Huipil: Threads of Tradition, Identity, and Resistance in Guatemala

by | Sep 27, 2023 | Articles, Collections Programming

LA0030, Child’s Huipil Shirt

The word huipil (say wee-peel), derived from the Nahuatl huipilli, means “my covering” and refers to a type of blouse used by women throughout meso-America since pre-Hispanic times. These colorful, hand-woven, and intricately embroidered tops are worn tucked into a straight skirt called a corte and held in place by a sash called a faja by women of Mayan descent in rural communities all over Guatemala. Beyond their role as mere clothing, huipil have become cultural icons and symbols of resistance. They have been a form of non-verbal transmission of Indigenous knowledge in rural communities for generations. Traditionally, girls learn to weave at a very young age and continue to perfect their art throughout their lives. They also use the same outfits as their elders, as seen from this child’s huipil.

Weaving occurs within the home on a traditional waist loom, where one tip is fastened to a tree or pillar and the other fitted behind the kneeling weaver’s waistline. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the cloth was made from the fibers of the Gossypium hirsutum, known as upland or Mexican cotton, which was also grown, spun, and dyed by the weavers. This variety of cotton is now the most widely cultivated species in an industry that employs approximately 250 million people globally.

With the arrival of the Spaniards, new materials, such as wool and silk, were fused with indigenous fibers. Contemporary weavers often use brightly hued acrylic thread, as seen in this child-sized huipil. There is specific symbolism attributed to the different colors and designs used in the huipil. Many patterns are thought to have descended from their Mayan ancestors but have also evolved to express personal and communal events.

This girl’s huipil is predominantly red, a color associated with energy, the dawn, and blood. It has floral embroidery with a red velvet collar. From an initial view, we only notice the brocade stripes, but a closer look allows us to see a small diamond motif. The diamond pattern has different meanings in Mayan weaving: a plate of tamales, the universe, or a portal. Clusters of diamonds signify farmland and the renewal of life cycles. The pattern on this huipil reaches the bottom of the garment, and the edges of the fabric are unhemmed. Since huipils are tucked into skirts, it is common for only the top half to be decorated and finished. A huipil can last for decades, but it can take up to nine months to create the two or three panels sewn together with stitches called randas.

Besides making clothes for their own families, weaving is an essential source of income for many Guatemalan women in rural communities. Working at the loom may be done at home while caring for children, tending vegetable gardens, and raising farm animals. Every region has its traditions for attire; there are over 800 proud expressions of local identity, which is why Guatemalan women are keen on defending their art from industrialization and cultural appropriation. Modern descendants of the Mayan textile culture are forming associations to protect their heritage and adapt to contemporary challenges.

By Bridget Rawles, 2023


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