Clothes protect the body. Clothes can enhance the wearer’s beauty, even help to express the wearer’s identity. Some clothes are expensive reflecting the wearer’s status. Others are fancy, playing an important role in religious and civil ceremonies. We find different types of clothing around the world because clothes are an important part of who we are.
The World Cultures collection includes traditional garments from Guatemala and Mexico. They are made by Indigenous Maya women who make traje (pronounced tra-hey). They were hand-made using a back strap loom. It is a labour intensive activity. Women wear blouses called huipils (pronounced wee-pil). Blouses are tucked inside skirts called cortes (pronounced cor-tez). A sash called a faja (pronounced fa-ha) is tied around the waist.
The collection already includes huipils from Santa Catarina Palopó, and were made in different years. They show a development in colour design. We are waiting for a new huipil to arrive and join the collection from Guatemala.
This garment was made in the early 2000s. Recently, huipils from Santa Catarina Palopó have lost their red colour and instead utilise a variety of blues. However, it has been reported that due to the civil war of the 1980s, Maya women tend to wear huipils from other villages so as not to give away their place of residence.
Who are the Maya?
There are several million people of Mayan Heritage. They live in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. The Maya also live in the south-east Mexican states of Chiapas, Tobasco, and in the Yucatán Peninsula. They speak 30 different Mayan languages today. Examples include lacondón and tzeltal in Mexico, and mam and kekchí in Guatemala.
Their history predates European contact by several thousand years. They have survived centuries of colonial rule. They continue to survive the challenges of the modern world.
The Maya are famous for their ancient ancestors 1600 years ago. They carved stone statues of deities, and built stone temples and magnificent city-states. They also created a language of picture glyphs, or hieroglyphs. This language filled colourful books. Those that survived the Conquest recorded their religion and history.
The Maya cultivated brown and white cotton and, for over a thousand years, wove it. Preserved decorated textile fragments were excavated at Chichen Itza in the Yucatán. They were found in the sacrificial well. They date from the 6th century. The ruling elite wore pretty cotton clothes, decorated with pattern and colour. Commoners could only wear plain clothes woven from maguey fibre (Agave americana).
The effects of conquest
A Spanish army conquered the Maya in the 16th century. They enslaved the native people, or forced them into indentured labour. The land was exploited for its natural resources. Colonialism made Spain a wealthy and powerful European nation. New animals and resources were brought to the Americas, such as wool.
The Maya held little power, and the men worked in the mines and on the plantations. Women were in charge of the home. They still are, caring for children, and ensuring their families have clothes to wear and are fed. Every day women spend many hours weaving clothes.
After the Conquest, woven clothes of cotton and wool came to define an identity for the Maya. Weavers employed specific patterns and colour arrangements to represent their villages. Motifs tell a particular story. Weaving preserved cultural knowledge and created a strong sense of community.
Maya Weaving today
The Maya have employed the back strap loom for over a thousand years. This tool is still in use today. Mothers teach their daughters how to weave from a young age.
Unfortunately, traditional weaving is under threat. The Maya textile tradition is a story of adaptation and resilience in the face of adversity. Weaving cooperatives help women fight for property laws. They do this to prevent losing their weaving designs. This is being done at the expense of corporate mass production. For the Maya, weaving preserves and strengthens the collective Maya identity.
The Ancestral Voices project began in 2021 and focused on the Americas collections. RAMM commissioned a film to reflect the voices of modern Maya weavers from Guatemala. They live in a village called Santa Catarina Polopó, a place with a connection to RAMM’s collections.
There are two versions of this film. One uses English subtitles, the other Spanish.
Weavers: Claudia Nimacachi Sajvin, Rosa Amelia López, and Marcelina.
Funded by the Designation Development Fund, Arts Council England.