Huipils, Guatemala, Luck, and Love

The other day, I read a terrific review of Deborah Chandler’s new book A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Guatemala in the Hawaii Handweavers’ Hui newsletter. It was more than a review, though, it was a recognition of Deborah’s expertise in Guatemalan textiles and her deep knowledge of Guatemala, its people and places. I have been a long-time admirer of Deborah’s ability to look at a Guatemalan huipil and instantly tell you where it was woven and how. And she might follow up with a personal story about a weaver she knows in that area or a mini-lesson in how the colors or designs or techniques in that community have evolved over time. And now you can learn all those stories behind the textiles too, in her Textile Traveler’s Guide to Guatemala. All of this reminded me of the “Yard Sale Huipil” story I told a few years ago about how I came to have my favorite huipil. Of course, Deborah played a part.

The Sale

I’m not the kind of person who brakes for yard sales, usually.  But when I see a stack of what looks like handwoven cloth from Guatemala, I pull over. This happened a couple of weeks ago. And it was Guatemalan cloth that I’d spied from the road, a modest pile of slim table runners with a few other cuts of fabric mixed in. Delightful to find, but nothing compared to the gorgeous huipils hanging from a rack nearby in various styles, sizes, and colors. Some looked as though they’d never been worn; a few looked like old favorites.

yard sale huipil
Yard sale huipil

The Huipil

My favorite huipil, (which happened to fit perfectly!) drew its genius from an adventurous color palette and extraordinary weaving skills. For one who has waxed passionately about the beauty of brown, the affection I had for the color fiesta dancing across this huipil seemed out of character, but I was taken. Plus, I thought I knew where in Guatemala this huipil was from based on photographs and stories in Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón’s Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.I bought this handwoven gem and dashed home to send a picture of it to Deborah—whom I always associate with Guatemalan huipils! Deborah replied immediately, confirming that my purchase was indeed from San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Happy day.

The underside of the fabric, at left, and the outer side of the fabric at right, showing the double-sided weaving technique, nearly unique to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala .

Weavers in San Antonio Aguas Calientes–and other communities–use a technique for creating double-sided patterns that are completely reversible. Deborah and Tere refer to it as “a kind of weft-faced tapestry,” but caution that the technique is actually much more complicated than they describe in Traditional Weavers. The cloth woven in this region of Guatemala is, as Mary Meigs Atwater described it, “amazingly fine in detail and beautifully done.”

The Love

So I know I’ve scored. I bought a valuable and beautiful huipil because I just happened to be driving by. Herminia Santos, a master weaver in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, says that a well-cared-for huipil can last forty years. I plan to grow old with mine. But there’s something more.

I mean, I can’t keep from looking at it. After I bought the huipil, I draped it over a chair in my living room for a few days and just sat there smiling at it. The colors and the textures and how they all fit together–and those birds! I’m completely in love.



Learn more about the huipils of Guatemala in A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Guatemala and in Traditional Weavers of Guatemala—Their Stories,Their Lives 

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2 thoughts on “Huipils, Guatemala, Luck, and Love

  1. Susan Schaefer Davis says:

    I forgot to say – the Hui Hawaii Handweavers group took a tour with me a couple of years ago, and they were great textile travelers. I’m not surprised that they knew a lot, and recognized Deb’s expertise.

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