Spinning a yarn from rich pickings

The Maya Textile Tradition
December 4, 1998

The world of the Maya - in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Belize - is notable for its natural beauty, cultural antiquity and internal complexity. In just a few square kilometres one may encounter more geographical and cultural diversity than often is found in whole nations. Maya towns, already ancient when the Spaniards invaded the New World, exist today. Dynamic, vibrant textile art has persisted among Maya peoples for more than 2,000 years. This art speaks silently but expressively, building layer upon layer of meaning. Women who work on the backstrap looms of their ancestors, create rich brocades that combine strands of personal history, ethnic and regional identity, and ancient mythology and cosmology.

The mythic origin of weaving, as recounted today in Guatemala, took place in the chilly cloud forests of the Verapaz region. When the goddess Ixchel noticed that people were shivering, she took pity upon them and decided to show a woman how to make clothing. While she was setting up her back-strap loom in the woman's courtyard, she noticed a spider weaving its web and told the woman to watch how the spider worked. Today some of the huipiles or women's blouses of this region are made by a gauze technique: the warp threads are concentrically arranged and then interlaced with the weft, creating a garment resembling the network of threads in a spider's web. Such blouses are worn outside the skirt rather than tucked in, resembling the way orb webs drape over plants.

The Maya Textile Tradition is a richly illustrated book aimed at the general reader. There are four well-researched chapters: "History and ecology of the Maya world", by James Nations; "Weaving and daily life", by Linda Asturias de Barrios; "Innovation and change in Maya cloth and clothing", by Margot Blum Schevill; and "Ceremony and ritual in the Maya world", by Robert Carlsen. Each chapter contains drawings and/or mono photographs, and each is followed by a gathering of 32 stunning colour photographs. Unfortunately, because there is only a loose relationship between these photographs and the text, the effect is of a sparsely illustrated group of scholarly essays that happen to be interspersed in a spectacular picture book. This is in direct contrast to another book published by Abrams also featuring Jeffrey Foxx's photography: Living Maya, with a text by Walter Morris Jr. That book's close interweaving of word and image was not only pleasing to the reader, but also true to Maya aesthetic practices. In a number of Maya languages a single word, tz'ib', refers not only to writing, but also to figures, designs and diagrams, whether drawn, painted, engraved, produced photographically, or woven into textiles.

During the pre-Columbian period, textiles provided clothing as well as a medium of exchange, tribute payment and gift-giving. Cotton and agave fibres were both used, but cotton became the fibre of choice among Maya backstrap-loom weavers during the colonial period. The Spaniards introduced sheep, the processes for spinning and weaving wool, and the treadle loom. Mayas living in areas of the highlands, where warm garments and blankets were beneficial, incorporated wool into their textile traditions. Most Maya clothing today, however, is still produced on back-strap looms, using handspun cotton thread.

Cotton thread is made from the fibres surrounding the seeds of a number of tropical plants in the mallow family. Today most cotton is naturally white, but small quantities of brown cotton are grown in coastal areas of Guatemala. This brown cotton has a special symbolic value for the Pan-Maya cultural revitalisation movement. The leaders of the movement are mostly younger, educated Mayas who wish to restore the values, beliefs and practices of their ancestors. Revitalisation of Maya religion is especially strong among the Kaqchikel, who are discussed in De Barrios's excellent chapter. Brown cotton, said to contain the essence of life, is used in the communities of Solol , Tecp n and Comalapa during curing ceremonies. Midwives use brown, handspun cotton thread and tufts of raw cotton to tie off and protect the umbilical cords of newborns. The thread is also used in the most prestigious form of women's dress, worn only on occasions such as weddings and the ceremonies of religious confraternities. Unfortunately, no photographs of brown cotton plants, fibres, or women's garments made from the thread appear in the book.

Weaving with a backstrap loom requires a tree for anchoring one end of the loom. The rope that ties the loom to the tree and the umbilical cord are known by one and the same word in the Tz'utujil Maya language. In communities that speak this language, most notably in Santiago Atitl n, there is a metaphorical linkage between the weaving woman, her textile or baby, and the ancestral lineage or tree. In Carlsen's chapter, we learn the symbolic meaning of that moment in weaving when the shed opens and the weaver passes the shuttle through. The woman leans back, slams down the batten, then bends forward, releasing the tension. Again she leans back. This motion is said to mirror that of a woman in childbirth.

Perhaps the technique backstrap-loom weavers enjoy most is brocading, in which supplementary wefts are interlaced with the warps to create designs. According to De Barrios, a Maya woman who recently won a seat as a representative in the Guatemalan congress wore an unusual inter-cultural hairband throughout her campaign. By alternating the initials of her political party with traditional designs, she successfully used weaving to convey a powerful mixture of political and ethnic messages.

As the ancient art of Maya weaving enters the 21st century, it continues to function as a key economic activity. It enables the more than seven million Mayas (incorrectly numbered at four million on the book's jacket flap) to provide clothing for their families and textiles for the global economy. Throughout Guatemala and southern Mexico, cooperatives have helped to preserve and revive the ancient patterns and techniques of backstrap-loom weaving.

With the ongoing revitalisation of Maya religious rituals requiring special cloth and clothing, the textile arts of southern Mexico and Central America will continue to be a vital ethnic marker of Mayaness for generations to come. This book not only introduces readers to the techniques used to produce Maya weavings today, but also helps to document some of the ongoing changes in textile design and interpretation. Wearing handwoven cotton cloth, the Maya say, "puts them in the form of the ancestors".

Barbara Tedlock is professor of anthropology at State University of New York, Buffalo, United States.

The Maya Textile Tradition

Editor - Margot Blum Schevill
ISBN - 0 8109 4291 7
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £37.95
Pages - 232

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