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Maya Threads REVIEW by Mary A. Littrell

Authors: Walter F. Morris, Jr., Carol Karasik, & Janet Schwartz
Thrums Books distributed by Small Press United, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9838860-6-8

Dramatic change in dress is underway among the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico. Since arriv- ing in Chiapas over 40 years ago, questions regarding textile design innovation have intrigued Walter F. Morris (Chip)—changes that have escalated in recent years. Morris describes,

“What is going on in Chiapas is a grand debate over what is means to be Maya in the twenty-first century.  It is not a generational debate, because grandmothers are at the forefront of new fashions. The whole community is trying to decide whether the new innovations are an embellishment or a betrayal of ancient traditions. Women are voting with their looms, creating audacious new patterns and colors or woven essays on older styles (p. 4).”

In Maya Threads:  A Woven History of Chiapas, Morris, along with co-author Carol Karasik and photographer Janet Schwartz, offer answers drawn from extensive interviews, textile examination, and participation in the daily and festival life of numerous Maya communities.

Early chapters focus on textiles from ancient Maya and Spanish Conquest periods. In examining specific textiles, Morris shows how the recurring thread count of 18, 20, 9, 13, and 52 in contemporary Cancuc brocading mirrors the sacred numbers in Maya cosmology. The Spanish Conquest and Catholic Church are noted for introducing the saints that the Maya dressed in ever-expanding layers of textiles. Today the annual event for undressing and washing of the saints by martomas (patrons of the saint’s annual festival) provides a time for reflection on textile designs as “sacred repositories of traditional designs.”

The authors trace the origins of Maya ceremonial costume to mythological and historical figures from the Maya past. In 21st century Zinacantán festivals, participants dressed as feathered serpents, moss-covered men, the rain deity, and Spanish “ladies” parade in a “chaotic blend of clowning and praying.” Men dressed as jaguars in fake fur attire climb a 60-foot tree where they exchange a volley of stuffed squirrels with black-faced tricksters on the ground—all of which harkens back to the past.

Several chapters focus on new textile technologies in the region. Detailed maps illustrate how running and cross-stitch techniques migrated among villages during the 1920s up through the 2000s. Climatic conditions, new roads, the introduction of trucks, and the arrival of electricity catalyzed women’s attraction to the new technologies. Applying running-stitch embroidery on store-bought cloth appealed to women who sought cooler garments, rather than heavy brocaded huipils, for relief from lowland heat. As roads opened, women began to travel in trucks to markets or textile cooperative meetings. A cloth and needle are easier to pack and use when away from home than the larger and heavier backstrap loom. At home, running and cross-stitch embroi- dery can be done at night under single 60-watt bulbs; backstrap weaving requires stronger light.

Morris devotes a pioneering chapter to the ubiquitous village housedress (vestido) seen across Mexico. Through photo-documenta- tion, the authors illustrate how women personalize the puffed-sleeve dress with ribbons and lace. Women embellish their accom- panying aprons with embroidered flower sprays and decorative pleating. For the wearer, the dress and apron ensemble serve similar functions as handwoven clothing in identifying the wearer’s village.

Final chapters describe impacts of enhanced financial resources for Zinacantán families engaged in the export flower industry, and for men of Chamula who crossed the U.S. border for work. Not only have these families invested in new houses and busi- nesses, they express their prosperity through spending on festival attire. Zinacantán families appear at twice-yearly festivals in new huipils, skirts, shawls, and tunics ablaze in this season’s fashionable colors and covered in machine-embroidered flowers. In Chamula, men invest up to $1,000 in furry, long-napped wool ponchos for festival wear; their wives’ requisite long-napped skirts command $600 in the market. Through festival clothing, families couple their economic accomplishment with public adherence to community tradition.

In Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas, Morris and colleagues break new ground in illuminating the many motivations for stability and change in Maya textiles. Morris cautions that it is difficult to predict what textile techniques and designs will appear next. As the authors recap, “Through their dress, women are redefining who they are as members of communities with both ancient traditions and continuous innovation.”

Mary Littrell, past TSA Board member, traveled this January with Chip Morris to festivals in rural Chiapas, where the exu- berant dress described in Maya Treads was in full bloom. The trip, Festival Maya, was organized by TSA member Eric Mindling through his Traditions Mexico: Cultural Journeys (www.traditionsmexico.com).