Sunday, October 15, 2017

Ancient Maya Weaving

From Yale University's Art Gallery Collections.

Much has been lost through the passage of time, but archaeologists do know some things about how the ancient Maya made cloth. They also have some ideas about what they did with it after it was made. Curious? Then keep reading!

The ancient Maya made cloth with a species called upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum.)(They also may have gotten cooking oil from the seeds of this plant.) Was this the only plant they used to make cloth from? No, it wasn't.

Upland cotton seeds. Some still have some cotton fibers.
Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
It seems like they would take fiber from the leaves of the century plant -- also called the maguey -- (Agave americana) to make cloth. (They also used thorns from the tips of maguey leaves to make needles.)

Agave americana. From the National Park Service's
Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

How They Made Thread
The ancient Maya spun their thread with what's called a spindle whorl. It's made with a disk called a whorl, which has a hole that a stick is stuck into. The spindle is spun, and the whorl's weight helps to keep the spindle moving -- this spinning motion twists fiber attached to the spindle into thread.

How They Wove
The Maya wove with a loom called the backstrap loom. One of this loom's ends has a strap whose middle rests against the back of the weaver's waist -- its sides pass under the weaver's arms. The other end of the backstrap loom gets tied to a tree. Weavers changed the tension on their weaving projects by changing the pressure they put on the strap -- aka leaning a different way.

Now, in weaving, there's the weft, which is what you weave with, and the warp, which you weave the weft through. For a making a weaving, the ancient Maya would use what's called a warping frame to get the right amount. After they'd got the right amount, they'd treat the warp thread to help keep it from snapping as they wove.

What They Wove
The Maya made cloth items including (but not limited to) curtains, clothes and wraps for items that held supernatural power that they used as part of their religious beliefs. Like other cultures, it's possible they used cloth as part of burying someone who had passed on. They also made cloth to be used for trade.

The climates in the Maya area tend to be too humid -- that is, there's too much water in the air -- for cloth to last. But archaeologists have found pieces of cloth (see the Significance: Cloth Artifacts section further on in this post.) They also study other ancient Maya artifacts, ones that show people. Here's a small gallery with some examples of artifacts that show people:

gallery image

Weaving and Gender
Was weaving women's work? So far, the answer looks like yes. Pre-Colonial art seems to say so. And, at times, archaeologists have also found weaving tools in burials of elite women. This connection was in ancient Maya religion as well -- there are images of beings thought to be creator goddesses who wear items in their hair connected to weaving.

Consideration: Decoration
One of the ways that the ancient Maya decorated their cloth was by dying it -- two sources of dye they used came from logwood or palo de tinte (Haematoxylum campechianum) and the females of different types of cochineal bugs (which belong to the genus Dactylopius.) They also used paint. And it wasn't just adding colorants.

There are two other ways the ancient Maya fancied up their cloth -- at least towards the end of the Postclassic Period. One was embroidery. The other was brocade. (This technique is when you weave a design into your cloth that is thicker than the rest of the cloth, making it stick up.)

Significance: Cloth Artifacts
One place archaeologists have found cloth is the Sacred Cenote, a cenote at the site of Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatan Peninsula. They dug up the bottom, and they found various types of cloth like twill, gauze and brocaded cloth. (They also found other artifacts.)

Another place archaeologists have discovered Maya cloth is Chiapas, a state in Mexico. One place they've found cloth in Chiapas is Chiptic Cave. However, while the pieces that came from there may date to the Postclassic period, they also may have been created after the Conquistadors showed up. This is because they date to around 1500 AD.


The Free Dictionary: Brocade

"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey"; 2016

 Yale University Art Gallery Collections: Seated Female Weaver

"The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities"; James. D. Nations; 2006

"Top 100 Exotic Food Plants"; Ernest Small; 2012

"Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization"; Arthur Demarest; 2004

"Ethnobotany: A Phytochemical Perspective"; B.M. Schmidt, D.M. Klaser Cheng; 2017

"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia: An Encylopedia"; Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster (editors); 2001

"Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico an the American and Canadian Plains, 1880-1950"; Sterling Evans; 2007

The Free Dictionary: Humidity

Image Gallery Credits:
In chronological order: Images one through three -- Yale University Art Gallery; images four and five: Metropolitan Museum Museum of Art.