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A Rainbow of Threads:

The Colorful Mayan Weavings of Guatemala

In the highlands of Guatemala, the Maya Indians weave colorful, vibrant textiles. Many of these beautiful fabrics are woven into traditional clothing for the men, women and children who live in the rural villages. Every Mayan village in Guatemala has its own clothing designs. There are more than 200 villages in the highlands of this small country and as many as 500 different kinds of costumes.

In Mayan culture, dress is important for reasons beyond just keeping warm and covered. It serves as a uniform that immediately identifies the wearer as belonging to a particular cultural group or village.
In many villages, people continue to live and work in the same way as they have for centuries. They live in one-room dwellings in small, rural villages where they farm the land and weave. Women weave with a type of loom called a backstrap loom. The loom is small and light, enabling them to carry it with them from place to place. Ancient ceramic figures found on old tombs on the island of Jaina, show that Maya women have been using the same type of backstrap loom for over thirteen hundred years.

Most of the weaving and other textile arts of Guatemala are learned in the home. While the women use the backstrap loom, men generally work on larger frame looms. From an early age, the children learn about weaving. Children spend hours observing, first from their mother’s backs and later sitting nearby as their mothers weave. Because many young Maya begin to the learn the craft when they are very young, they often achieve a high level of skill by the time they are in their teens.

Mayan weavings are known for their vibrant, contrasting colors and repeating shapes. The designs are often made with flowers and geometric shapes. Although each village has evolved its own distinct vocabulary of pattern and colors, each work also bears the highly personal mark of its creator. While some designs have disappeared over time and new ones have been added, many designs can be traced to pre-Columbian times.
Since the 1970s, pressures from other cultures have impacted the Maya of Guatemala. As a result, many things have changed, but the way that mothers and fathers teach their children remains the same. Young Maya girls in Guatemala hold the future of weaving in their hands. Hopefully they will continue to weave a beautiful rainbow of thread, a tradition that started in their country a long time ago.