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Mayan Textiles History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Maya civilization is full of incredible works of art. One that does not always get the attention it deserves is weaving. In this lesson, we'll talk about Maya textiles and explore their characteristics and significance.

Maya Textiles

Humans don't often walk around naked. We're just funny that way. Since humans generally like to keep themselves covered and do not actually have the fur or body fat to keep constantly warm, practically all human societies in history have developed some form of textiles, which are fabrics. Textiles are some of the oldest and most ubiquitous art forms in the world, and every society approaches this art somewhat differently. One place we can see this is in Central America. Around the Yucatan Peninsula and surrounding jungles developed a culture called the Maya. Now, the Maya are actually a collection of dozens of distinct groups that share a similar culture and language, but up until the 16th century did not consider themselves to be a single group. So, their traditions are similar, yet distinct. Their textiles, one of the primary Maya art forms, is equally complex. These textiles go beyond trying to keep covered, and instead cover a world of spiritual and social significance.

Maya textiles are colorful and distinct
Maya textile

Characteristics of Maya Textiles

Maya textiles are pretty easy to identify because, well, they stand out. Characterized by vivid colors of every shade imaginable and covered in geometric and animal patterns, these cloths demand to be noticed. That's important, and we'll talk more about that later. As for where you'll see this style, Maya textiles can be found across Maya societies. Today, you'll often see Maya textiles employed as clothing, as home decor, and as family heirlooms. Historically, the Maya were one of the most complex societies in the world, living in sophisticated urban settlements. Their stone houses would have carpets and rugs adorned with bright colors and intricate patterns, and traditional Maya clothing generally involved layers of robes with similar motifs. Textile production was traditionally an art form reserved for women, and in many Maya communities it is an important ritual passed from mother to daughter to this day.

How They Are Made

Besides the basic appearance, one of the keys to understanding any textile is knowing how it is made. Maya textiles are woven, as opposed to being embroidered or knit. The first step is making the threads that will be woven together. Today, Maya weavers generally use cotton or wool threads, which can be purchased in Maya markets, but historically this wasn't the case. The Maya did not domesticate many furry animals, and so their hand-made threads were actually created with plant fibers. The fibers were spun into threads using instruments called spindles, which is essentially a stick that twists the fibers together.

Once the threads were created, they were woven together into a fabric. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Maya used a backstrap loom to do this, which is a mobile style loom worn almost like a backpack around the waist. After the arrival of Europeans, many Maya weavers adopted the treadle loom, which is powered by a foot crank, but the backstrap loom was never fully replaced and is still used by some more traditional artists today.

Backstrap loom
Backstrap loom

Significance

Now we get to the really good stuff. What did these textiles mean? Maya textiles were colorful, covered hard stone or dirt floors and walls, and kept people warm at night, but their significance goes far beyond that. According to many Maya legends, the moon goddess Ixchel taught the very first woman how to weave, making the very act of weaving a semi-religious ritual. The art of weaving is seen as a spiritual process, and the various motifs and designs within Maya textiles generally have religious and symbolic importance. Today, weaving maintains a similar solemnity within Catholic contexts. Young girls learn to weave around age eight, and after completing their first full pieces of cloth many families take their daughters to a shrine for Santa Rosa, patron saint of weaving, to offer the cloth at the feet of the saint.

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