IMS Textile Collection


On Collecting Textiles, Diane Palmer

I’ve always been a collector, of one thing or another, since childhood. Living in Latin America in the 1970s , it was easy to find many different collection possibilities. We decided to collect textiles and necklaces from the places we lived including Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and, our main focus, Guatemala. I am also a student of history, in general, and Latin American history and culture in particular. The history of the reasons for differences in clothing in Guatemala, why they still exist today, and the impact of this is a history of Guatemala.

Since the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, each village developed a different huipil (blouse), faja (belt) and cinta (headband) for women. Men’s indigenous clothing also differed village to village, but is no longer as prevalent as women’s. The story has it that in order to make sure indigenous people did not run away from their master’s encomienda (landholding), each village had different trajes (clothing)- colors and designs, as well as different glass bead necklaces for women. Thus, if someone did try to run away, he or she was easy to spot- the clothing was different from others in the new village.

Geography also played a role in the diversity of dress. Villages are separated by steep mountains and rugged terrain which has led to isolation and determined dress distinctions. According to Henry Duflon (OAS, 1980) in 1950 there were over 100 villages in highland Guatemala that had their own distinctive dress.

Over the centuries, colors and even designs have gradually changed. Usually change results from a major event –because a particular colored thread was no longer obtainable, or villagers moved to a new place and patterns changed or merged. During the years we lived in Guatemala, after the major earthquake in 1976 we noticed colors change in various village textiles. Solola is an example. Today both men and women use sparkling threads in their weaving, something not present before the earthquake. Another is in Parrramos; fajas in the early 1900s were red with thin brown and double dark blue stripes; in the 1970s they were red with lavender, green, and dark blue stripes.

Reasons to sell textiles, are actually varied. Sometimes it is simply a market issue. Other times, especially for cofradias it is a matter of economic need for cash. In this vein, one day we witnessed a woman try to sell her huipil to a textile shopkeeper. The blouse was nothing special in design, and though she kept insisting, he refused. She left in tears. We followed her and eventually asked what she wanted for the blouse and why she wanted to sell it so badly. She said she was desperate for $1.25 to buy medicine. We bought the huipil from her and it became special to us.

In collecting beads, we also learned cultural economic lessons. In Chiapas, Mexico where we purchased the “Christmas” beads, the first time we went we found hardly any for sale; the next time everyone seemed to offer them for sale. It turned out that the first time had been during a lull in the agricultural cycle; the second, at the start of planting season when seeds and fertilizers were needed, and cash was necessary to pay for these items. We believe that the ability to purchase very old or special cofradia (brother or sisterhood organizations) textiles may also very well depend on the need for cash.

The bead or necklace collecting grew into an interest in trade beads in general. We learned a great deal about why one town or region preferred a particular size or style of bead, and about the impact of their preferences on traders. There is a vast global history of trade beads and their impact in many countries that were colonized- in Africa, Asia, and the US, as well as Latin America. We wrote several articles for the Bead Journal (no longer published). Trade beads are still a fascination for me whenever I travel.

Perhaps the changes in clothing today reflect the political, economic, and cultural changes in Guatemalan society. On return to Guatemala since the Peace Accords of 1996 and with the resulting strengthening of indigenous pride and political influence , I have noticed that many more women in cities and towns wear indigenous huipiles, fajas, and cortes (skirts) rather than ‘western’-style clothing, but the styles are of whatever mixture of color and design and machine-made. It is now more acceptable to wear indigenous style clothing and no longer necessary to differentiate by village or town of origin. Nevertheless, there are still many rural and isolated towns where particular designs and colors predominate, and some weaving is still hand-done. This is a topic which could be discussed at great length, but the distinctions, the reasons for them, their impact on culture, and the changes over time are what drew me to collecting textiles and bead necklaces.

Collecting textiles and beads gave us an entree into villages and conversations with people. In the 1970s it was not dangerous to travel throughout the country. We could, and did, camp anywhere with our young children. We preferred walking around villages and towns, talking to people and listening to their stories, rather than just driving through and taking photos of houses, markets, and people.

Over time the collection became an important part of understanding and appreciating Guatemalan culture. The more we saw and heard, the more we learned about different designs and patterns, the more we understood the nature of indigenous isolation, pride, and enforced repression. When we lived or traveled in other places in Latin America, especially Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru, textile and bead collecting gave us similar entree and knowledge of a particular culture there.

The reason I donated the collection to two museums, Tulane and SUNY Albany, is really the same reason I loved collecting textiles and trade bead necklaces. They are exquisite examples of personal and cultural expressions that can be shared with others. While my children appreciate the beauty and value of the textiles, none has a particular interest in keeping them. We would like others to be able to appreciate their beauty and the differences from one town or region to another, as well as to be able to learn more about what is becoming a lost art. We hope viewing and studying the necklaces and clothing from Guatemala- or Mexico, Ecuador, or Peru- will encourage interest in and understanding of indigenous cultures. In addition, the collection also provides examples of different weaving techniques within a country or in different regions of Latin America.

Diane N. Palmer
Belmont MA

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