Maya within a colonial society that practiced racial hierarchies. The Spanish missed most of the traditional symbols within these textiles that served as a form of cultural continuity and preserved Maya traditions.

To this day, weaving is a revered art form in many parts of Guatemala, particularly among the 50% of the population that identifies as Maya. For the most part, it's still done on traditional backstrap looms, contains traditional symbols, and, after a brief increase and then decrease in the use of synthetic fibers, relies on traditional materials. It's also become a strong symbol of the nation. As Guatemala has worked to define its place in an increasingly globalized world, this unique textile tradition has been continually upheld as something distinctly Guatemalan. In fact, since at least 1947, the government has actively passed legislation mandating state regulation and protection of Maya textiles. This includes the promotion of weaving as a continued art form and the economic protection of Maya textiles as a national product.

Both of these goals are still maintained by Guatemala to this day, although there are challenges. A struggling national economy has limited the viability of laborious folk weaving, and many women have turned to factory textile work as a source of reliable income.

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