What Is a Huipil?

What Is a Huipil?

Nena & Co. was born by upcycling vintage Mayan blouses to create luxury handbags and accessories. It began as a meaningful way for Ali, Founder of Nena & Co., to celebrate her heritage and share it with the world. These bright vintage blouses, which are the foundation of many Nena items, are called huipiles.  While we are known for our bright colors and bold patterns, the beautiful history behind these bags isn't commonly known. We hope that as you discover more about the huipil, our bags and accessories will become a reminder of the woman who wore it before and a symbol of your life journey.


A black and white image of an indigenous woman in Guatemala on her knees, side profile, and holding a pot.


The Origin of The Huipil

The word huipil comes from the Náhuatl word huipilli, meaning “my covering.” Worn as a decorated blouse, the huipil is sleeveless and box-like. Most are so wide that they drape over part of the arms. Huipiles are found and worn mostly among indigenous people in Mesoamerica, which includes Guatemala. Though the design and fabrication vary by region, these garments became the most accessible form of clothing. They required materials that are common in any household in Mesoamerica and the simple design can be taught to replicate at a young age.

 While we don’t know exactly when the first huipil was introduced, it’s beautiful to know that indigenous women have passed this art down through generations for centuries. Once the Spanish conquest occurred, the huipiles changed in fabrication, shifting over to lace and lighter-weight materials mostly among the people of Mexico. The Guatemalan people retained the traditional weave due to their location in more remote parts of the country. Yet, the designs shifted from geometric shapes to more organic shapes such as florals.

In addition, the Spanish people brought stories of animals that began making appearances in the native Huipiles such as Lions and Jaguars. Though the Mayans didn’t utilize the lace that was brought, they were inspired by the intricate shapes. This is where some of our “Funky” bag patterns have derived from.

Even through centuries of change, the huipil has survived as a symbol of the Maya women in Guatemala. While some aspects of this tradition have been obscured or even lost, its core remains vibrant in keeping a heritage and art alive.


Two female Artisans in Guatemala weaving with a Backstrap Loom


How a Huipil is Made

The entire process of creating the huipiles we know and cherish today can take around 2-3 months depending on the complexity of the design. This is one reason why huipiles can be very expensive to buy. Today the weavers no longer dye the threads themselves but buy them from the market. Artisans weave huipiles with a backstrap loom. This type of weaving initially began by using a loom that was standing vertically. The transition from a vertical loom to a backstrap loom came around 1200 - 600 B.C.

The backstrap loom, also known as the belt loom, gets its name from the way the fabric attaches to the weaver's hips. The Artisans use the tension of their body weight to pull the fabric tight while the opposing end ties to a post or tree. This means the weaver can’t loom any wider than her hips. The entire loom is made up of 13 parts and is quite complex, though at first glance may appear to be a simple mixture of wooden sticks. Each component performs a specific task in both holding the fabric together and manipulating the thread.

With a backstrap loom, the Artisan can only weave together one panel at a time. To create one huipil, it can take up to six panels to create– three for the front and three for the back. Once the panels are woven, the Artisan will then embroider them together with the appropriate openings to create a complete huipil.


Two indigenous women Artisans in their traditional Guatemalan outfits


What is Worn with the Huipil

The word "traje" in Spanish is the word used for the entire traditional outfit of the indigenous women in Guatemala. The details on trajes can showcase a woman’s personality, geographical location, marital status, and even religion. There are three main articles of clothing that make up the traje: the huipil, the corte, and the faja.

The corte is a handwoven Maya skirt that differs in length based on the geographical location of the wearer. There are two main cortes seen in Guatemalan culture. The first form of corte is filled with jaspe stripes that when woven together appear very neutral. The second is a type of brocade on a dark background. This is accomplished by embroidering contrasting thick strips of repetitive symbols along the length of the fabric.

To complete the traje, a belt called a faja is used to hold the corte skirt up and can be completely shown when the huipil is tucked in. Fajas are anywhere between 2-3 inches wide, are typically heavily embroidered, and are adorned with many types of geometric or floral patterns. When teaching children how to weave, the faja is one of the first things they are taught to make.


Two indigenous Maya women in their huipiles and cortes walking through the Guatemala forest


Where a Huipil is Worn

It’s remarkable to know that huipiles are one of the few garments that have lived through centuries of much change. Today they are still commonly worn among the indigenous women as a precious reminder of the love they have for their culture and heritage. In Guatemala and Mexico, you can find women wearing their traditional attire as everyday outfits when they visit the market, church, and even McDonalds.

While huipiles can be found in the city, they’re more prevalent in rural areas with greater influences of Maya culture. In addition to the everyday huipil, there are others specially made and worn exclusively for special occasions such as wedding days, religious events, and other meaningful ceremonies.

The style of weaving a huipil is different across every region, town, and village. Each indigenous area has a specific style they’re known for with cultural significance and sacred meaning. This can be expressed in the colors, symbols, neckline, weaving techniques, length, and other aspects.

Some of the areas we work with are Chichicastenango, Zunil, and Patzun. Huipiles from Zunil have symbols embroidered on top of thin barreled stripes. Patzun huipiles have elaborate necklines filled with meaningful symbols. The huipiles in Chichicastenango are known for their bright colors and intricate designs. Watch the video below to learn more Ali!


Different floral, geometric shaped huipiles from Guatemala


The Symbolism of a Huipil

The Maya culture uses symbolic motifs and colors in their architecture, pottery, paintings, and religion as a means of storytelling. Even in their religious practices, symbols and colors are very important to them. Today, the memory of those certain beliefs has been imprinted on the huipiles they wear. Through this garment, they can express important values, events, and people that they want to be remembered and passed down.

Some of the symbols that are important to the indigenous people are mythological creatures such as the fire-horse, jaguar-eagle, the sun-moon, and snake-bird. The Quetzal, a bird found in Guatemala, is also very sacred to them. Other geometrical forms, birds, animals, people, landscapes, and flowers can also be found on the huipil. The meanings vary from huipil to huipil but overall they can represent protection, a higher power, life cycles, ancestors, beauty, and freedom.

The color of huipiles or certain symbols can also have significant meaning:

  • Blue can represent the heavens
  • Green can represent growth
  • Red can mean the blood of their people
  • Purple signifies royalty
  • Brown can represent the ground and connection to nature
  • White can represent purity

A huipil can have multiple meanings within one panel, mixing iconography and symbolism. Each huipil is one of a kind due to their individual handwoven nature and has a purpose from its color to the design.

Just like the indigenous people, those who carry a Nena & Co. bag made from upcycled vintage huipiles can find meaning that represents them and their life journey. To discover more meaning behind different symbols of the huipil, visit our blog on the symbols of a lost language.


Leather Care Set by Nena & Co. styled on standstone rock with an orange background. 

How To Care For a Huipil Bag

Nena & Co. bags are designed to last for generations and should be well lived in without losing the history that has made the bag. Because of this history, we care for these bags with an extra touch of patience and love.

Caring For The Huipil

While huipiles are typically made of cotton or a cotton blend, occasionally there is lurex thread intertwined into the pieces to add an element of shine. However, the care instructions are the same for all. Every huipil is machine-washed before it's made into a bag, however, once the leather is applied the bag should not be washed in a machine. We recommend that the huipil be spot cleaned with a damp cloth and our fabric cleaner. 

Because huipiles are vintage and handmade, they will naturally come with imperfections. Some imperfections occur from light wear by the previous owner. Imperfections in the weave itself remind us that a human hand made this from the start. If threads are loose they can be pulled tighter with a “Snag Nab It” tool. If there is a thread that is cut and hanging out, it can be carefully clipped shorter so that it’s not noticeable. However, the woven threads should never be cut in half  because the design will inevitably unravel. Additionally, the more you carry these bags, the softer they become.

Caring For The Leather

The second aspect of the bag that will need some TLC is the leather. To keep it looking beautiful, we have three different treatment options:

  • Leather Conditioner
  • Leather Protectant
  • Leather Cleaner

The conditioner helps restore and retain the moisture of the bag. A water resistance helps protect the leather from water damage. And finally a cleaner, that helps when there are any mishaps. For more information on how to use each of them, visit our other blog post on how to clean, condition, and protect your leather bag.


Young woman in a dress holding a Nena & Co. bag made of upcycled huipils on her shoulder on the beach.


Find Your One Of A Kind Huipil Bag

Carrying a Nena & Co. bag is more than a fashion statement. It’s a show of appreciation for the beautiful history of the Guatemalan huipil and a reminder of where the wearer is at in their life’s journey. Many discover which symbols and colors speak to them and then choose the bag that best represents them. Ready to explore and discover the huipil bag that speaks to you? Take this quiz to discover the symbol for you and begin your search to find the Nena & Co. bag for you!

We also offer 1:1 Shopping Experiences! Sign up now and get a 20-minute shopping appointment where you can see the beautiful huipiles up close. Click the link below to get started.

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