Weaving Culture, Weaving History

It is said that the Mayan goddess Ixchel gave the art of weaving to her people. Today's Maya descendents still make fervent use of that gift in generating the riot of bold, cultural color that punctuates the muted green and brown natural tones of the highlands.

Key to the taut weave of Guatemalan textiles is the back-strap loom, a technique peculiar to this part of the world. Characteristics always identify the wearer with a specific town, a salient feature of indigenous Guatemalan clothing. Although today's Maya-descended peoples proudly wear their attire as a badge of where they live, the classification actually began as a dress code implemented by Spanish colonial officials. They wanted to be able to identify their subjects by community of origin for tax-collection purposes. The system took on a far darker side during Guatemala's civil war, when the government used clothing to identify and target specific indigenous communities.

A brief visit to the highlands will let you scratch the surface in identifying community differences: you'll begin to recognize the bright turquoises and bold geometric patterns of Santa Catarina Palopó; the tight embroidery of Nebaj, the showy, embroidered flowers and birds of Santiago Atitlán, or the knot tie-dyes of Salcajá.

A bit of vocabulary: a huipil, sometimes spelled guipil, is a woman's blouse. Structurally, it is little more than two pieces of cloth sewn together, but what a huipil lacks in tailoring, it more than makes up for in elaborate design. Equally simple in fit is her corte, a wraparound skirt, also woven with complex patterns. In some communities women wear a tocoyal, a piece of cloth wrapped tightly and worn as a circular headdress. (Alternately, this headgear is called a cinta ribbon, but foreigners often refer to it simply as a "halo.") What about traditional menswear? You won't see much of that, period—you'll come to that realization after a short time in the highlands—except in a few isolated communities such as Sololá or Todos Santos Cuchumatán, where men still don a traditional woven shirt (camisa) and knee-length trousers (calzoncillos). Those trousers may be covered by an apron-like sobrepantalón, and a belt or sash (faja) might accent the ensemble.

The market for Guatemalan textiles has grown by leaps and bounds, and many villages have benefited, but, alas, many of the finer points of the weaving tradition are being left by the wayside to accommodate the frenzied shoppers. The traditional back-strap looms are speedily being replaced with gleaming sewing machines so garments can be churned out faster. The patterns that once relayed information about the wearer's town are now abandoned for those favored by visitors. Even garments worn by local peoples have undergone change. The explosion of vendors selling ropa americana—literally "American clothing," but a generic term referring to secondhand clothes—means that a pair of jeans or a sweater can be had for a fraction of the cost (and time) it takes to produce a huipil and corte.

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