Maya textiles are the clothing and other textile arts of the Maya peoples, indigenous peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. Women have traditionally created textiles in Maya society, and textiles were a significant form of ancient Maya art and religious beliefs.
In woven textiles, the first step is preparing fiber, which can come from plants, such as cotton or maguey, or animals, such as wool from sheep. The loose fibers are spun into threads by hand, with spindles, a long stick-like device for holding the thread, and whorls, a weight held on the spindle to increase its motion.
In the pre-Columbian era, Mayan women exclusively wove with backstrap looms, that use sticks and straps worn around one's waist to create tension. After European contact, treadle looms were introduced, although backstrap looms continue to be popular. Bone picks were used before contact and were unique in that they had different designs for most families and were usually passed on from generation to generation with the elite having the most expensive and beautiful.
Ancient Maya women had two natural types of cotton to work with, one white and the other light brown, both of which were commonly dyed. The preparation of cotton for spinning was very burdensome, as it had to be washed and picked clean of seeds.
Elite women were also given the opportunity to work with the most expensive feathers and pearl beads. However, women of the elite not only had to prepare the best clothing for their families, but they also had to be talented in weaving tapestry, brocade, embroidery, and tie-dyeing for tribute to other families and rulers. Weavers had three different natural dyes to work with. Women also worked with maguey. Maguey was of major value as a cordage material used for horse gear, nets, hammocks and bags.
Pre contact attire
In the Maya civilization, a man’s typical dress was a cotton breechcloth wrapped around his waist and sometimes a sleeveless shirt, either white or dyed in colours. A woman typically wore a traje, which combined a huipil and a corte, a woven wraparound skirt that reached her ankles. The traje was held together with a faja or sash worn at the waist. Both women and men wore sandals.
When the weather was temperate, Mayan clothing was needed less as protection from the elements and more for personal adornment. Maya clerics and other dignitaries wore elaborate outfits with jewellery.
Maya farmers wore minimal clothing. Men wore plain loincloths or a band of cloth winded around their waists. Some wore moccasins made of deerhide. Women possessed two items of clothing: a length of ornamented material with holes made for the arms and head, known as a kub. Both genders wore a heavier rectangle of cloth, as a manta, that functioned as an overwrap on cool days, and as blanket at night. The manta also served as a blind across the door.
The most prevalent and influential aspect of women’s clothing in ancient times is the huipil, which is still prominent in Guatemalan and Mexican culture today. The huipil is a loose rectangular garment with a hole in the middle for the head made from lightweight sheer cotton. The huipil is usually white with colorful cross-stripping and zigzag designs woven into the cloth using the brocade technique still commonly used today. The huipil could be worn loose or tucked into a skirt; this depends on the varying lengths of the huipil. Huipils were important displaying one’s religion and tribal affiliation. Different communities tended to have different designs, colors, lengths as well as particular huipils for ceremonial purposes. It was uncommon and often disgraceful to wear a huipil design from another community within one’s village; although, it was a sign of respect to wear a community’s huipil when visiting another village. Although, women were not just limited to their community’s design. Instead the design offered an outline for what women were required to have and within the community design women were allowed creativity to make theirs different from others often to express praise to different kiuggkes animals around the collar.
The hair sash is often the only part of the traditional outfit that is still locally woven by women on a backstrap loom. Each ethnic group not only has their own way of wearing the hair sash interlaced or wrapped around their long hair, but colours, motifs, widths, and the manner of setting up the loom and incorporating the geometric and figurative designs into the cloth are distinct. Elaborate hair sashes woven of finer thread with more complex imagery are worn on special occasions.
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The Maya believed that clothing could transform a person and a person could transform the garment and is expressed through it, so naturally clothing was of great cultural significance. They would often make textiles to enhance religious power; the most common way of doing this was dressing for the maize gods. Women and men would wear a net over-skirt made of jade, the colour of life, which represented their high place in society. In order to dress as a maize deity and manipulate the regeneration of the maize plant they would weave serpents onto huipils to symbolize lightning. The lightning god is the god believed to have created maize on the top of Mt. Sustenance. Mayan elite would also wear a shark shell belt and a jade-netted collar to the maize deity costume. Other significant costumes consisted of wearing many quetzal and eagle feathers on headdresses to represent and elite’s power in blue and green tones, which represented the fifth direction, the center of celestial, terrestrial and the underworld levels of the cosmos. Kings would also wear jaguar skin skirts, which signified their connection between the sky and the earth.
- "Spinning: From Fiber to Thread." Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. The Fabric of Mayan Life: An Exhibit of Textiles. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
- "Weaving: From Thread to Fabric." Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. The Fabric of Mayan Life: An Exhibit of Textiles. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
- Cultural Dress of the Maya. "Mayan women traditionally wear traje, which is a combination of a skillfully woven, multicolored blouse called a huipil of a corte, a woven wraparound skirt that reaches to the ankles, and is held together by faja (sash) at the waist. Women also wear some form of headdress, such as pañuelo, on their heads, or cintas, four- or five-foot-long colorful ribbons that are braided into their shiny, long, black hair."
- "Mayan Women's Dress." Cultural Dress of the Maya. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ana Mónica Rodríguez (April 27, 2011). "Espectadores podrán conocer el enigma del huipil de La Malinche". La Jornada (Mexico City). p. 4. Retrieved May 5, 2012.
- Bernardo Hernandez (April 24, 1997). "Mexicanisimas novias" [Very Mexican brides]. Reforma (in Spanish) (Mexico City). p. 30.
- Maya Hair Sashes Backstrap Woven in Jacaltenango, Guatemala, Cintas Mayas tejidas con el telar de cintura en Jacaltenango, Guatemala, 2003. ISBN 0-9721253-1-0; Carol Ventura, “Women’s Hair Sashes of Mesoamerica,” in Latin America and the Caribbean, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume II, Margot Blum Schevill, volume editor, Oxford University Press / Berg Publishers, Oxford, England, 2010: 208-214. ISBN 978-1-84788-104-5.
- Looper, Matthew
- Martin, Simon et al. (2004) Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, p16-198.
- O'Neale, Lila M. (1945) Textile of Highland Guatemala. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, p7-27.
- Schevill, Margot B. (1993) Maya Textiles of Guatemala (1st ed.) Austin: University of Texas Press, p8-60.
- The Pitzer Collection of Mayan Textiles, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History