For more than 1,000 years, in the pine- and oak-covered 8,000-foot-high mountains of Chiapas, Mexico's southeastern plateau, the Maya people have worked -- and woven -- through a cyclic calendar of destruction and resurrection.
Then the wheel turns to the 20th century. The Goddess of the Moon and the Virgin Mary merge in many minds. Stories are told in villages of dreams in which the Goddess visits the women of the village, shaming them because in the church, her statue's clothes are in rags and tatters. The women walk to other villages where the ancient textile arts are still practiced and organize a weaving cooperative to teach and sell their work. The weaving becomes finer than ever. The drought ends and the corn grows green.
For the moment, at least, the great circular Mayan calendar turns up in Chiapas. Seventy examples of 19th- and 20th-century women's work from 10 Chiapas towns are shown in "Flowers, Saints and Toads: The Textile Art of the Chiapas Maya," through Nov. 30 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW.
The huipil, a rectangular tunic worn by Maya women, is at the same time very simple and very intricately made, with centuries-old symbolic forms. The decoration is often called brocade, although Ann Rowe, the Textile Museum's Central and South American specialist, says a more accurate term would be supplementary weft. In the classical Maya huipil, the elaborate designs are woven on a loom in a continuous process with the ground fabric; embroidery, which came with the Spanish conquerers, is the embellishment with a needle of already woven cloth.
Not all the huipil is decorated. Usually the pattern is a cross, representing the four corners of the world, outlining shoulders and sleeves, and extending down the front and back. The rest of the huipil is a plain white cloth. Today, the yarns may be hand-spun and dyed naturally, but not necessarily. "The natural dyes are just not a bright enough red to satisfy the weavers," Rowe says. "They use natural dyes mostly for those they sell."
The basic symbols come from the beginnings of the Maya, the same combinations of straight lines that you see on Maya pottery or limestone sculpture.
Walter F. Morris Jr., in his charming book "A Millennium of Weaving in Chiapas," describes the principal forms: diamonds, undulating snakes, three vertical lines and figures.
"At the heart of the diamond is a butterfly, symbol of the sun and center of the Maya cosmos . . . The snake may be feathered. More often it grows flowers and transforms itself into a cornfield. The saints, crowned in glory, are attended by toads who sing with praise when the saints cause the first rains to fall."
Morris goes on to say that the lore of the people, a remarkable mixture of Old Testament revelation with native concepts of the holiness of nature, is woven into the textiles. It tells of miserable sinners, climbing trees to escape the flood, living off nuts and berries, bereft of tortillas, until they became monkeys. Noah's dove became a vulture. But one father and one mother survived to grow corn in the mud of the flood. Other stories, woven instead of written, evoke rain.
The costume made for the statue of Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of the town of Magdalena, is woven with dark reds and its designs of intricate twists and turns. The art of Magdalena brocade was revived by Abrila, whose family became fine weavers.
San Andre's Larra'inzar is a great center of weaving, using most often the motifs of the toad and the "grand design," a square with crosses at the corners and center. San Juan Chamula, known for its wool belts and tunics, has more than 40,000 people, but remains one of the most traditional Maya towns. The women there wear huipils influenced by the Aztecs. In recent years, women in Cancuc have celebrated the easier living of this century by adding heddle (foot loom) brocade to the men's shirts and huipils. In Tenejapa, the weavers use a design of dog paws -- dogs take souls to the underworld -- and toads, whose singing calls the rain.
A dramatic black wool tunic and felt hat, worn by religious officials in Zinacanta'n, could well inspire a fashion designer today. The scarf with its four-cornered tassels is a design from before the Conquest.
In contrast, the delicate open weave of fine thread from Venustiano Carranza has subtle, white-on-white designs. The tropical costume goes back at least a thousand years in the Maya lowlands. Fragments have been found of similar cloth from the sacred well at Chichen Itza, and are seen in the paintings and lintels of Bonampak, a 9th-century Maya city.
Morris, who lives in Chiapas, collected most of the textiles, with the help of the 1,500-member cooperative San Jolobil in San Cristo'bal de Las Casas.