Wearable Storytelling: Mayan Huipil

by baltringer

The huipil (pronounced wee-peel), a traditional Mayan woman’s woven tunic, has lasted as a cultural staple for around 600 years. It’s unique design – essentially a long rectangular piece of cloth with a neck hole in the center, folded in half to be worn around the body and then tied with a belt around the waist – is derived from very logical construction restraints. Mayan women wove (and continue weaving today) on backstrap looms, which, as the name suggests, involve the wearer’s body in the weaving process. The weaver sits on the ground with the unwoven warp in front of her as she leans back into a tensioning system to keep the warp taut and the weaving even. Due to ergonomic limitations, the weaving will only be as wide as is comfortable for the weaver to reach to her sides without leaning over, and thereby lends itself well to the shirt form. The weaver might spend up to 6 months on this intimate act of creation, as she produces detailed brocade figural and geometric representations on the cloth that is taking form in front of her. The beauty of the process is that once taken off the loom and the edges are finished, the cloth requires no cutting or sewing (though the huipil could also be made from multiple strips of cloth stitched together to form a wider tunic). The neck hole is created during the weaving process, so the wearer need only to place the garment around her head and allow it to freely fall over her torso and back. She can then tie a belt around her waist to secure it, a process that effectively creates armholes.

Contemporary apparel and textile construction processes are by no means dictated by the same design restraints as those of the Mayan women. Conversely, power looms and industrial sewing machines can churn out garments with speed and efficiency, and in the luxury space where hand-made is desired, skillful bespoke tailoring or painstakingly detailed couture items involving hours of hand stitching are prized. However, variations of the huipil have appeared in mainstream fashion trends and runway shows despite the non-necessity of their construction method (and sometimes raising ethical issues around cultural appropriation). Their prominence speaks to their desirability both from the standpoint of the aesthetics of their surface decoration (traditional motifs are often re-interpreted on other clothing items) as well as unique form. Though we have no need to construct apparel in this way, the aesthetics draw us in nonetheless.

You may also like