The huipil, a remarkable piece of clothing from Guatemala. Discover in this article what it is, the history behind it and the meaning of the different symbols embroidered in it.
Huipil is the most common traditional garment as a traditional blouse, worn by the Maya indigenous women from Central America, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Belize.
They have been worn by both high and low social rank since well before the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas. It remains the most common female indigenous garment still in use. The blouses are one of a kind, handwoven on a backstrap loom, each usually taking at least a couple of months to complete.
They are an important part of the Mayan cultural identity. Different communities have different huipils.
They are an integral part of their everyday and ceremonial life. As a real way to express themselves, huipils are full of symbolism. They are a combination of features like colors, materials, techniques, style of the garments and ways of wearing them. They are the sign of a community. Beyond the ethnic dimension, the Maya outfit embodies multiple meanings of a cultural, social, economic and political character. For example, from a huipil you can recognize where the community comes from or recognize an emotion. The distinctive patterns of both huipils and skirts vary by region; they are unique to a place and symbols of identity.
What is the connection with the Mayan Culture ?
Let’s go back to the origins of textile production by the Mayan people. In ancient times, they were the largest civilizations of the ancient Western Hemisphere. They lived in tightly organised city-states, practised architecture and astronomy, and were the only culture in the hemisphere to develop a true system of writing. The Maya did a lot but one of their most revered artistic traditions was textile production.
According to Mayan traditions, the people were taught to spin plant fabrics into yarn and weave them into textiles by the goddess, Ix Chel. She was the moon and earth goddess. She is often shown wearing a backstrap loom, which is the traditional Mayan loom. This loom is actually worn by the weaver, strapped around the back and waist and fastened to a tree or similar object.
The fact that the Maya had a goddess of weaving tells us something about the importance of this tradition. It was revered above nearly all other art forms and practiced by both noble and common women from a young age. While the Maya filled their world with characteristically colorful and vibrant woven textiles, perhaps the most significant was a traditional garment called the huipil. Each huipil was carefully and intricately designed to feature symbolic images and patterns that went far beyond simple aesthetics.
Weaving was a semi-sacred action that connected women to Ix Chel and was as much a form of philosophy as it was an art. Each weaver’s design reflected themes of history, personal identity, spirituality, and cosmological philosophy, which other people within Maya society would have been able to understand.
It is a loose-fitting tunic, generally made from two or three rectangular pieces of fabric, which are then joined together with stitching, ribbons or fabric strips, with an opening for the head and the arms.
Huipils are worn every day and on specific occasions.
They are usually made with fabric woven on a backstrap loom and are heavily decorated with designs woven into the fabric, embroidery, ribbons, lace and more.
The lengths of the huipil can vary from a short blouse-like garment to floor-length. The style of traditional huipils generally indicates the ethnicity and community of the wearer as each has their own methods of creating the fabric and decorations. Some huipils have intricate and meaningful designs. Ceremonial huipils are the most elaborate and are reserved for weddings, burials, women of high rank and even to dress the statues of saints.
The making of traditional huipils is an important cultural and economic activity in these countries where most people still wear traditional clothing. Girls begin learning the craft when they are young, learning techniques and designs from their mothers and grandmothers. Weaving is an important source of income as that from agriculture is not enough to meet most families’ needs. While they work on other items such as tablecloths and other items of clothing, the most popular and most valued remains the huipil.
The huipil is a tunic-like garment made by stitching together anywhere from one to five pieces of cloth. The most common fibre is cotton, but there are those made from wool and silk as well. Most huipils are made of three pieces, which are usually the same size. Most classic huipils are wider than they are long although there has been a reduction in width in recent years. Huipils can be as short as waist length or can reach to the ankles or anywhere in between, but most fall just above or just below the knee.
Long or short, it is not designed to be a close-fitting garment. The neckline can be round, oval, square or a simple slit. Most are sewn on the sides, leaving an opening in the upper part of the arms to pass through. Some huipils are not sewn on the sides.
Huipils today are made from commercial cloth. The most traditional are made from handwoven fabric made on a backstrap loom. The pieces to be used to make the huipil are woven to size and are never cut. Despite its simplicity, the backstrap loom permits more types of techniques and designs to be woven into the cloth than other types of looms. Most of the hand-woven fabrics have designs woven into them, especially cloth destined for ceremonial huipils. The decorative elements can signify history, cultural identity, something personal about the wearer and more. Since most indigenous come from agricultural societies, clothing designs generally relate to the natural world. The most complicated designs are generally known only to a few older master weavers. In addition to designs embedded into the fabric, other decorative elements can include embroidery, ribbon, feathers, lace and more.
It is the national bird of Guatemala, and one of the most important textile symbols, the name means
‘treasured’ or ‘sacred’. Legend has it that long ago, the Quetzal would sing beautifully.
It is the Tree of Life, which represents the life of man – birth, growth, reproduction and death. It also indicates love, as shown in the union between the two people who make up the two parts of the tree. The fruits represent their offspring. Many sacred rites are performed under the branches of these trees.
The butterfly, with its wings spread, represents freedom. This freedom is sometimes compared with that of the weaver, with her ability to weave wild stories into her textiles. The white butterfly indicates good news and positivity, while the black represents negativity, pain and tragedy. If a black butterfly enters a Mayan home, it is caught and burned to rid the house of the bad luck. Green butterflies are symbols of hope and are welcomed into homes as omens of good health if a family member is sick.
The cross has ties to both Mayan and Christian religion. The four points represent the four directions of the winds, which give life to crops and mankind. The Mayan cross is made from the four types of corn – white, yellow, red, and black – which represent the parts of the human body. The cross also signifies the dawn, the darkness, the water, and the air. This symbol demonstrates the importance of the energies that come from each extreme of the earth.
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