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The Textile Art Of the Mayas

Though they're museum pieces in Europe and the US, at home Guatemala's handwoven fabrics bring an incomparable artistic heritage to everyday living

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IN a muddy farmyard outside the Guatemalan village of Solol`a, a young Mayan girl kneels before a backstrap loom strung with a rainbow of brilliantly colored threads. They are tied to a tree at one end and at the other around her waist. With deft little fingers, using techniques that are centuries old, she weaves the threads into a beautiful and intricately patterned piece of cloth. When finished, her work will be another example of the extraordinary weavings that rank Mayan textile art among the best in the world today. It is exhibited in museums in Europe and the United States and exported in large quantities to dealers, especially in America. But for Guatemala's Mayan Indians, these weavings remain what they have been since before the Spanish Conquest - a vital part of their everyday life.

A typical Mayan woman is dressed from head to toe in native weavings. She wears a long wrap skirt, or refajos, a brightly colored sash, which fastens it at the waist, and a huipil, the traditional women's blouse. Both men and women wear tzutes, huge pieces of cloth used as shawls in cold weather, as turbans to cushion baskets on their heads, as carriers for babies, or as sacks to carry goods to market. Every piece is woven in rich colors. Brilliant purples, yellows, reds, and blues turn Guatemala's highlands into a dance of color.

Mayan farmers on their way home from the fields brighten the road into Santiago Atitl'an with their purple striped pants, embroidered with tiny birds and flowers. The women of Chichicastenango are distinguished by their huipiles of bold floral patterns; the men of Solol`a by red-striped pants covered with short blanket skirts. Every highland town has its own costume. Even Mayan army recruits tie their rifles over their shoulders with sashes, or fajas, woven in their hometowns.

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