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Yucatecan Embroidery: Heritage and Maya Identity

22 may 2024
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7 min. de lectura
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This article is updated with more information every month.

 

The roots of Yucatecan embroidery trace back to the times of the ancient Maya, as evidenced by fabric remnants found in the Chichén Itzá Sacred Cenote. In Yucatán, there are textile artists (both women and men) across the state’s 106 municipalities. In Yucatán, they master at least 30 of the 40 existing embroidery stitches in the country; as such, embroidery stands as one of the most significant symbols of identity, and recently, of economic progress.

 

UNESCO and Maya embroidery

2404 Bordado Yucateco Taller UNESCO

 

In 2023, the initiative “Economic and Social Development with a Gender Perspective through Textile Art in Yucatán” was launched. Its main objectives include strengthening Yucatecan textile art, dignifying those who practice it, recognizing its cultural, social, and economic importance, promoting gender equity, and developing a Safeguarding Plan that ensures its viability. UNESCO implemented this initiative with valuable contributions from the BANORTE Foundation as well as the Yucatán state departments of Culture and Arts (SEDECULTA), Women (SEMUJERES), and the Yucatecan Institute of Entrepreneurs (IYEM).

 

The role of embroidery in Maya life

2404 Mestizas con la UNESCO

Embroidery has been an essential part of the Maya population’s life cycle. From birth to adulthood, ceremonies such as Jéets’ Méek’, (a social initiation practice to introduce Maya children to society) are adorned with embroidery.

 

Additionally, religious and spiritual life is enriched with embroidered shrouds, gowns for religious figures, banners, and standards. Women wear embroidered dresses during guild festivities and Vaquerías (traditional Yucatecan celebrations) dedicated to the patron saints of towns and cities.

 

Maya embroidery as part of religious celebrations

Beyond its symbolic and religious significance, embroidery has given rise to beliefs and is integral to the Maya worldview. It is also closely tied to the milpa, the traditional agricultural system that provides sustenance for families and has contributed to the existence of the jungle and its biological richness. 

 

Maya embroidery, central to Yucatán’s traditional dress

The Hipil and Fustán, which constitute Yucatán’s traditional female attire dating back to pre-colonial times, are embroidered at the neckline and hem in a distinctive design pattern. This allows for the identification of those who wear them as belonging to the Yucatecan land. But it goes beyond that—it also enables the identification of specific regions based on the type of embroidery, composition, and colors.

 

In essence, embroidery is both a heritage and an identity of the Yucatán Península.

 


A Brief History of Yucatecan Maya Embroidery

2405 Mestizas bordados yucatecos by UNESCO slogo

Embroidery in Yucatan has a centuries-old history. According to Graciela García Lascurain, a restorer at the Mexican National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH), while there are scholars who argue that embroidery was introduced by the Spanish, there is archaeological evidence of the presence of embroidery (in addition to weaving) from pre-Hispanic times. She described the techniques found in textiles dredged from the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, and reported, back in 1989, seven weaving and one embroidery technique: Chuuy K’ab, known as “satin stitch”.

 

There is another stitch, the Xmanikté, which may be pre-Hispanic and endemic to Yucatán. It has no Spanish name, and is only distributed in villages; it is a serpentine stitch, which represents the diamonds of the skin of the rattlesnake, and supports multiple Maya beliefs. It does not appear in embroidery books. Chuuy K’ab, the Xmanikté, and Xookbil Chuuy (“counted thread” or cross stitch, introduced by the Spanish), have been, along with other stitches, pillars of Yucatecan Maya hand embroidery for centuries.

 

The traditional Yucatecan dress, Hipil (different from the Huipil worn in other parts of México), and the terno, its luxury version, are also of pre-Hispanic lineage. In colonial times the use of the hipil was confined to the Maya, while the terno distinguished mestizo women. In the 19th century, Maya and mestizas shared hipiles, ternos, and identity. They were all considered mestizas. Today the terno proudly identifies all social classes.

 

In Yucatán, clothing stopped being woven because the colonial gift of plain fabric ended the brocades woven into Maya textiles; instead, Maya women began to decorate their fabrics with embroidery in the 17th century. That is why Yucatán is the state with the most embroidery techniques in all of México (30 out of 40). Embroidery adorns garments for life-cycle rituals and religious, secular, and official celebrations, and there are designs, techniques, and colors that identify regions and towns.

 

2405 Maquina de Coser bordados yucatecos by UNESCO slogoIn the 20th century, embroidery was enriched with the pedal machine that originated new techniques and designs, and with the motor machine, which favored commercial embroidery.

 

Now, the threat is digital embroidery which is replacing both hand embroidery and artisanal machine embroidery. Embroidery is a cultural heritage that has given and continues to provide the Yucatecan Maya people with part of their identity, and that is why on March 18 of this year, it was named Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yucatán. Safeguarding this artisanal skill is essential.

 


Hand Embroidery in Yucatán

2404 Bordado Xmanikte by Olivia Camarena

In Yucatán, the practice of hand embroidery is centuries old and fortunately still alive and kicking. It is an essential activity currently practiced in municipalities in the south, east, and center of the state, especially; in Yucatán, hand embroidery is also a source of cultural identity, creativity, and family income. Yucatán is the Mexican state where the highest variety of embroidery stitches can be found (30 out of the 40 identified countrywide). 


In Colonial Yucatan, the main tribute was plain fabrics that ended with the beautiful brocaded woven fabrics the Maya had created for generations. Since the 16th century, women learned to adorn their fabrics with hand embroidery, and they did so until the 1970s, when a slew of agricultural crises pushed families to seek alternative sources of monetary income; one such way was the sale of embroidered garments, which were previously created only for self-consumption. These embroidered garments entering the market led to the expansion of embroidery assisted by pedal and motor machines; while this technique is, in a way, artisanal (as it requires skill and dexterity from those who employ it), it is a different kind of “handcraft.” Hand embroidery was threatened. However, today it is still appreciated and its value revitalized, on the basis of its social and cultural wealth. 


The Chuuy K’ab or “hand embroidery”, the Xmanikté, and the cross stitch have been three pillars of Yucatecan Maya hand embroidery for centuries, along with other stitches such as the Mol Mis, or “cat’s paw”, the Le’e Subin or “Subin leaf”, the backstitch, the outline stitch, the “festoon”, the chain stitch, etc., which add up to about 20 stitches, some of them including some variants. 


The Xmanikté or “everlasting flower,” which is pre-Hispanic and found only in Yucatan, is a beautiful serpentine stitch that represents the diamonds on the skin of the rattlesnake, and is the support of multiple Mayan beliefs. For example, one that lives on to this day is that touching a snake’s skin will allow people to embroider quickly and well. Currently, this and other stitches are being valued and rescued. 


The cross stitch arrived with the Spanish women and was appreciated by the Maya, as it was able to recreate the predominant geometric figures of ancient Yucatán associated with the snake. The Maya gave the cross stitch the name of Xookbil Chuuy, which literally means “counted thread;” in Yucatecan Spanish, it’s been known as “counted thread” since then. 


Yucatecan Maya embroidery is being revitalized thanks to an ambitious project that UNESCO and the government of Yucatan are carrying out, where embroidery is being recognized as Cultural Heritage. Through this project, hand in hand with the embroiderers, a roadmap and a safeguard plan are outlined to recognize the Maya embroidery’s glorious past, to value the importance of its present, and to promote future actions.

 

Photography by UNESCO and Olivia Camarena for its use in Yucatán Today.

UNESCO

Author: UNESCO

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture (From History of UNESCO, 2024).

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