TEXT: REBECA SCHILLER
Authors and experts in Maya culture, Walter F. Morris and Carol Karasik along with photographer/journalist Janet Schwartz recently published Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas, (Thrums, LLC. February, 2015), a gorgeous book that will captivate history buffs and textile aficionados.
Consisting of 13 chapters that explores Maya culture, each section takes readers on a journey through the region and its traditions that is expressed through its ancient history and legends, but also in their colorful hand-crafted garments.
Maya Threads opens with the story of Lady Xook and her husband, Shield Jaguar. The stories of the Classic period are memorialized through elaborate hieroglyphics, highlighting the exploits of the noble families, especially those of the men, but also depicting the queens’ detailed and exquisite woven garments they wore. The various themes of these designs revolve around nature, heaven, hell, and the other world. Many of these motifs continue to be an essential part of Maya women’s textile art and daily life.
We learn that through these designs that Maya women weave their vision of the sacred universe. The weaver signs her work with a special design that it unique to her, but also adds another design that represents her community.
The Virgin and Saints played a significant role in weaving. The weaver believed the designs were taught by Mary Magdalene, the Holy Mother. The garments of each community reflect its people as descendants of their patron saint. The authors explain, “In Magdalenas today each statue of a saint wears layers of huipils, the oldest one next to the saint’s body. In a place without libraries or museums, the Saints’ wardrobes are the sacred repositories of traditional design. The Saints were the first and the finest weavers of the community and their clothing is the model of present day weavers.”
Numerous chapters in Maya Threads cover a number of textile techniques—brocade, running stitch, and cross-stitch embroidery. Until the 1930s, cross-stitch embroidery had never gained much acceptance but Spanish nuns in the Tzeltal community of Bachajón converted Maya brocaders to the technique. Previously, the earliest evidence of any type of embroidery (black on white) practiced was by the Zoques and Chiapnecs in the lowlands, which can still be seen today.
The floral embroidered designs learned from the nuns spread over the entire region. Tzeltal women wear the Bachajón standard—a blouse with embroidered cross-stitch around a wide neckline with lace attached to form a frilly yoke. Variations exist, and around 2010 metallic threads were introduced into some of the designs.
Maya Threads is rich with history of the region and the evolution of the various techniques. The authors provide personal stories of their experiences within the communities and with the weavers over time. But, best of all, Maya culture is far from dead, but enjoying an amazing revival for the rest of the world to enjoy.
Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas is available on Amazon.com.