The Cultural Importance of the Huipil

Posted by Tory Jones on

We published a recent blog post in regards to why we no longer repurpose Huipils into bags, but we wanted to expand on the cultural importance of the Huipil. It is our responsibility to ensure that as we work with artisans in Guatemala we are honoring their traditions and culture. The artistry that is quite literally woven throughout Ixchel Triangle is graciously shared, and we are so grateful. 

Mayan weaver with bright colored huipils

The importance of the Huipil is a great place to start in not only understanding more about Mayan culture, but also further educating yourself and others on why it is not ethical for Huipils to be repurposed into bags. (This is unfortunately still common with many businesses that export goods from Guatemala)

The History of the Huipil

The huipil is derived from the Náhuatl word huipilli, meaning “my covering.” Long before Central America was colonized, huipils were used almost exclusively in a ceremonial context, either religious or social. They slowly became more common for day to day life, and varied based on things such as geographical location and social status. 

Mayan backstrap loom being used by a weaver wearing a brightly colored huipil

In indigenous Mayan culture, it is believed that the birth of children is symbolically tied to the birth of a woven Huipil. Women are able to connect with their femininity on a spiritual level by learning the art of weaving. It is an art form that is based down through generations matrilineally, often considered to be a "right of passage."

Visual and Symbolic Importance

brightly colored hanging huipils

A Huipil traditionally tells a story that is steeped in Mayan symbolism and color. As a weaver begins on a new Huipil, the intention for a narrative is set with cultural motifs to convey good, evil, agriculture, fertility, personal stories, and more. Here are a few commonly used symbols (list detailed by Phalorope.org)

The Sun - Often made on the neck opening of the huipil, so as to be in the center of composition, representing the centrality of the sun in agricultural life and Maya mythology. 

Moon - Associated with women, given that the moon’s phases align with the menstrual cycle. Also connected to fertility and birth, given that a child needs a lunar year to be born.   

Stars - A recurring motif in Guatemalan weaving given how central astrology is to Maya beliefs and spirituality. 

The Lion of Riches - Supposed to bring good luck as it represents the king of the jungle who is a strong nahual of goods and riches.

Serpents - Symbolize protection, the serpent is seen as a guide for humans along the path of life. Within Maya mythology, the serpent is one of the most important animals of the cosmovision from pre-colonial culture and it is highly represented in indigenous iconography. It will often be pictured as a part of the sky or the earth, since it is seen as a sacred generator of energy in the universe. 

Human Figures - Often humans holding hands will be represented in textile patterns. They can be interpreted as platonic communal solidarity, but also as romantic, marital union between men and women. 

Butterfly -  Represents freedom and liberty, specifically the freedom with which the weaver constructs their woven visual narrative with their own personal life force. 


The Two Headed Eagle - Seen mostly in huipiles from Quiché, Chichicastenango, Palín, Escuintla, Nahualá, Sololá y Chuarrancho, and Guatemala City. This mythological creature (kot or kab-awil) represents duality in its many forms. The figure can refer to seeing the future and the past, good and evil, or up to the sky and down to the earth. It is also interpreted as symbolizing a great god with dual natures. In pre-colonial times rulers would use cepters with two headed snakes, but after colonial invasion the eagle was introduced to the Mayas in Guatemala.

Zig zags - These patterns can allude to a variety of things such as mountains, volcanoes, serpents, plumed serpents, roads, or the ups and downs of life.

Diamonds - Depending on how they are organized and their visual and geographical context, diamonds can symbolize various different notions. Some include the four corners of the universe, town squares, cosmograms, plates for tamales, or the sun’s path through the sky. 

Turkeys - This figure symbolizes an offering made to a bride’s family on the wedding day. Dead turkeys are distinguishable from living turkeys in weavings because the former will appear with its neck bent backwards, whereas the latter’s neck faces forward.

Trees - In general, the tree was a primordial symbol within the Maya cosmovision. Depending on their exact rendition, trees can symbolize the tree of life, nature in general, two people sharing one life, the growth of a human, and/or the growth of a family. 

Various other natural figures are seen represented throughout Mayan textiles, including plants like corn (usually seen in the cross form of a milpa or corn plot), seeds that represent agriculture, and animals like the quetzal, scorpions, vultures, toads, hummingbirds, roosters, and jaguars.

Colors are also intentionally chosen to convey the elements (earth, wind, fire, air), emotions, seasons, the planets, and social status. 

Unraveling Traditions

Our intention has always been to serve as a mouth piece for anyone who is curious about Mayan culture. We love Guatemala and are grateful to be able to partner with our team there. 

Unfortunately, there are many businesses that claim to be "fair trade" and "ethical" that are simply exploiting Guatemalan artistry. If this is something that you would like to learn more about, please watch this YouTube video

As for us, we no longer construct repurposed Huipil bags. The weavings created for Ixchel Triangle bags are a combination of traditional weavings from our artisans and the villages they live in, and new designs that we’ve come up with and created together. 

And as always, each one is a remarkable, one of a kind piece of art, that is fashioned into a bag you can be proud to carry.

brightly colored huipil with ixchel triangle medicine leather bag

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