The tradition of weaving is one of the earliest crafts known to the inhabitants of Latin America. Before the Conquest it was a major expression of culture. Pictorial motifs denoting rank, religion, and politics were a form of visual communication that allowed the weavings to be traded over very large areas, throughout the Andean region and from Mexico to Costa Rica.
Basic to most early cultures were the techniques of twining and, very early on, weaving. Twining, or twisting the fibers together to produce a long continuous rope, was the primary skill needed to provide a satisfactory alternative to vines and reeds, both used by hunters and basket makers. Twined flexible fibers such as grasses, cotton, and hair produced the first weaving threads. Cotton was one of the first cultivated crops in the warm coastal areas of the Americas. Used throughout the weaving cultures of the Americas was a loom based on a group of sticks using the body or stakes to provide tension. The backstrap loom was used by many indigenous groups and a variation of it can be seen in the stake loom of the Andes. These light-weight, wooden looms were economical and easily transported. Common also to the varied societies were the dynamic use of color with availability of an abundance of natural dyes. Although many indigenous groups wove, the craft as an art form was developed by the Maya in Mesoamerica and the Inca in the Andes. A full range of techniques were developed, including gauze, brocading or secondary warp and weft threads, double-cloth, and tapestry weaving.
In Mesoamerica the culture of the early Olmec evolved into the civilization known as the Maya (1500 bce–ce 1100). In the Mayan religion Ixchel was the goddess of weaving and women were the primary weavers. Despite the decline of the Mayan civilization in the eleventh century, weaving continued. In the Aztec codices of the fifteenth century the tribute lists show the old Mayan area under Aztec control paid tribute in woven goods. The nobles, priests, and warriors wore mantles with brocaded motifs denoting their rank and status. Acid soil conditions have destroyed most of the native textiles and there are few left more than a century old. Motifs on pottery, murals, stelae, and codices depicting ceremonial figures dressed in court attire have been our best early evidence with the exception of textile fragments retrieved from the sacred Canada at the Toltec-Maya site of Chichén Itzá. These were woven in a variety of complex patterns decorated with brocading and open-weave techniques.
In the pre-Conquest Andes the early culture of the Chavín and other regional cultures evolved into the civilization of the Inca. These developing cultures supported and encouraged the weaving craft. And, fortunately, unlike Mesoamerica, the arid Paracas peninsula held its treasure of bodies wrapped in their layers of beautifully woven costumes: color coordinated, with matching motifs brocaded in complimentary hues. There is an abundance of materials sufficient to study the evolution of design elements in these materials, unlike their Mesoamerican counterparts.
Fibers used during the pre-Conquest period in Mesoamerica and eastern South America include a fine white cotton, a short-fiber brown cotton, bast fibers, rabbit hair, spider web, and feathers, all of these plus cameloid hair (llama, alpaca, and vicuña) were used in western South America as well. Dyes and mordants were found in plants, insects, marine creatures, and minerals. The fibers and dyes were found locally or were traded for at markets. Dyes commonly used today in the Andes are soot, leaves from the walnut tree, and cochineal, while indigo is still used in Mesoamerica. Very early fragments show color added by stamping and painting. As the craft developed, additional color was added with designs brocaded into the fabric as it was woven. Appliqué and embroidery were also used. Common to most American weavers was the use of the piece goods as it comes off the loom. Prior to European influence, all clothing was contrived from these straight pieces: skirts, hip wraps, mantles, stoles, and a garment made with a place for the head in the center. Variations on these styles were worn by both men and women. Utilitarian pieces such as men's bags, as well as ceremonial burial robes for their rulers, were made in the same manner. The Andean weavers developed a technique to manipulate the warp and weft threads into shaped pieces. In addition to the backstrap looms, they also developed small string looms for weaving narrow bands that required no wooden parts. Finishes onwoven pieces of circular tassels and figures were elaborate.
In the Andean area messages such as astronomical charts were inscribed into textiles. The art of textile interpretation was so detailed that there were specialists—men and perhaps women—called quilcacamayoc who interpreted them.
The European treadle loom introduced very shortly after the Conquest brought many changes to the textile tradition. Native men were taught to weave on the new treadle looms and women were excluded from a craft that had been dominated by women. Clothing and household goods and ceremonial items were no longer woven in traditional designs and qualities at home. Bulk yardage needed strong machine-spun threads. Hand-spun yarn gave way to factory produced threads. Wool was introduced and, to a limited degree, silk. Women were employed in households to make lace and embroideries in the European mode. These crafts were taught by the nuns in church schools.
Native dress has changed the least in women's attire. In Guatemala and Chiapas today the native design is seen in the huipil. A woman's top is woven in one, two, or three panels, with an opening for the head in the center and the sides usually sewn below an armhole. The number of panels, length of garment, design, and color are usually determined by the local town, as each is distinct. Huipils seem to be alike, but they vary by ability, arrangement of a common group of motifs and color. Skirts are rectangles but may no longer be dyed with indigo or cochineal. One can still see the Maya wearing huipils, skirts, vests, and carrying bags in the old style especially in areas of strong native church groups. But since 1970 in Guatemala there has been a drastic change in the number of women wearing their village huipil. Many young women favor a lighter commercial huipil or a pattern of their own design for everyday and keep the village huipil for church and celebrations. In the Andes the Aymara still prefer bright colors and motifs from the native flora, while the Quechuas use animal motifs in harmonious patterns. But many of the early influences are more elusive. Natives on the coasts have turned to muslin cut in old styles such as tucked shirt fronts in Honduras or sailor collar shirts in Mexico. Old-style native dress cut from manta (muslin) are often embroidered in a running stitch, to look like brocading, or cross-stitched. In Chile a short woolen poncho was adapted by the indigenous horsemen.
New technology and style have also been added to the native textile art. Twentieth-century Cuna in Panama have evolved a women's blouse, mola, from body painting. The designs were worked in layers of solid-colored, European cotton fabric in a variety of techniques of layering and appliqué. Over the decades these designs have evolved into a cartoon of Cuna life and religion. Although a form of cross-knit looping was known prior to the Conquest, the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia have made the craft of multiple-needle knitting into a native art form. Earflap caps, or ch'ullus, masks, armwarmers, and leggings have been incorporated into the native costume and ceremonies. Andean knitted products are now sold by commercial designers and alpaca knitting yarn is prized by knitters for its soft hand and lovely colors. In Guatemala the art of ikat, tie-dying threads into designs for both the warp and the weft before weaving, are now used in both the backstrap-loomed materials as well as the European-loomed yardage. This patterning was first used in women's skirts and is now produced and traded in such quantities as to be seen throughout the world and copied in India and China.
Major changes have evolved in indigenous textiles in the twentieth century. Air transportation and roads have opened up sheltered cultures to outside influences. Men have worked in factories and positions away from their village and in different climates. Progressive schools and institutions have tried to westernize the natives, diminishing the use of and need for native dress. Native style has been regulated by laws to make it conform to modern decorum. Colors and designs have changed to make textile goods more marketable and pleasing to tourists and wholesalers. Chemical dyes have changed the color from soft or faded natural color to vibrant hues. New fibers such as synthetic silk-like rayon and Orlon have been exchanged for wool and cotton or used as secondary fibers in weaving. In some communities there has been a deliberate attempt to develop new dyes to duplicate the hue of natural dyes and provide a more satisfactory spun thread. Where technology has been used to enhance the native textile culture, everyone has benefited; where it has been used to eliminate the culture by producing a poor, cheap substitute, all societies have suffered.
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Lilly De Jongh Osborne, Indian Crafts of Guatemala and El Salvador (1965).
Donald Cordry and Dorothy Cordry, Mexican Indian Costumes (1968).
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Sue Dawn McGrady