IN THE SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS of Mexico, the Chiapas Maya women from Magdalena tell how Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of their community, oversaw the building of a church from her treetop perch. All the while, she sat there weaving on a backstrap loom. A cord on top of the loom was tied to a branch; a strap at the other end of the loom was wrapped around Mary Magdalene's hips. To tighten the tension in the loom, she had only to lean back.
She was most likely weaving a huipil (pronounced "we peel"), a white, squarish sort of blouse, brocaded in red at the neck and shoulders. Such garments of Mayan fashion dominate the 60 items in "Flowers, Saints and Toads: The Textile Art of the Chiapas Maya," now at the Textile Museum.
If Mary Magdalene were anything like the weavers in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in spite of Catholic upbringing, she would weave Mayan cosmology into her cloth.
These are images of an agricultural community, from long before the Spanish conquest. Woven into the red brocade of the huipils, with accents of blue and black, are "saints" that cause the first rain to fall -- stylized, symmetrical men with upturned hands. Saints' attendants, the "toads," sing with joy for the rain. A larger male figure, the "Earthlord" saint -- cavedweller and owner of the earth -- brings clouds. The scorpion brings lightning.
In some of the highland communities, the huipil is worn by women every day. But usually it's ceremonially draped on the shoulders of a statue of a saint, which is carried through a town on saints' days.
"All the statues are nominally Catholic," notes Ann Rowe, a Textile Museum curator. But the Virgin Mary is better known as Our Holy Mother Moon, patroness of all Chiapas women.
Weaving is their sacred duty. "A woman will have a dream that she's supposed to weave a huipil," says Rowe. "Or they decide that the saint needs a new huipil."
To weave a new one, the women consult the pattern of old huipils, preserved in the saints' coffers.
One tradition has fallen by the way, however: that of using natural dyes. Chiapas Maya women prefer modern, bright-red synthetic dye.
They only use natural dyes when they want to sell huipils to the tourists.
And they made a few huipils with natural dyes as a favor to researcher Walter F. Morris Jr., of the Science Museum of Minnesota, who collected the huipils for this show.
FLOWERS, SAINTS AND TOADS: THE TEXTILE ART OF THE CHIAPAS MAYA -- At the Textile Museum through November 30.