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Between the Warp and Weft: Empowering Mayan Women Since the Pre-Columbian Times

If you have walked the streets of Guatemala, there's no doubt that you have seen their wildly colorful textiles. Woven bags in striking patterns, traditional huipiles in vibrant hues, and intricate rugs in bold styles are all so abundant in the markets of this modern Mesoamerican wonderland.

When wandering travellers see a female artisan in Guatemala selling woven handicrafts, they're looking at someone who’s offering something made from a sacred art as old as their history.

A Gift from the Celestial Weaver to the First Woman

Ever since mankind has walked the earth, clothing remains as an essential part of life. As one of our oldest and most basic necessities, clothes keep us warm and serve as our primary protection against the elements. Thus, all human societies since the dawn of time have developed some form of textile.

However, beyond trying to keep themselves covered, the ancient Mayans approached textiles as a distinguished art form that carries a spiritual and social significance to this day and age.

According to ancient Mayan mythology, the first woman learned how to weave because the Celestial Weaver, Ixchel, taught her the ways. A complex goddess, Ixchel was regarded as a moon and earth goddess, associated with medicine, midwifery, fertility, and nature, making her a significant patron for Mayan women.

Since then, for more than two thousand years, Mayan mothers have been teaching their daughters how to wrap themselves around the traditional backstrap loom to produce exquisite fabric.

Ancient Mayan weavers used plant fibers to make handmade threads by using spindles that twist the fibers together. Once the threads were made, they were woven together using a backstrap loom, a simple, portable weaving instrument often depicted in Mayan art.

When a weaver sits with a backstrap loom, one end is tied around the weaver’s waist and the other to a fixed point, such as a pole or a tree. The loom uses parallel sticks that stretch the threads in between. The front and back beam rods form the backbone for weaving.

Today, contemporary Mayan women continue the legacy of fine backstrap weaving in exactly the same way. Over time, the types of threads and designs have changed, but the method and instruments used have been pretty much the same.

A Sacred Heritage Shared Across Generations

All Mayan women learned the art of weaving, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It’s such an integral part in Mayan womanhood that the rite of passage begins at infancy.

When a baby girl reaches three weeks old, she should be blessed by the gods in a weaving ceremony. During this sacred ritual, the midwife takes the baby to a temascal, or a sweat lodge, to bathe her.

Then, the mother must give the midwife her infant daughter’s first weaving instruments: some threads, a miniature loom, a pair of scissors, a basket, and a needle.

Next, the midwife passes each weaving instrument through the baby’s open hands. While doing this, the midwife prays and asks the gods to give the baby the skills to become a proficient weaver and keep the artistic tradition as her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother did before her.

This ritual continues uninterrupted into the present time. To the Mayans, weaving is a woman’s work par excellence that has sacred meaning and great economic contribution. The more cloth a weaver produces, the more her household prospers.

Furthermore, Mayan weavers have preserved the esoteric designs that make Mayan art so distinguishable. When they make traditional dresses such as huipiles, they also weave colors, symbols, and patterns that speak about their artistic skills and the cultural identity of the wearer.

Supporting Mayan Artisans Amid the Pandemic

Today, Mayan weavers mostly live in Guatemala, where the ancient Mayan empire once stood. Although the glorious empire has fallen, you can still see its cultural legacy preserved in some of the antique architectural marvels that are still standing, and in the handicrafts made by local artisans.

Like many countries all over the globe, Guatemala has taken measures to address the economic impact of COVID-19. In recent years, Guatemala has been performing well as an economy, enjoying a 2.8 percent GDP growth rate.

This 2020, Guatemala is expected to post a decline of -1.8 percent due to the effects of COVID-19. Despite that, forecasts show that Guatemala’s economy will bounce back in 2021, with experts predicting a 4.4 percent growth.

The economic stability of Guatemala can be attributed to the excellent balance between inflation targeting and prudent fiscal management by the government. A well-managed floating exchange rate also contributes to the country’s steady growth.

However, as good as that may look for Guatemala, those numbers don’t exactly paint the whole picture. Although Guatemala is indeed the largest economic contributor in Central America, inequality remains an issue. In fact, only 20 percent of the entire population enjoys some of the country’s overall wealth.

The rest, unfortunately, are living below the poverty line, including the Mayans living in the Highlands of Guatemala. Among these people are the artisans who rely on making and selling handicrafts to earn a living. And for them, the impact of the pandemic is much more palpable.

As of December 2020, COVID-19 level in Guatemala is at Level 4 (Very High), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Although Guatemala maintains a 90.9% recovery rate, with 110,944 recovered patients out of the 122,062 total confirmed cases, traveling to Guatemala is still risky.

With fewer tourists around to buy Guatemalan handicrafts as souvenirs, artisans are taking a huge hit. Nevertheless, you can still acquire your own authentic Mayan keepsake and support Guatemalan artisans from afar, and even at this time.

Finding Wholesale Woven Goods from Guatemala

If you’re looking for Guatemalan worry dolls and other woven handicrafts, buying them straight from the source can aid many Mayan weavers and artisans in sustaining their livelihood and keeping their rich tradition alive amid the pandemic.

At Handicraft Products La Selva, S.A. (From the Mayan People to You), we have been working with the Mayan people since 1986 to bring the beautiful products of their millenia-old culture into the world. We offer wholesale options and ship worldwide so that anyone who is interested can have their own authentic Mayan art, wherever they may be.

Browse our catalogue and find adorable worry dolls, colorful woven bags, intricate skull masks, and other amazing handicrafts you can enjoy. To learn more, contact us.

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