by Suzanne Labry
Maya Embroidered Patchwork
In 1566, a Spanish bishop in the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico named Fray Diego de Landa, wrote a book about the region in which he stated that Maya women “wove with curiosity works of the pen to adorn their garments.”
The “pen” he was referring to was the thorn of the maguey plant, a type of agave native to Mexico. Indians used the plant not only to make needles, but also to make thread and textiles. And archeological digs indicate that Maya women have been employing embroidery as a decorative technique since prehistoric times. Today, they continue to apply these ancient skills not only to adorn garments, but also to produce patchwork quilts for the tourist trade.
The Spanish Conquest eventually saw the introduction of metal needles to the Yucatán, and Conceptionist nuns established schools and taught European embroidery techniques, such as the herringbone stitch and cross-stitch (known as “xocbichuy” which means “to count” in the Maya language), to native girls.
Another popular technique known as “manicté” or deshilado, is a type of open work similar to Hardanger embroidery in which threads are drawn out and tied in an intricate design of figures or flowers.
Among the indigenous embroiderers, interest in European patterns apparently would come and go at different times in different times in different communities, with traditional designs or a combination of the two gaining in prominence.
Traditional Maya embroidery designs draw from nature, religious symbols and icons, everyday life, ancestry, Mayan mythology, and even from dreams. The vibrant palette—bright reds, greens, blues, purples, yellows, and oranges—reflect the exotic flowers of the tropics. Maya embroidery is a riot of color.
Although the chief purpose of the centuries-old tradition of Maya embroidery was to decorate clothing, it is now common to see patchwork quilts made from embroidered squares. It is my understanding that these are made primarily as a means of earning income rather than as an item that the maker would use for herself and her family.
This apparently, is not a new practice. However, as during the Colonial period it is said that Europeans developed a passion for Maya embroidered textiles. The appeal of these delightful items has not lessened these many years later.