A huipil is usually woven on a backstrap loom and can take months to create, which makes them incredibly valuable. Sometimes when people are seeking to purchase a huipil they are surprised by the price, but that is because they don’t initially realize the amount of elaborate work that goes into every single piece.
In 2019, Prensa Libre published a series of articles detailing the background of some of the colors and symbols genuine to Guatemalan weaving, and we would like to share some of those with you.
The most common colors that are repeated in Guatemalan textile patterns are blue, red, black, white, yellow, and green. There is some debate about their symbolism, but it is generally believed that each represents the following:
- Blue: The sky and water
- Red: Sunrise, daytime, and energy
- Black: Sunset, nighttime, death, and recuperation
- White: Air, spirituality, and everything that is untouchable
- Yellow: The sun and corn
- Green: All plant life on earth
If you have Mayan textiles at home or if you are thinking of buying one, we would recommend looking at their colors with a new eye – you will certainly gain a deep appreciation for these works of art!
Different towns and areas in the country use different combinations of these colors, which also mean there are different Guatemalan weaving and dyeing techniques. Local indigenous artisans also all use different materials and different symbols to represent their own individual towns and areas. In a country with over 20 different languages - not dialects, but languages - it is only natural that the weaving techniques and designs vary from one area to another.
Each village/area has colors and designs that are used throughout the majority of the textiles, so someone acquainted with huipiles and Guatemalan textile patterns can easily identify a textile’s origin based on the kind of weaving which was applied into it.
For example, a huipil from Cobán is traditionally made of very light cotton. Therefore, Guatemalan weaving typical to this area is predominantly white, including principally white backgrounds, as well as white woven symbols such as birds and animals. Often, the neckline is also embroidered with brightly colored flowers.
A huipil from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, on the other hand, is very different. Generally, San Antonio Aguas Calientes huipil artisans are known for their unique style of Guatemalan weaving and brocading. In this area, they create very fine brocade with identical designs on both sides, usually including birds and flowers. The colors are varied but tend to include a combination of blues and greens.
It is important to note that times are changing and some women now use huipiles that have Guatemalan textile symbols, patterns and color schemes from a variety of towns, something anthropologists have termed “Pan-Maya".
Nevertheless, some designs and shapes repeat across all the different huipiles. There is also some debate about the Guatemalan textile symbols instilled in some of them, but the following are generally accepted. Along with the Prensa Libre articles, we used Sown Symbols by Barbara Knoke de Arathoon and various publications on the Museo Ixchel website to help collect this information for you:
- Stars are a recurring motif in Guatemalan weaving since astrology was central to the Mayan belief system.
- Zig zags can represent a variety of things: mountains, volcanoes, the serpent, the plumed serpent, roads, or the ups and downs of life.
- Human figures holding hands are also very common in Guatemalan textile patterns: Some interpret this as communal solidarity and/or a husband and wife being united in a marriage.
- Another common figure is that of a two-headed bird (kot or kab-awil), which is usually an eagle. This can be interpreted in many ways, but generally it symbolizes dualities such as looking both into the future and the past, at good and evil, or up to the sky and down to the earth; it is also interpreted as symbolizing a god with dual natures.
- Diamonds: Symbolize the four corners of the universe or the sun’s path through the sky. However, interpretations can vary according to the context. Depending on what figures are surrounding the diamonds, and the area from which the huipil originates, the diamonds can be interpreted as representing town squares or the plates used to serve tamales.
- Turkeys: The appearance of this figure symbolizes the moment that a turkey is offered by the groom’s parents to the bride’s parents on their wedding day. A dead turkey is distinguishable from a living turkey in Guatemalan textiles because the dead turkey will appear with its neck bent backwards, whereas the living turkey’s neck faces forward.
- Trees: Symbolize the tree of life or the ceiba, or nature in general
- There are many other plant and animal figures that are repeated throughout Mayan textiles, including plants like corn, trees, and animals like the quetzal, hummingbirds, roosters, and jaguars.