This brief guide is meant to provide a foundation of understanding about traditional Guatemalan textiles. It is by no means all encompassing, and we encourage you to come along on our Guatemala weaving trip to learn more, or seek a deeper understanding on your own.
First, some basic weaving terms to understand the textiles. Then, an overview of some of our favorite textiles and why we think they are special.
Guatemalan Weaving Terminology
Traje refers to traditional Guatemalan handwoven clothing. Traje varies from region to region but typically consists of: huipil (a blouse; usually woven into panels and then connected to form rectangular blouse shape), corte (a skirt; usually woven and connected to be a large cylinder tied to fit person wearing it), faja (belt used to tie the corte to fit waist), cinta (hair wrap; sometimes with pom poms at the ends), tzute (multipurpose piece; can be used as a wrap like a rebozo shall, or to carry things on the back or head, or used in the house to cover something).
Fabrics are typically woven on backstrap or footloom, both options producing rectangular shapes. These rectangles are then joined together with an embroidered stitch to create the shapes of the clothing. These embroidered stitches are called randa seams and are often created in a way to provide another level of decoration (butterflies, triangles to represent volcanoes, etc.)
Each town or region typically has its own style of weaving, thus you can distinguish where a textile is from by the shapes, colors and weaving style that compose it. Styles are often influenced by surrounding nature (for example, San Antonio Palopó is known for their deep blue huipiles symbolizing the blue tones of Lake Atitlán, which the town is situated on). However, weavers also take their own creative liberties, diverging from traditional styles, or being creative within the style’s patterns.
Some of our favorites:
San Mateo Ixtatán Ceremonial Huipil
These huipiles are hand embroidered on both inside and outside, front and back. The amount of work is incredible, especially given the attention to detail. These textiles come with variations including the addition of collars, and embroidered black cats in the center of the star emblems. They almost always star emblems with a linear pattern radiating out, and flowers in the corners.
There are several different variations of the Aguacatán corte. One common version is a traditional blue colored corte with thin stripes and some detailing on each stripe. This is usually woven with a heavier-weight cotton that feels and looks almost like denim. The second is burgundy in color, also with stripes, but greater embroidery detail for each stripe. The material is usually a more fine cotton, and these older textiles become softer as they age.
Because they are cortes woven to fit various sizes, these textiles are large and tubular in shape, and make for wonderful blankets or decorative fabrics in the home.
Colotenango is a small town in the Huehuetenango region, close to Aguacatán. Similar to the cortes of Aguacatán, huipiles from Colotenango have burgundy colors. They usually also include very decorative randas, and added embroidery around the collar and throughout the striped weave. Below is one of the more simple versions of a Colotenango huipil.
Santiago Atitlán Huipiles
The huipiles from this town on Lake Atitlán are known for their striped weaving design with added nature embroidery. Embroidery usually depicts birds, but it is also common to see flowers and butterflies.
Nebaj Huipiles and Tzutes
Nebaj textiles are woven with extreme attention to detail. Huipiles and tzutes have a geometic brocade embroidery covering almost the entirety of the textile. Green is the predominant color, but most Nebaj textiles normally have many colors in one piece.
Sololá Men’s Pants
Sololá is one of the few regions in Guatemala where men still wear traje. The pants are woven on a backstrap loom with figures added in using a brocade technique.
Textiles in Guatemalan Culture
When sourcing vintage textiles, it is important to remember that most of these textiles were not woven to be sold; they were woven to be worn by the individual weaving, or by someone in her family. They are often being sold because the family is in a tough financial situation and is choosing to have cash rather than the textile they or their mother or grandmother worked so hard to weave. Thus, we feel it is important to respect the textile both for its craftsmanship and also as a reflection of respecting the individual who wove it and the family who is selling it.
From 1960 until 1996, Guatemala experienced a violent civil war (more accurately described as a genocide against indigenous populations). This means that textiles older than 20 years were woven during this time period, and even more sensitivity and consideration should be demonstrated.
Please consider these factors when you are purchasing a Guatemalan textile, or deciding to put it on your home or body.