An Annotated & Illustrated Collection of Worldwide Links to Mythologies,
Fairy Tales & Folklore, Sacred Arts & Sacred Traditions
by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

Clothing, Regalia, Textiles
[from the Chiapas Highlands of Mexico]

An excerpt on the Maya from a now defunct page by the late Paula Geise

Note from Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.:

Paula Geise was a passionate, tough, brilliant, insightful woman dedicated to the literature, lore, art, and cultural integrity of First Peoples, Native Americans, and Meso-Americans.  With her death, hundreds of web pages, while still in existence, aren't being tended, links have broken and much is being lost.  When I checked this particular URL (
covering textiles and ritual clothing from Canada to Meso-America, all but one link from the Detroit Institute was broken (I bookmarked that for inclusion elsewhere).

The first half of Geise's original page was simply descriptive of the contents of each link, and since the links are gone, the descriptions have lost their context.  The second half, however, went into the cosomogonic function of Mayan weaving -- and my heart leaped at the beauty of what Geise wove into her writing.

Lest it be lost, I decided to copy and paste her text exactly as she left it, using her own pale blue background, and reconstructing her art links. Her original site included only a small image of a huipi (I've been unable to find its source).  All the other images were linked to the Science Museum of Minnesota, but those links were all broken.  I'm re-linking to the Museum with its current URL for the Chiapas Highlands (, but lest it change again, I'm also adding each image on this site (FYI: the Science Museum provides only images with titles but no explanatory text.)

I wish I had the time to save all of Paula Geise's pages -- hopefully others are doing this piecemeal, just as I have done with this page.  Meanwhile, enjoy her scholarship and generous heart......  Her text follows below:

Here's a pictorial essay about the art and meaning of Chiapas highland Maya weavers'
brocade weaving of huipili. The pictures (for now) reside on the Science Museum of
Minnesota's Mayan exhibit server. See credits at the end of this page for more info. This
page will ultimately become part of the multipage MayaPages section here on a page of its
own, using some art that will reside locally. Use your BACK key to return here after
viewing each image.

   Traditional Mayan huipil -- elaborate brocaded weaves done on outdoor backstrap hand
                looms -- are still worn today among the Chiapas Maya villages of the
                southern Mexico highlands. (Other Mayan people do the
                less-demanding embroidery on garments for women and men.) The
                huipil is a rectangular outer garment, centered with an intricate
                brocade-woven cross-shape covering the arms, front and back. It
embodies symbols of the cosmos -- world, sky, spirits. "Nichimal" or "flowery" is the
Tzotzil word for beauty. A huipil depicts the earth as the spring rains fall and flowers burst
forth. A woman wearing one she has woven with vision and prayer is in the center of the
flowery universe of space and time. She feels this, wearing her huipil. When she puts her
head through its central hole, she is the axis of the sky-cosmos and the infinite underworld
of the Earthlord, who controls weather, the dead and meritorious spirits of ancestors (who
become stars). The universe of sacred space and time radiates from her head, across her
arms and down her body. The patterns and meanings of huipili have not changed since the classic Maya period. They are shown on stone carvings of the abandoned, ancient jungle cities.

San Andrés weaver with backstrap loom

     Chiapas Tzotzil Maya master weaver Rosha Hernandez at her backstrap
     loom.--Mayan women of the southern Mexico Chiapas highlands who weave
     cotton cloth and the traditional yarn brocades for huipili tie one end of the
     loom to a tree outdoors, unroll the fabric and lean forward and back against the loom
     waist belt to control tension in the weft threads, a technique formerly used by Hopi

Chenalhó woman spinning yarn

     Chenalho Mayan Weaver Spinning YarnThe base fabric of all village clothing is
     cotton, grown in the lowland valleys. Since sheep (called "cotton deer") were
     introduced by the Spnaiards, they have been prized for wool (they are considered
     sacred and not eaten). Here a weaver is spinning thread, with a round stone
     weighting the vertical spindle, drawing out the thread from a puff of combed cotton in
     her other hand. It takes as long to spin the yarn for weaving as to do the intricate
     brocade weaving itself.

Xunka Tulan of Nabenchauc, Zinacantan using a warping board

     Zinacantec Weaver using warp board -- Fabrics for huipili and some other garments
     are not tailored from finished cloth, they are woven to size. Here a weaver stretches
     starched thread of black onto a warp board where she can group warp threads of
     several colors --she's also using white -- for striped cloth,or use plain white warp for
     a huipil, or plain black for some men's religious garments. Starch helps to hold the
     threads of the warp into the "up and down" groups (called sheds) that are separated
     for each passage of the single cross-wise woof thread and the placement of the many
     colored yarn threads which make up the brocade woven above the cotton fabric
     base. The weaver cannot weave outdoors when it is rainy, and her starched threads
     mean she cannot weave when it is too humid either. Black sheep are especially
     prized, because their wool can be dyed (with mud and herbs) to a glossy, waterproof

Grand Design from San Andrés Larráinzar

     San Andrés Grand Design--The grand design of the largest part of the hupil (the
     bodice, neck-border, and sleeves have different traditional designs) represents time.
     The sun pausing at zenith is symbolically represented as a grand diamond, with the 4
     sacred directions smaller ones. East (dawn) is above, West (evening) below. Pattern
     repetitions across the row means the sun passing across the sky, under the earth
     (which is metaphysical not just underground), and re-emerging at dawn the next day.
     Smaller butterfly-wing diamond-spirals and dots symbolize the sun's flight which is
     not the same, day to day. Eastern and western sea-horizons are symbolized by indigo
     blue threads Bright dots, alternating side to side, symbolize summer and winter
     solstices (longest and shortest days). A thin line between rows marks the "overworld
     - underworld" or day and night passage. Some weavers change color on 18th, 20th,
     19th and 5th rows, marking the 18 months of 20 days and the 19th month of 5
     ceremonial New Fire days that comprises the ancient Mayan Calendar.

Earthlord Design from San Andrés Larráinzar

     San Andrés Earthlord Design--The Earthlord is a powerful spiritual being who
     controls the realm of the dead who have lived good lives and complete certain tasks
     after death. Though ceremonial offerings are made to him at sacred caves, his realm
     is metaphysical. He also controls weather, rain, wind, vegetation, and his daughters
     spin cotton into clouds--the reason plain white cotton always edges the cross-shaped
     brocade patterns of huipili is to represent the clouds. All women who weave huipili
     are daughters of the Earthlord.

Chenalhó Toad design

     Chenalhó Toad Design--Toad is the Earthloard's shaman. When he sings,
     Earthlord's daughters fluff and spin cotton for rainclouds which are released in the
     daily thunderclouds that pile up and rain around the peaks where his sacred caves
     are located. Toads and flowers are closely associated in the ancient myths. It is said
     that brocade weaving was discovered by a woman who examined red spots on a cave
     toad's back.

Brocaded Toad design from Pantelhó

[Note: Geise did not include this image, but since I'm missing 2 of her others at the very beginning and the very end, I've decided to insert it here -- KJ]
Zinacantec Weaver at her loom [Note: this section was re-linked to "Xunka Tulan of Nabenchauc, Zinacantan using a warping board," see above -- KJ] --Different villages use different colors and variations on the traditional patterns (the myths differ somewhat too). Each weaver has her personal brocade signature, which she weaves around the bottom edge, or sleeve band, or neck of her huipili. But experienced weavers can tell what village a huipil comes from just by looking at the patterns.

Magdalenas weaver working on brocaded design

     Magdalenas Weaver making an intricate brocade--The brocade is built up slowly
     with third threads of several colors that dangle below long warp thread groups and
     crosswise weft thread. The colored yarn is pulled across certain warp thread groups
     on each row. The threads for the row are then pounded tight with the wooden batten.
     A good weaver may complete an inch (or less) of brocade cloth in a day, although
     she begins weaving only when her early morning cooking and cleaning are done, and
     quits when it begins to rain in late afternoon. It would take as long to embroider a
     huipil as to brocade-weave it, but embroidery can be done at many times when
     weaving cannot. Too, busy women such as those in the potters' villages use a long
     "lazy vertical" stitch which is later tacked down by sewing machine; these patterns
     are colorful but most of the intricate symbolism can't be represented that way.

Rosha Hernandez of San Andrés Larráinzar at a meeting of the Sna Jolobil,
the Chiapas weaver's cooperative, inspecting a feathered huipil .

     Rosha looks at feather huipil--Feather weaving was an Aztec, not Mayan, art. But
     Aztec troops were used by the Conquistadores, and the art of feather-weaving was
     picked up by a few women. In Zinacantran. it survived for centuries after being
     forgotten by the Aztec tribal survivors. White fluffy chicken feathers are used, and
     the feathered brocaded huipili are used for wedding garments. Few women can
     afford to buy (or the time to make) one just for this purpose, so mostly they are
     rented just for the wedding. Here, Rosha Hernandez and other Sna Jolobil (village
     weavers' collective and study group) examine the process. Sna Jolobil rediscovers
     ancient dye and pattern techniques, maintains standards, provides some training,
     and tries to maintain a textiles market, so the weavers, not middlemen, can profit
     from their work.

Chalchihuitán huipil

     Chalchihuitan Huipil--This huipil is done in the old style which preserved techniques
     and patterns for 1,000 years. After the conquest, priest wanted statues of the saints
     dressed in cloth as was then the European custom. (Ancient Mayan temple
     sculptures had been similarly dressed in elaborate brocades). Women wove brocade
     huipili and men's tunics, sometimes using a fine silk brocade as clothing for statues
     of saints (some life-sized) which are taken around at festival processions. Layers of
     these saints' garments have been continually available for the weavers to study for
     500 years, and preserved patterns, techniques and meanings for 500 years of
     survival under cultural attack.

Man's Cotton shirt from Venustiano Carranza with Ceiba Tree motif

     Man's Cotton Shirt--Cloth for everyday garments is of course not so elaborate, but
     is still made beautiful, sometimes by embroidery, sometimes by woven bands less
     complex and time-consuming that the brocaded weaving done mainly for huipili.

Mexican Chenalhó weaver with backstrap loom
(From the Science Museum of Minnesota)

[Note: Geise also did not include this image, but it's so lovely that I've decided to include it here -- KJ]
MAYAN WEAVING:now is illustrated only by photos taken by Jeffrey J. Foxx used
at the Science Museum of Minnesota's interactive Maya web site. I have drawn
heavily on the beautiful book Living Maya by Walter E. Morris, Jr. and Foxx. Harry N.
Abrams Inc, NY: 1987. This book was the result of Morris spending more than 10 years
among the Chiapas Maya, where he learned the Tzotzil language and made many friends.
It shows their daily life, legends and myths, symbolism, and overall history back through
ancient times, as well as Foxx's beautiful photos, and many drawings by local artists. This
photo is a reduction of one linked to above, a Mayan spinner, who is accumulating white
cotton thread around the stone-weighted spindle in the foreground. [Note: this image was probably a smaller version of the one above, "Chenalhó woman spinning yarn" -- KJ]

Though the book had many financial sponsors, the Science Museum of Minnesota's
anthropology director, Louis Casagrande, was instrumental in working with Morris and
Foxx to organize many Mayan exhibits over the years, including the construction of a
replica mountain thatch-roofed hut in the main hall, part of the largest exhibit. The
Museum brought Zinacantecan Mayan elder and curandero Anselmo Perez to Minnesota
in 1986 to dedicate this house and attend an honorary banquet, and there have been many
other contacts and travels.

Until the recent Canadian Museum of Science exhibition in conjunction with the feature
film about the Mayans created jointly by Canada and Mexico, Minnesota had the best
north American collections and exhibits that cover Mayan daily life, not just archaeology,
and this may still be true. It is a valuable local resource for schools and teachers
interested in the beauties and mysteries of this ancient indigenous civilization many of
whose modern descendants are exiles and refugees in the U.S. For those who cannot visit,
the Morris book is an invaluable educational resource, a good read, and though beautiful
enough for a coffee-table status symbol, should not sit around there, but be looked at and

Copyrighted © by Paula Geise
{Last Updated by her: Tuesday, December 19, 1995 - 4:50:02 AM}

[Page re-created to preserve Paula Geise's work: 30 July 1999 - 11pm]

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© 1999 Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
22 December 1999: forgot to include navigation last summer!  Just added it.