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Traditional textiles and the preservation of its legacy

21 Apr, 2021

Weaving in pre-Hispanic times

Ancient Mesoamerican settlers had some types of attire and clothing. Nevertheless, the idea of a deliberately crafted fabric was considered as a privilege that only elite members in that period could afford, and therefore wear. Even from earliest times, there is a record that the purpose, symbology and importance of textiles are intrinsically linked to questions of social, political, economic, ritualistic order and, later - close to the Aztec Empire and the Conquest -, to gender roles and distinctions.

After the study and interpretation of Mayan artistic manifestations – vases, murals or steles -, it has been determined that textiles had a great quantity of contrasts that distinguished the ruler and his family members from subordinates and other members of the population. Political roles can also be distinguished from the motifs of the garment and the accessories worn. Slaves, prisoners or victims of sacrifices were clearly notable for their absence of clothing.

Julia A. Hendon notes that:

“The fabrics themselves also played a significant ritual role. In many monuments cloths were used to wrap packages (frequently carried by women), which contained ritual objects (...). The fabrics themselves also served as offerings (...)”

The materials used for the sewing and construction of textiles consisted of a series of very perishable raw material tools, such as: wood extracted from the cenote that has also been used to make swords and shuttles, small spindle bowls (instrument used to spin, join and twist the thread, it can be made of wood or iron) and spherical clay counterweights (small coin-like instruments with a hole in the center). Despite this, a large number of these have been found, above all, within what is considered as private residences, for which it has been concluded that sewing and textile production was a domestic task.

The oldest and best studied period of the pre-Columbian period has been the “Classic Period”. Using this as a starting point, researchers have been able to determine what corresponds to a contribution, both from other pre-Columbian tribes and from European influence.

But before going on to describe and highlight some of the foreign influences on clothing, we will mention some characteristics of the costumes based on the gender distinction.

Male clothing

The primary male clothing was the maxtate (from the Nahuatl word meaning "loincloth or sash") and it was a long piece of fabric that wound around the waist, passed through the legs and knotted behind. These had extravagant colors and color patterns. The apparel also featured a long, square-cut skirt that fitted on the hips and was made of a padded material. The costume was also made up of a ceremonial skirt, a cape - it could be long or short - decorated with feathers, and, occasionally, a xicolli (a word from Nahuatl that means "priestly shirt"), which was practically like a jacket of undetermined material

Women's clothing

This was made up of the “corte”, which consisted of a rectangular or tubular garment, of variable width and length, which was placed around the waist and held by a sash. There are variations of the corte that could currently be compared to a dress, since there is a record of cortes that span from the armpit area, covering from the breasts to the calves. The garment also had a skirt, but it was worn above the cut, the quechquemitl, which was a short-sleeved blouse, could be round or rectangular in shape and the huipil, one of the Most important garments in the Mayan area, which consists of a fabric made with one or more unified canvases, which varied in shape, size and cut, but which was similar to a cape. Some researchers believe that it was introduced during the Conquest and others that it already existed before.

Some of the materials used in the elaboration of the previously mentioned clothing, and in costumes of a purely ritual nature are leaves -of different amount of trees-, bark, fur, cotton, feathers -preferably green and blue-, and fruit, which served to dye some fabrics.

Foreign influence

For the 16th century European cultural vision, not covering the chest or thighs, was considered as nudity, which is why they decided to implement more extensive garments in their making. It was in this century that the use of cloaks, hats, shoes and leather boots was also implemented.

During the 17th century, the indigenous people already dressed “the same” as in the “New Spain” and Yucatan, although with notable differences, which evidenced their economic and social status. The wardrobe basically consisted of the use of a shirt, wide linen shorts and a huipil or cape.

Between the 18th and 19th centuries, it was basically a continuation and development of the traditional costume -which tried to preserve its essence- fused to foreign influences. Although, as can be inferred, it was only a privileged class that had access to most of the “novelties” of clothing. The rest of the town continued to dress as usual, with changes and additions in their fabrics.

Barbara Knoke says:

“Pre-Hispanic garments were usually baggy or rolled up. The Spanish brought a different way of making clothing because it had to be carved. In addition, they introduced collars, cuffs, buttons and bags on shirts; flaps in bags; folds and tucks in cluses and silk ribbons for the rosettes that are sewn on the ceremonial, festive and daily huipiles. ",

and later adds, referencing researcher K. Rousso:

"Missionaries, explorers, soldiers and tourists have been agents of change and in the mid-20th century, the signing of the Peace Accords and the end of 36 years of the armed conflict in 1996, intensified the changes that were taking place, because people enjoyed greater personal freedom. "

Despite the fact that textiles and clothing have acquired a series of changes, always responding to generational changes, attempts are made to preserve the legacy that still forms an important part of the ceremonial, festive and daily life of a large number of Guatemalan people. In the end, they are an enduring manifestation of regional and local identity.

As final observations, traditional fabrics and clothing are still respected and, in many institutions and companies, it is "accepted" that students and workers wear it, at the cost of the "official uniform", due to the respect that is still held for this manifestation of the great wealth and cultural heritage of the country.