There’s no doubt that hand-woven textiles from Guatemala are some of the most beautiful that you’ll find in the world. For centuries the women of Guatemala have created these stunning, prismatic fabrics with painstaking care and effort, but it’s the spirit and history behind the art of weaving that makes their work so intensely beautiful.
Beginning with high ranking ancient Mayan women, weaving colorful cotton fabric was not considered to be merely a craft, but a true art form. The Mayans used dyes from natural plant, animal, and mineral sources, and with their spinning whorls they would create their vibrant thread with intense reds, yellows, greens and blues. With the use of a backstrap loom the women would weave intense patterns, geometric shapes, plants, and blooming flowers. The traditional Mayan shift dresses were embellished with these marvelous patterns at the borders around the neck, hem, and sleeves. This whimsical dress is called a ‘ypil’ and is still worn today by modern-day Mayans in Guatemala.
The fact that Mayan weaving was the purview of noble women explains why the patterns are so arresting, elaborate, and time-consuming to make. The fabric was both an artistic expression and a source of wealth, often given as a gift to rulers and other important figures in society. When a girl was to be married the weaving skills of the bride were always taken into account to determine what marriage gifts would be given to her family.
Woman weaving with backstrap looms is prominently depicted in ancient Mayan art and books where you’ll find drawings of weavers using whorls to spin their thread. On a famous mural in the city of Kalakmul there is an image of a noble woman wearing a soft blue dress decorated at the edges with fantastically embellished golden glyphs. This is an example of a Mayan fabric that has been dyed the sacred shade of “Mayan Blue”, created by binding indigo to clay minerals. This Mayan blue clothing was considered to be the most expensive and highly valued fabric you could find, displaying that a woman was of the highest status imaginable.
Another key piece of art that proves the importance of weaving in Mayan culture is a figurine found on the island of Jaina, off the coast of Campeche, Mexico. Traditionally a burial place for nobles of Mayan descent, today the island is home to these famous figurines that once served as burial relics. It is here that we find the weaver figurine, portrayed by the goddess Ix Azal Uoh, known as the ‘weaver of life’. This remarkable symbol also pays homage to the sacred spirit within all. Another famous goddesses that depicts the importance of weaving to Mayan culture is Ix Otzil, who weaves the threads of destiny and pays respect to the internal weaver within each of us.
Power, beauty, art, and spirit. It’s clear that the weaving tradition of the Mayan world combines all of these elements and so much more. Fundamental to daily life and ritual, Mayan textiles have pushed themselves into the future and remain some of the most remarkable works of art you’ll find in Guatemala, or from anywhere across the globe.