September is New York Textile Month, a citywide celebration of textile creativity. As in past years, the museum is collaborating with the Textile Society of America. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide. Four former presidents of TSA will author Object of the Week posts this month.  

Author: Roxane Shaughnessy 

There is clear evidence that translucent woven cloth is one of the weaving styles practiced by the Classic-period Maya (ca. 300-850 CE) in ancient Mesoamerica. Decorated ceramic vessels and painted murals from the time depict examples of semi-transparent clothing worn by women, and occasionally men.[1] Additionally, fiber fragments uncovered in Early Classic Burial 19 at Río Azul, Guatemala have been compared to the pikb’il style of weaving,[2] where a sheer open-spaced plain weave is decorated with small supplementary weft designs. Practiced today by Q’eqchi’-speaking Maya weavers in Cobán and nearby villages in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, this weaving tradition has survived and persevered for nearly two millennia.[3]  

This exquisite gauze-like cloth from Alta Verapaz is an unfinished example of a woman’s pikb’il huipil or blouse. The garment was woven on a back-strap loom in the 1920s, using finely spun cotton thread in a balanced, spaced weave. It is constructed of three separately woven panels sewn together with an undecorated square in the centre. This area would have been cut out and hemmed for the neckline. The finely woven white-on-white supplementary weft designs or motifs include birds, arches, plants, leaves and more. 

While some Q’eqchi’ women still wear pikb’il huipils for religious ceremonies in Coban and other areas in Alta Verapaz, the majority of weavers do not wear them on a daily basis. However, many weavers continue to make translucent textiles for sale, and table runners, shawls, and scarves are produced for the outside market.[4] In order to expand production opportunities and preserve the technique, community efforts have been made to bring this enduring ancestral craft to an international forum, and in recent years pikb’il weavings have been enthusiastically received at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.  

While pikb’il weaving was a means of making clothing for centuries, it has now become a valued cottage industry in Alta Verapaz, and serves as an important source of income for weavers and their families.[5] It connects them with their past and provides them with a means to preserve this resurgent tradition into the future. 

Roxane Shaughnessy is Senior Curator and Manager of Collection at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. She served as President of the Textile Society of America from 2014-16. 

[1] Christina T. Halperin, “Textile Techné: Classic Maya Translucent Cloth and the Making of Value,” in Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, ed. Cathy L. Costin (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2016), 433, 456.
[2] Robert Carlsen, “Analysis of the Early Classic Period Textile Remains from Tomb 23, Rio Azul, Guatemala.” In Rio Azul Reports, Proyecto Rio Azul, edited by Richard E. Adams, pp. 152–159. Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas, San Antonio, 1987.
[3] Kathleen Mossman Vitale, Documenting the Maya Textile Tradition: Recent Work in Venustiano Carranza & Alta Verapaz. https://www.scribd.com/document/319122377/Venustiano-Carranza-Verapaz. Accessed August 14,2020.
[4] Ibid. Accessed August 14,2020.
[5] https://maxwellmuseum.unm.edu/news-events/blog/research-wednesday-pikbil-style-backstrap-weaving. Accessed August 14, 2020.

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