Weaving the World of Ancient Mayan Women
Weaving colorful cotton fabric was an art form among high ranking ancient Mayan women. The Mayas cultivated cotton and used natural dyes from plant, animal and mineral sources. They used spinning whorls to create thread that was dyed vibrant red, yellow, green, and blue. A backstrap loom was used to weave patterns, usually glyphs, geometric shapes, plants and flowers. Maya women wore shift dresses that hung to mid-calf and were adorned by borders around the neck, sleeves and hem. This dress is called ypil (huipil) and is still worn by modern-day Mayas. In ancient times, the ypil often left arms and shoulders bare, anchored with borders above the breasts. Women wore belts decorated with shells, metallic discs, seeds and pods. Jewelry was worn abundantly, including large pendants, heavy necklaces, wrist and ankle cuffs, and huge earrings made of jade, jadeite, amber, quartz, alabaster, sea shells and pearls. No costume was complete without an elaborate headdress with waving feathers and jewels.
Weaving fine clothing was the purview of noble women. Beautiful woven fabric was both an artistic expression and a source of wealth, often given as tribute to rulers. When marriages were negotiated, the bride's skill at weaving was an important factor in determining the marriage gifts to her family. Noble girls were taught to use the backstrap loom and to spin thread with whorls for making gauzy cotton and brocaded fabrics. All Maya women learned to weave, the commoners using lesser grade cotton and making simple garments.
Ancient Mayan art often shows women spinning and weaving with backstrap looms. In Maya books (called codices) are drawings of women using whorls to spin thread and working with a backstrap loom. Carved and painted panels on temple walls and decorated ceramics depict a rich array of ancient Mayan women's clothing. Queens are portrayed wearing the "mat pattern" dress that signifies they are "persons of the mat," leaders who sat upon mats in the Council House to deliberate matters of state. A mural from the city of Kalakmul shows a noble woman wearing a gauzy blue dress decorated and edged with golden glyphs. This fine fabric was dyed with sacred "Mayan blue" made by binding indigo to clay mineral (palygorskite) with heat. Researchers believe the Mayas did this in rituals, burning copal incense to produce heat that bound indigo and mineral to form a deep blue pigment. Copal is the crystallized sap of a tree considered sacred and burned in ceremonies to the gods. Clothing colored with Mayan blue would be expensive and highly valued, showing this woman was of highest status. Her servant wears a plain gray dress.
One exquisite figurine of a woman weaving comes from the island of Jaina, off the coast of Campeche, Mexico. Jaina was a burial place for nobles and is famous for its figurines. These figurines were burial relics and portrayed the activities of the deceased. The Jaina weaver figurine represented the goddess Ix Azal Uoh, considered the "weaver of life" and a symbol of the sacred spirit within all. Drawings of goddesses in codices depict Ix Mukane the Grandmother who transforms energies on earth, and Ix Otzil who weaves the threads of destiny and symbolizes the internal weaver inside each person.
Origins and Heritage of Mayan Weaving
According to Mayan mythology, Ix Chel was the patron of weaving. Ix Chel is a complex goddess with multiple facets, concerned with healing, midwifery, sexuality, herbalism, weaving, and nature. As the young Moon Goddess, she is shown sitting in the moon holding a rabbit, symbol of fertility and abundance. As Earth Goddess she wears a snake headdress symbolizing her mastery of earth wisdom and powers, and pours water on earth to nourish and heal. As Grandmother Ix Mukane she appears elderly, wears the snake headdress and pours water or weaves, symbolizing transformation of earth energies and alignment with cycles of time.
As the Cosmic Weaver, Ix Chel is depicted sitting with the backstrap loom, one end tied to a tree and the other around her waist. She weaves with the shuttle in her left hand. Today, Mayan women in the highlands weave fine textiles in exactly the same way. These looms can be carried easily and set up at home or in the fields. Many types of fabric are woven on these looms, and every woman makes her uniquely-designed huipil, the traditional dress still worn in these regions. The design of the huipil expresses cultural identity and artistic skill; each woman weaves her own history and philosophy of the universe into the garment. One huipil may take several months to weave, depending on the complexity of the design.
The traditional backstrap loom is simple, using various parallel sticks between which the warp thread are stretched. The main sticks include the front and back beam rods which provide the backbone for weaving. The front rod attaches to a pole and the back rod attaches to the weaver’s waist by means of a leather backstrap. The other sticks include a shed roll, a string heddle rod and a rigid rod. The batten is used to beat the weft threads into the warp and the shuttle, which carries the weft thread through the sheds. Cords are used to tie the loom to a pole or tree and to tie the backstrap to the loom.
Mayans have been weaving for over two thousand years. In the early 1500’s when Spanish conquistadores arrived, they encountered incredibly beautiful weavings. Although there have been many changes in types of threads and designs over the centuries, the basic backstrap loom has changed little. In Guatemala and highlands Chiapas, Mexico, weaving is an integral part of a Maya woman’s daily life and is an important responsibilities she passes on from generation to generation. When a baby girl is 3 weeks old, the midwife bathes her in the temascal (Maya sweat lodge). The girl's mother gives the midwife her baby daughter’s weaving instruments, all miniature in size, including strands of thread, a tiny weaving loom, scissors, basket and needle. The midwife opens the newborn’s hands and passes each instrument over them, praying that the baby girl will become a proficient weaver, and maintain the ancient weaving art traditions as her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother did.
Contemporary Mayan women continue the tradition of fine weaving in the lovely fabrics of Chiapas and Guatemala. The ancient art of backstrap weaving is still thriving and an entire industry has developed around weaving and textiles. Numerous collectives and individuals produce shawls, spreads, bags and clothing that have become sought-after by visitors from around the world.
Featured image: Hand-woven Mayan textiles from Guatemala. Image source .
Read more about Leonide Martin here.