What do these figures represent?

We’re often asked about the meaning behind brocade patterns found in Guatemala, woven row by row on backstrap looms, probably most noted on traditional huipiles. Some figures and patterns are specific to regions or towns, and others such as geometric figures seem to appear in many areas. Specific techniques used (Yes, there are many variations to brocade!) and color choices may differ, but certain repetitive patterns like diamonds, crosses, and zigzags are widely used.

But just because a figure might be “common” doesn’t mean it’s simple to decipher the symbolism behind them. Beliefs are often regional, and interpretations of similar figures can vary so much depending on who you ask. And just like other cultural aspects, these beliefs have probably shifted over time, adapting, mixing, evolving.

In this post, we’ll focus on just some (eight, to be exact) of the more prevalent traditional brocade figures currently found and used in San Juan Cotzal. These explanations were prepared by the cooperative of weavers from the same town that we work with, the ones whose work we feature here on our Artisan Direct page. Translation from Spanish to English is done by me (Mari) and I’ll also note the name of each figure in Ixil as the weavers have written them.

Can you spot some of the same figures in the beautiful huipil? (Pssst it’s available for sale by the same weavers! Find it here.)

  • 1. The Money Bird
“Tzichin – The Money Bird // This bird symbolizes the luck in having money, and having this figure is said to attract financial fortune wherever we go.”
  • 2. The Glass
“Ukab’al – The Glass // The cup or glass symbolizes home life and time spent with family; the warmth of a home. The glass is used to serve water, and represents good health and nutrition.”
  • 3. The Volcanoes
“Mam Munte – The Volcanoes // This figure stands for all volcanoes and mountains in the world, all much bigger than we are.”
  • 4. Family
“Ku Tzuk Ku B’aal – Family // This figure features a father, mother, and in the middle, a child. It represents humans, their unity and how parents take care of their children. Wearing this figure brings luck to the one’s family. “
  • 5. The Four Corners of the Earth
“Kaa Paq’ Il Txava’ – The Four Corners of the Earth // Represents Earth, where we live. Also known as the four cardinal points.”
  • 6. The Deer
“Mazat – The Deer // Because of the strength of this animal, it represents fathers as protectors of families.”
  • 7. The Corn Field Bird
“Toxokopil K’om – The Corn Field Bird // This figure shows the bird that feeds on corn, the greens of nature. It symbolizes life itself.”
  • 8. The Traveling Bird
“Xaol – The Traveling Bird // This Traveling Bird existed in years past. It would travel to the other side of the mountain, and when it rained, they all went up to the heavens. They would sing every afternoon from the clouds. This is the figure that represents human beings, and it protects people who travel to other towns, even countries.”

The cooperative of weavers from San Juan Cotzal, all proudly wearing handwoven huipiles that likely feature many of the above traditional brocade figures. Find their creations for sale here.

Pre-loved huipiles

If you know Guatemalan textiles at all, I’m sure you are familiar with brocade-rich traditional huipiles, with each region or even town featuring different patterns and styles. This is usually what comes to mind when people think “Guatemalan textiles.”

Cooperative of weaves in San Juan Cotzal, each wearing a traditional brocade-filled huipil (blouse)

That’s with good reason, because traditional huipiles are so beautiful. They are also very personal, as weavers have been known to incorporate their hopes, dreams, even prayers into the panels on backstrap looms. And when it comes to the sale of such labor-intensive weavings dear to hearts, there are some ethical concerns. In rural areas, weavers often resort to selling their handwovens to textile vender middlemen who have a reputation for bargaining down to the lowest price possible, knowing that rural weavers generally do not have direct access to markets and taking advantage of such a situation.

The color red represents strength in Cotzal.

And there’s another challenging factor: how to fairly price used handwovens. When brand new, handwoven huipil pricing can be made by considering material and labor costs. But once the garment is worn, how does that affect the retail value of the piece? As with most used things, there is devaluation to consider. There may be stains, even holes; overall general wear and tear that come with use. And then, when does something go from “used” to “vintage”? And when labeled as “vintage” does that imply higher value, as in a rare antique or an item that is museum-quality? How old does a piece need to be in order to be classified as “vintage”?

These are some questions I personally have, and clearly I don’t have the answers. As a general rule as Kakaw Designs over the years, we have tried our best to stay away from the repurposing of traditional huipiles, unless we are able to source directly from weavers or find pieces that are very worn — in the sense that when a garment is almost falling apart, we feel better about cutting certain parts and using them for other purposes. But in general, cutting brocaded textiles is not something we take lightly. But maybe that’s a topic for another post.

As far as traditional textiles go, I also think it’s true that weavers have the right to sell pieces they have created. Like anything we own. I don’t see why or how this right to sell one’s own belongings should be taken away. What is important, though, is making sure that the weavers are compensated well, even for worn garments, and honoring the cultural heritage of these artworks.

This week, we listed 8 huipiles being sold by weavers themselves from our partner cooperative at San Juan Cotzal. I like to refer to these artworks as “pre-loved.” They have all been worn, are in good condition, and show excellent brocade backstrap weaving skills of each weaver. They are full of traditional motifs from the town like birds, corn, and deer. And most importantly, because the weavers are all part of the cooperative, they have learned how to price their pre-loved garments fairly. I agree with how they have valued their work, and believe that clients should feel confident that the weavers are receiving good compensation for their work, even with the challenges of including general use devaluation.

The pandemic last year allowed us to make some really important pivots. Opening up our Artisan Direct page was one of them – started out of need for rural artisan groups to reach markets when everything got shut down in a very literal sense, including local markets, stores, transport, and tourism. Now, Guatemala is open, but the benefits are only very slowly trickling down to rural communities like Cotzal. We will keep our Artisan Direct efforts going for as long as it feels “right” — for us and for them.

You can find these pieces and more from Cotzal on their section on our website.

Guatemalan Weaving Vocabulary

As we get more and more involved with online weaving classes, we thought that a short list of common vocab might be helpful. The following is meant to be a simple introduction, and explained by me (Mari) in the context of weaving in Guatemala only. Please keep in mind that there are so many different textile traditions around the world, and many of these techniques in a different context are applied in a different way. But here’s something to get you started, with pictures:

Backstrap weaving, Doña Lidia in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Photo by Aiko Kobayashi.

Backstrap weaving: a pre-colombian simple loom technology that consists basically of sticks and yarn. On one end, the loom is attached to a pole, tree, or anything stable, and on the other, to the weaver, around the waist with a belt. It can be rolled up and moved easily. This is the technique used in Guatemala for traditional huipiles (blouses worn by women) and more garments. Predominantly practiced in Guatemala by women. Similar looms are found in many parts of the world.

Doña Lidia demonstrates simple brocade patterns during an online class: mosquitos, pepenado lines, and semillas. Photo by Lisa Jennings.

Brocade weave: technique used to create patterns in the weaving. In Guatemala, the type of brocade is supplementary weft brocade. Many additional threads are introduced into the weft during weaving, row by row. Some people describe this process as “embroidering while weaving.”

A wooden footloom or pedal loom in Momostenango, used for weaving wool rugs in this town.

Footloom weaving: using a larger wood-based loom that was brought by the Spanish to Guatemala. Also called “pedal loom” or “treadle loom.” This type of loom allows for much wider and longer textiles to be woven. In Guatemala, the weaving on such a loom is performed predominantly by men. It is possible to incorporate techniques such as ikat and brocade on this type of loom, as well as tapestry weave.

Irma from Lake Atitlán shows her ikat-dyeing project. This is the warp to be woven on a backstrap loom. In this case, she started with already dyed-yellow thread. This will be dyed again after the knotting is complete, so the parts under the knots will remain yellow while the rest will be dyed with the second color.
Here is an example of an ikat pattern from dyeing the warp, visible on the loom. During the knotting and the dyeing processes it can be difficult to decipher what the design will look like when finished.

Ikat: a resist-dye technique applied to thread before the weaving process. Knots are placed in calculated positions in order for the thread to reveal patterns when the knots are opened after dyeing. In Guatemala, ikat is referred to as “jaspe” and the technique is practiced for both warp and weft threads independently, and in both backstrap and footloom forms.

Picbil on the loom, taken during a Textile Travel visit, Cobán area.

Picbil: a light-weave with supplementary weft for gentle brocade, regional from around Cobán. Traditionally, this weave is for blouses, using only white on white.

All three panels used for this picbil piece have four clean selvages, which can be noted here by the absence of fringing. Cobán.

Selvages / Selvedges: the finished edges of a fabric that do not fray. Footloom-woven textiles usually have two clean selvages, but not the starting and ending points of the panel, because these parts are cut off the loom. Backstrap-woven textiles may have four clean selvedges, but making a textile like this requires the knowledge, skill, and patience. Not all backstrap-woven panels have four selvages; they may have two, three, or four. Traditionally, Maya textiles are used to their fullest extent by not cutting the panels, thus keeping the structure intact an utilizing the selvages.

All the floral and zigzag patterns above are created on the loom with the incorporation of supplementary weft threads. Master weaver Doña Lidia from San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

Supplementary weft: the additional threads used to create designs for brocade figures. This allows for extra color to be incorporated into the textile.

This ikat warp is being put on the loom after the dyeing process. Lake Atitlán.
The warp on a pedal loom in Momostenango.

Warp: the vertically-arranged yarn/thread that is necessary in all types of looms.

Doña Lidia inserts additional weft into the textile (blue) along with the normal weft (bright pink, wrapped around the shuttle.

Weft: the yarn/thread that is inserted into the warp to create a structurally-sound weave. In Guatemala, the use of additional weft threads create colorful brocade designs.