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The Textile Art Of the Mayas

Though they're museum pieces in Europe and the US, at home Guatemala's handwoven fabrics bring an incomparable artistic heritage to everyday living

By Suzanna AndrewsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 1990



LAKE ATITL'AN, GUATEMALA

IN a muddy farmyard outside the Guatemalan village of Solol`a, a young Mayan girl kneels before a backstrap loom strung with a rainbow of brilliantly colored threads. They are tied to a tree at one end and at the other around her waist. With deft little fingers, using techniques that are centuries old, she weaves the threads into a beautiful and intricately patterned piece of cloth. When finished, her work will be another example of the extraordinary weavings that rank Mayan textile art among the best in the world today. It is exhibited in museums in Europe and the United States and exported in large quantities to dealers, especially in America. But for Guatemala's Mayan Indians, these weavings remain what they have been since before the Spanish Conquest - a vital part of their everyday life.

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A typical Mayan woman is dressed from head to toe in native weavings. She wears a long wrap skirt, or refajos, a brightly colored sash, which fastens it at the waist, and a huipil, the traditional women's blouse. Both men and women wear tzutes, huge pieces of cloth used as shawls in cold weather, as turbans to cushion baskets on their heads, as carriers for babies, or as sacks to carry goods to market. Every piece is woven in rich colors. Brilliant purples, yellows, reds, and blues turn Guatemala's highlands into a dance of color.

Mayan farmers on their way home from the fields brighten the road into Santiago Atitl'an with their purple striped pants, embroidered with tiny birds and flowers. The women of Chichicastenango are distinguished by their huipiles of bold floral patterns; the men of Solol`a by red-striped pants covered with short blanket skirts. Every highland town has its own costume. Even Mayan army recruits tie their rifles over their shoulders with sashes, or fajas, woven in their hometowns.

The most valuable and beautiful weavings are the women's huipiles and men's pants, which are woven by hand on backstrap looms, as they have been for centuries.

These garments are made only by the women, who weave their family's clothing between other household chores. Special pieces are woven with silk threads, but most thread is made from cotton grown in southern Guatemala, then spun and dyed in huge vats by village men.

Large pieces of cloth - for wrap skirts or for tzutes - are woven on footlooms first brought to Guatemala by the Spaniards in the 16th century. Until recently, these looms were operated exclusively by men, but economic problems have forced many Mayans out of the highlands into Guatemala City or to the United States in search of better jobs. Politically-inspired violence has further thinned their ranks. Now women work the footlooms too. ``With time and political problems, things are changing a bit,'' said Jeannie Colburn-Hernandez, a collector of Guatemalan textiles, who sells them at Casa Antiqua, her shop in Palo Alto, Calif.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the great beauty and brilliance of the Mayan weavings.

Long before the Spanish arrived in 1521, Mayan chiefs wore jaguar pelts as capes, and laced their bright garments with feathers from the rare quetzal bird.

``The Mayas like to decorate themselves and they love color,'' said Ms. Colburn-Hernandez. ``Color has meaning.'' Green, for example, stands for fertility; yellow represents death. And red - of which there is such an abundance in Mayan weaving - signifies life.