Object: Loom

Cakchiquel, Maya: Backstrap Loom
Date unknown
Materials: Wood, yam, cotton fibers

The Mayan tradition of weaving is one that reaches beyond textile production. Through the use of tools such as this backstrap loom, weaving can become a mechanism to strengthen and empower the female identity. From an early age, a Maya girl is taught the importance of her role as a weaver. This is instilled as soon as she enters the world, when female elders give her a toy loom. Within the first ten years of her life, this gift will be used as an educational tool as she becomes familiar with the look and feel of the loom. Once her spirit is ready, female family members will teach her how to weave.

In the Mayan worldview, weaving and female fertility are inextricably linked. The very act of weaving is referred to as “giving birth.” Various components of the loom and implements associated with weaving are given names related to female deities associated with life-giving powers, and human body parts such as the female heart, womb and umbilical cord. If the loom is used properly, the rhythmic sounds of the batten and shuttle will sound like a prenatal heartbeat, and the swaying body of a weaving woman should imitate the movements of a woman in labor.

Equipped with the skill and knowledge of textile production, women are often self-motivated to use weaving as a social movement, achieving solidarity among fellow female community members. Many women accomplish this by participating in a weaving cooperative. Membership in such an organization serves to galvanize the female gender identity, and provide a somewhat marginalized group with the means to boost morale and build economic stability and independence. By entering the marketplace, Mayan women have an opportunity to personally share their craft of weaving with people outside their culture group, using the loom as a communicative device regarding their heritage and traditional customs.

Through a shared identity found in cooperative efforts of conservation and education, there is a raised awareness of the rich cultural tradition of weaving. As a result, weaving’s deep connection with the feminine identity is shared with, and kept alive for, future generations of both the Mayan weavers and the public audience.

[Anna Rice]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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