The weaving technology employed by Mayan people, even given the great variety of fabric produced, is quite similar across the region. Similarity across the region should not be mistaken for simplicity, though, as Mayan weaving is anything but simple. In the most general terms, the complex process of making fabric can be described in two steps. First, raw fiber must be turned into thread, and second, thread must be woven into fabric.
The first step in weaving fabric is the preparation of fiber. Fiber is usually obtained from either a plant, like cotton or maguey, or an animal, such as sheep. Next, after initial extraction and preparation of the fiber, it must be spun into thread. Today, women can purchase thread that is already spun and ready for weaving. In the past, however, women spun all the thread they needed by hand. Over the centuries, these spinners perfected the technology of spindles and whorls.
At its most basic level, a spindle is nothing more than a stick-like thread holder. As the person spinning twists the fiber into thread, it is wound around the shaft of the spindle, much as sewing thread may be wound around a spool or bobbin.
The whorl that is attached to the base of spindle acts as a weight to steady the spindle in its rapidly spinning motion. Whorls can be made of many types of material: carved wood, pottery, and so forth. While actual samples of fabric are rare in the archaeological record as fabric tends to rot when buried, the evidence of spinning abounds since prehistoric spindle whorls were often made of clay or pottery.
People in Mesoamerica have woven fabric for centuries, as demonstrated by indirect archaeological evidence. While spinning may be one of the most low-tech steps in the weaving process, it is the foundation of every piece of fabric, whether the thread be spun by hand or by machine.
Once fiber is spun into thread, it can be woven into fabric, perhaps the most difficult step in the entire process of producing textiles. Mayan people have achieved great skill as weavers, and in some families, these skills have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. Based on archaeological information and on accounts from the late prehistoric and early historic periods, we know that the backstrap loom was used by almost all cultures throughout Mesoamerica. This is a fairly simple and mobile type of loom, as it largely consists of sticks and a strap worn around the weaver’s waist to apply tension to the threads as the fabric is woven.Once Europeans arrived, however, they introduced their own weaving technology, the treadle loom. The treadle loom never completely replaced the backstrap loom, and the two types of looms coexist to this day. Other special types of weaving are used to produce items like hair ribbons, rope, and shoulder bags.
Weaving thread into fabric can be accomplished in several different ways using different types of looms. Some of these looms have been used since prehistoric times; others were introduced by the Spanish after the Conquest.