The textiles of Guatemala are known throughout the world. Among their vivid colours, that of the ixacaco cotton stands out since pre-Hispanic times for its simplicity and meaning.
The Maya believed in the cosmic energy of the ixcaco cotton (Gossypium Mexicanum), also called coyuchi or coyuscate. Since time immemorial, the Guatemalan indigenous people of different ethnic groups have used this cotton as protection against spirits and various evils.
The ixacaco is a short-fiber brown cotton, which initially was grown in America, where it was symbol of the fertility of the Earth, the power of the Sun and the goddess Ixchel Maya. In fact, fragments of garments made of ixcaco cotton have been found in Inca, Aztec and Mayan tombs, which were built for members of the nobility.
In Guatemala, the ixcaco cotton grows in Mazatenango, on the southern coast, and it is still used today for the indigenous clothes of the communities in Tecpan, Totonicapán, Sololá, Nahualá, San Juan Sacatepéquez, Santiago Atitlan and others. In San Juan La Laguna and San Jorge La Laguna Sololá this kind of cotton is grown on a small scale, then it is woven and manufactured into products that are sold in local markets.
In many indigenous communities of Guatemala, elderly Mayan women still practice the elaborate art of cotton processing. Weaving expresses their identity and it has become a cultural patrimony and symbol of tradition and pride. It is also true, however, that the number of weavers is decreasing more and more; the work is elaborate and from one pound of cotton, only four ounces of woven fabric are obtained.
Being a wild, short-fiber cotton, the ixcaco cannot be processed industrially. The handmade process includes clearing the cotton of seeds, pressing it down, removing the lint and then weaving by hand. The entire process requires much experience. The elderly are those who are really skilled in this work, but young women do not want to do it anymore.
The natural colour of the ixcaco cotton does not discolour after washing but, on the contrary, it becomes more intense. The differences between a garment made of ixcaco cotton and another one of common cotton are the colour and the texture. Furthermore, the first cotton is organic, while the other is fumigated with pesticides. The peasants who grow ixaco cotton use natural products, such as insects and medicinal plants, in order to defend plantations.
Three kind of cotton are currently produced in Guatemala: the ixcaco in cream colour; the brown cotton called cuyuscate, and that in light brown colour called mocha. Some cotton in old pale green and antique rose is also manufactured.
One of the most appealing characteristics of ixcaco cotton is that it is completely natural. Guatemalan indigenous, still today, wear their traditional cotton clothes during rituals. In this way they keep their ancient art of weaving alive as part of their cultural patrimony.
The ixcaco cotton fiber is processed by hand by Guatemalan old craftsmen who create a special thread with which unique fabrics of high cultural value are woven, keeping, at the same time, an ancestral tradition alive. The ixcaco cotton is part of the Guatemalan indigenous culture and the world’s heritage. (P.M.)