by Suzanne Labry
Huipil Patchwork Quilts
The huipil (pronounced wee-peel) is a traditional hand-woven and embroidered woman’s tunic-like blouse made by indigenous Mayan women from central Mexico down through Central America.
It’s most commonly associated with Guatemala, where each Mayan village has its own design, colors, and techniques that distinguish the huipils made there (this is a system devised by Spanish colonists to tell one village from another).
The huipil is an important part of life in the areas where it is made and worn. Depending on the intricacy of the design, it can take many months to complete a huipil, but the garment can convey such information as its maker’s birthplace, religion, social status, skill level, and personality. And those characteristics would be immediately apparent and understood by members of the culture.
Ceremonial huipils are the most elaborate and take the most time to make—these are reserved for such ritual occasions as weddings and burials, or to dress the statues of saints.
Traditional huipils are made on a backstrap loom, an ancient weaving device in which the warp (lengthwise) threads are stretched from a stationary point (such as a post or a tree) to a belt worn by the weaver around her waist.
A weft (horizontal) thread is then passed through the warp threads with a shuttle to produce a rectangular piece of fabric. Although this process is economical and portable, it also by necessity limits the length and width of the finished cloth. Designs are created in a brocade process, by weaving colored yarns into the cloth as it is being woven.
The resulting pieces are then stitched together and frequently embellished with embroidery. Conventionally made from cotton or wool and dyed with natural dyes from flowers, plants, insects, bark or berries, huipils are now also made from pre-dyed warp threads of other fibers such as rayon and silk, and may even be entirely made from commercial fabric.
Although huipils are still made and worn by natives of Guatemala as they have been for centuries, they are now also made and recycled into quilts and other items that can be sold in markets by artisans to help support their families.
Quilts made from huipils share characteristics with Crazy quilts, in that they may be heavily embroidered and random in design. The patches are stitched together into a top and occasionally over-dyed in order to produce an overall color scheme.
Sometimes an entire huipil blouse is used more or less as a central medallion surrounded by smaller patches. The top is then stitched to a backing fabric. Huipil quilts are not true quilts in the sense that they contain no batting.
In the same manner as some traditional American patchwork quilts, huipil patchwork quilts take fabric originally intended for clothing and repurpose it to make bedding. However, there would be no mistaking American patchwork for huipil patchwork.
Using a design sense and a color palette that reflect the part of the world in which they are made, huipil patchwork quilts convey an unmistakable sense of place and cultural identity.