Mayan Art

It was very interesting to see the shows on television the last week of 2011. Many of the "documentary" shows talked about the Mayan prophecy regarding the world ending with the winter solstice in December 2012. That is when the Mayan long-count calendar ends the current cycle. There are doomsday predictions surrounding this date which seem to exist in other cultures as well. It was fun to watch these shows and see a wide range of "experts" talk about the subject. Who knows what the future will hold. However, there was a lot of history about the indigenous people. The sculpture and art created by these ancient peoples were exquisite. Their language consists not of an alphabet like we use, but concepts composed of many artistic figures. For example, here is the symbol for "woman" (picture to the left). There are some wonderful articles on the language at this website. These shows had me brushing off my collection of books regarding the arts of Mexico and Central America to come up with today’s topic.

Public Broadcasting has done a wonderful documentary on the Maya people. From their website, we learn "Though their empire is long gone, the Mayans live on. An estimated 1.5 million to 4.5 million descendants of the Mayans inhabit southern Central America. In Mexico’s Yucatan region, many residents still speak Maya languages and wear clothing virtually indistinguishable from that depicted in ancient carvings. And, like their ancestors, they pursue a spiritual life still colored by ancient beliefs in the gods of the corn and the jaguar. In the words of noted local poet Mediz Bolio, many locals may speak in Spanish — but they think in Mayan."

Clothing has not changed much since ancient times. One common piece of clothing is the huipil. The authentic huipil is a loose sleeveless rectangle of fabric with a hole in the middle for the head. It can be worn loose tied with a colorful sash or tucked into a skirt. It was clearly evident by the colors and designs used by the stitcher where the person was from and if the outfit was for normal or ceremonial wear. The designs were the same for the respective community; however, there was some ways for individuals to show their creativity. Here is an example of a blouse with some of the same type of stitching you would find on a huipil.

In one article, I found a statement that the Maya believed clothing could transform a person. Isn’t that what designers and advertisers want us to believe still today?

The Mayan women were weavers and had two colors of cotton to work with. There was the white cotton most of us are familiar with and then there was a light brown cotton. It was a labor intensive process to clean the cotton, spin it, dye it and weave it. A spindle was used to spin their yarn. Using the spindle it could take two days to turn one pound of fibers into a thick thread. It could take a week to turn that same pound of fiber into a fine thread for weaving. Here is a spinner as represented in the Codex Vindobonensis.

Interestingly, it seems the women dyed both colors of cotton! There were three primary colors – a blue made from indigo, a red made from a crushed insect, and a whitener from a mollusk.

The clothing was embellished for spiritual protection and to identify the wearer. In some of the remaining textiles it appears that the satin stitch and running stitch were among the most popular stitches. The motifs were large and colorful. Due to outside influences, the cross stitch, long-arm cross stitch and chain-stitches have been added to the designs. Feather stitching has gained popularly especially in wedding garments. Today, as it was in the past, weaving and stitching is primarily a woman’s job which is taught in childhood. In some areas, the woman’s spindle, needle and thread were buried with her so she could mend her clothing as she traveled the long distance to the next world.

Another art form by the Huichol Indians is the Ojo de Dios or God’s eye.

The resulting object is known as the Mystery, because only God can see and understand the unknown. As with many indigenous designs, the four points represent, earth, wind, water, and fire. In the Huichol Indian culture, when a baby is born a Mystery is created. The center eye is woven by the father. Then another eye (ring) was added for each year until the child reaches the age of 5. (referenece) Today, these designs an get quite large and elaborate. My adopted son is Hispanic, so I had designed an Ojo de Dios Canvaswork design for the 2010 Nordic Needle Stitcher’s retreat.

As I read more about the Mayan people, ancient and present, I am amazed by how well the culture has been preserved with design elements remaining virtually untouched over centuries. Are there certain themes that transcends time and space, because we see these same stylized designs in other cultures throughout history? The bright designs remind me of the stitched motifs of the Scandinavian women and beadwork by Native Americans. Each culture has adapted to include new stitches and materials brought by outsiders. However, looking back through time, it seems that the more things change, the more they really stay the same….at least for stitchers. As artisans today, don’t we keep stitching to provide our friends, family, and homes with handmade items yet adapting our designs and techniques to include new fibers and materials?

In thinking towards 2012 and what mysteries the year holds, I designed this embroidered flower taking elements of Mayan designs and the Huichol’s Mystery. Since we have no idea what 2012 will bring, let us live in the present, reminded of our heritage yet planning for our future. Happy Stitching in 2012!

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