Different towns and areas in the country use different color combinations, different weaving and dyeing techniques, different materials, and different symbols to represent their own individual towns and areas. In a country where there are over 20 different languages – not dialects, but languages – it is only natural that the weaving techniques and designs vary from each area. Each village/area has colors and designs that are used throughout the majority of the textiles, such that someone who knows about huipiles and Guatemalan textiles in general can identify a textile’s origin based on the designs and colors woven into it. For example, a huipil from Cobán is traditionally made of a very light cotton. It is white and the symbols woven into it are of the same color as the background (usually white) and are often figures of birds and animals. Often, the neckline is embroidered with brightly colored flowers. A huipil from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, on the other hand, is very different. Generally, San Antonio Aguas Calientes weavers are known for their unique style of weaving and brocading. A very fine, identical brocade with the same design on both sides, usually including birds and flowers, is characteristic of the area. The colors are varied but usually include blues and greens. It is important to note that times are a-changing and some women now use huipiles that have designs and colors from a variety of towns, something anthropologists have termed “Pan-Maya.”
There are some designs and shapes that repeat across huipiles. There is some debate about the symbolism of 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: 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: Some interpret this as community solidarity and/or a husband and wife united in marriage
- A two-headed bird (kot or kab-awil), usually an eagle: This can be interpreted in many ways, but generally it symbolizes looking both into the future and the past, at good and evil, 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, some interpretations that depend on the decorations surrounding the diamonds and the origin of the huipil include the plates used to serve tamales and town centers.
- Turkeys: Symbolize the turkey offered by the groom’s parents to the bride’s parents on their wedding day. A dead turkey is distinguishable from a living turkey because the dead turkey has its neck bent backwards while the living turkey’s neck faces forward.
- Trees: Symbolize the tree of life or the ceiba or nature in general
- There are other plant and animal figures that repeat throughout Mayan textiles, including plants like corn and trees and animals like the quetzal, hummingbirds, roosters, and jaguars
Our red and white Nahualá pillowcases, for example, use different combinations of stars, roosters, diamonds, and zig zags/waves. Come visit the store to see other textiles with other designs and appreciate the symbolism and tradition that is literally woven into every single piece.