On my latest trip to Guatemala, walking through the streets and markets, I realized that many women were using very colorful items of clothing. This beautiful and handcrafted piece of clothing is called Huipil and it represents the traditional indigenous women’s dress. Here’s a brief history of the textile and what it means for people in Guatemala.
The huipil is a term used to describe loose-fitting blouses or dresses with bright colors, elaborated designs, patterns, and embroideries. It is considered the most commonly worn female attire in Guatemalan culture for everyday use. The more decorative and colorful versions are reserved for ceremonial events.
A TEXTILE TRADITION
The word huipil comes from the Nahuatl (the main language of ancient civilizations in Central America) word huipilli, which means “mi tapado” or “something that covers” in English. It is believed that the origin of this textile dates from pre-Hispanic times because some representations of high-hierarchy women using colorful robes are found in ancient ceramics.
These representations indicate that, at first, huipiles were mainly used for ceremonial situations. Later, huipiles became more popular among people of varying social status, thus becoming a type of clothing for daily use.
Huipiles are made using traditional Guatemalan weaving techniques. The art of weaving has been taught from generation to generation to maintain the heritage and pass down valuable insights about shape and designs. The elaboration process and materials used for huipiles production changed with time. However, the colors, shapes, and patterns have been repeated for centuries in an effort to maintain tradition and heritage.
Traditionally, huipiles were made using cotton and agave fibers while cochineal colorant, tree bark’s indigo, and coffee were used as natural dyes to produce colored thread. After the Spanish conquest, some elements such as silk and wool were incorporated as weaving materials. Nowadays, cotton, wool, synthetic and acrylic fibers are the most common materials for huipil production.
The production of a huipil is one of the most time-consuming activities among the Guatemalan textiles traditions. This piece of clothing is traditionally woven on a waist loom and it takes about two to three months to manufacture a single piece. Today, a foot pedal version of the loom is used to reduce production time. However, some weavers make their best effort to continue the weaving heritage by continuing to use traditional waist looms.
THE EXPRESSION OF IDENTITY AND BEAUTY
Color was used by the Mayan culture to paint different materials from murals, buildings, artifacts, and clothes. We are surrounded by energy and each color represents a different type of energy. Yellow symbolizes the sun, blue symbolizes the sky and water, green represents the plants, red represents the energy from humans and black represents the dark energy and mystery. – Delfina from Casa Flor Ixcaco
Each Guatemalan huipil has specific colors and designs that serve as a visual representation of the Mayan symbology and cosmovision. Weavers choose motifs and patterns that represent the history, traditions, and beliefs of specific indigenous communities. The design of a huipil is so carefully chosen that they allow you to know the indigenous community where it was made just by looking at the colors and motifs!
The most common colors in huipiles are blue, red, yellow, black, white, and green. The embroidered designs can have animal, plant, or astrology-related motifs. Interpretation of designs and color symbolism varies depending on the community where the piece was woven. It is generally believed that each color symbolizes the following:
- Blue: The sky and water
- Red: Sunrise, daytime, and energy and power
- Yellow: The sun and corn
- Black: Sunset, nighttime, death, recovery, and war.
- White: Air, spirituality, and hope
- Green: Plant life, royalty and represents the Quetzal (national bird of Guatemala)
Moreover, as part of a beauty ritual, women in Guatemala use the Huipil for clothing and beautiful ribbons for hair wrapping. Most women wear the ribbon around the crown of the head and then wrap it around braids in a spiral shape. Hair wraps are as beautiful and colorful as huipils with different patterns and embroideries.
Without a doubt, when buying a Guatemalan huipil or hair wraps, you not only purchase something beautiful and unique that represents the identity and traditions of a country but also you support the work of indigenous women who help maintain the survival of the huipil tradition.
Interview with Delfina from Casa Flor Ixcaco
The art of weaving has been taught from generation to generation to maintain the heritage and traditional Guatemalan weaving techniques. In Casa Flor Ixcaco, located in San Juan La Laguna in Guatemala, a group of women works in the production and commercialization of colorful handcrafted pieces of clothing created in the most natural way possible. I had the pleasure to interview Delfina, one of the weavers in Casa Flor, and she will tell us a bit about her culture and what her work means to her.
How did you become a weaver and what does it mean to you?
The weaving technique is passed down from older generations and I become part of the Casa Flor Ixcaco project to improve the economy and quality of life of my family. Currently, we are 34 women working together in creating handmade fabrics. We plant our organic cotton just outside of town in the mountains. We have 4 native colors for cotton: white, khaki, ixcaco (light-brown color), and green. Additionally, we also work with natural dyes, using; seeds, leaves, flowers, tree bark, etc.
My works represent our efforts to maintain alive the process and elaboration of handmade fabrics. We use organic cotton, natural dyes, and the traditional waist looms as they were used decades ago. Moreover, the colors, shapes, and patterns used for every piece of clothing have been repeated for centuries to maintain tradition and heritage
What represents Guatemala to you?
Guatemala represents art, beauty, culture, and energy to me. I am very proud to be a Guatemalan woman since my ancestors are the Mayas. The Mayan culture was a highly developed culture that achieved the only complete writing system and added for the first time a sign to represent the zero value which is often considered a Mayan contribution to humanity. I feel very happy about the roots I have and I appreciate our traditions and culture as they are part of who we are.
Why culture is important?
Unfortunately, after the Spanish conquest, the Spaniards tried to erase all traces of the Mayan culture as a way to oppress and convert the Mayan people to Christianity. Most Mayan artifacts, historical writings, and sacred books were destroyed and ceremonies and rituals were completely forbidden.
As a Guatemalan weaver, we produced our products by using ancient weaving techniques as a way to maintain the culture and heritage over the years. For us, culture is important since it’s part of our identity We weave using waist looms and dye the cotton with natural dyes. This is our way to maintain traditions and prevent them from disappearing and being forgotten.
Does color have symbolism in your culture?
Yes, color was used by the Mayan culture to paint different materials from murals, buildings, artifacts, and clothes. We are surrounded by energy and each color represents a different type of energy. Yellow symbolizes the sun, blue symbolizes the sky and water, green represents the plants, red represents the energy from humans and black represents the dark energy and mystery.
What are your beauty rituals?
My favorite beauty ritual is to wear colorful clothes and ribbons for hair wrapping. It feels like wearing Mayan art. However, I believe that real beauty is more than physical beauty, instead, it is more related to the way you treat people, animals, and plants. True beauty is a beautiful energy that radiates from within.
– Delfina from Casa Flor Ixcaco
Video: Will Da”Costa