It’s hard to know the exact timeline of weaving because textiles are so susceptible to being destroyed by the elements, but historians estimate that the Mayan people began using the back strap loom many centuries ago. We know this because rulers, priests, and deities of the Maya Universe are draped in elaborate woven garments depicted on painted vases, in murals, and on the monumental stone reliefs discovered in Maya archaeological ruins.
According to legend, the Mother Moon, goddess Ix Chel, taught the first woman how to weave at the beginning of time. Since then, Maya mothers have taught their daughters the art of the loom each generation uninterruptedly for three thousand years. In ancient times, weavers made offerings to Ix Chel before beginning each new textile.
Weaving is impregnated with spiritual elements. For centuries, Mayan women have transmitted through weaving esoteric designs that encoded the Maya vision of the world. In this manner, their work was essential for the survival of important elements of ancient culture. Hidden between the warp and weft, these escaped the fate of indigenous books that were burnt by colonial authorities. Motifs of ancient Maya garments are still part of today’s weaving, although their significance must be preserved by scholars as the weavers themselves, especially younger women, are sometimes unaware of the historical significance.
Historically and today, wearing Mayan clothing communicates to others about the wearer’s ethnicity, identity, and indigenous heritage. During the colonial period, indigenous people were forbidden by law to purchase or wear European style clothing. Throughout Central America, traditional clothing varies according to specific local identity. Each village has its own distinctive pattern, making it possible to distinguish a person’s hometown on sight. Now, this distinction has lost its rigidity; the choice of what to wear is not an all-or-nothing decision. It is not uncommon to see blended styles of clothing in which one or two items of Western style clothing are incorporated into a traditional outfit.
The weaving process itself is a long and difficult one. Starting with raw wool or cotton that must be washed, combed, and spun, the weaver then stretches the long (warp) threads along a board to the desired length and attaches them firmly to her loom. The loom is set up with one end attached to a fixed object and at the other end, a strap around the back of the weaver. She then begins the process of weaving, adjusting the tension of the loom by leaning forward or back with the strap that fits around her back, hence the name “back strap loom.” The simple technology of the back strap loom means it is inexpensive and mobile, and therefore quite egalitarian.
In addition to its important religious and social aspects, historically, weaving has been central to indigenous women’s economic contribution to their households. In a traditional Maya context, when a girl is born, the midwife presents her with the different instruments of weaving one by one and recites a prayer for her success as a weaver. Mayan women love to weave, as weaving keeps them connected to their ancestors and within the sacred and cultural Maya universe. Through fair trade, we can support them in their quest to bring their families out of extreme poverty, at the same time that they keep their cherished Mayan culture alive and develop their communities.