The Huipil: From Everyday to Eternal Garment
The fabric of a culture is often literal—a tapestry woven with the threads of history, beliefs, and traditions. In Mexico's vibrant history, one garment stands out for its simplicity, beauty, and profound cultural significance: the Huipil. Deriving from the Nahuatl word "huipil," meaning adorned blouse or dress, the Huipil tells a story of resistance, resilience, and strength in its very existence.

As we observe International Women's Month, we at Lolo recognize the enduring tradition of indigenous textiles and the artisans who bring them to life. More specifically, the Huipil stands as a celebration of culture, history, and the indispensable role of women in crafting and wearing these narratives. For us, this garment serves as a living record of perseverance and artistic expression, echoing women's voices across generations. So, read along as we highlight this important attire.

What is a Huipil?

The Huipil's design is deceptively simple: a rectangular fabric with a head opening, its sides sewn, leaving room for arms. It consists of one, two, or three canvases joined by seams that fit to the body; what it is known as an unmade dress.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Huipil was worn throughout Mesoamerican territory by both common women and nobles. Today, it is still customarily worn in many regions of the country as both an everyday garment and a piece for the most elegant ceremonies.

Huipil is the most common name for which we know huipiles, derived from the Nahuatl' huipilli' which means adorned blouse. However, it is important to distinguish that this is the most commonly used term because of the language is most widely spoken. In Spanish, we know them as Huipil because those who accompanied the Spanish in the conquest spoke Nahuatl. Still, Mexico has more than 60 language groups and 300 variations. Within those languages, each ethnic group gives it a name in its own language. For example, in Yucatán, it is called "hipil," and in Michoacán, "huamengo."

This garment, embodying centuries of tradition, expresses the identity and cultural heritage of the wearer and their community. With each stitch, artisans convey stories, beliefs, and the rich mosaic of their community's history, making the Huipil a wearable piece of art that narrates the life of its people.

How is it made?

As we mentioned before, a huipil is a type of tunic composed of one, two, three, and, in some instances, up to four cloth panels. These tunics begin by being crafted on a backstrap loom or (most recently) from pre-made fabrics, joined together by simple hand or machine stitches. Depending on the community and the Huipil, different motifs and designs may be implemented by the weaving process or, afterward, by embroidering them.

The backstrap loom enables a wide range of techniques, some of which cannot be achieved with any other type of more sophisticated and automated loom. To make a huipil on a backstrap loom, weavers start by selecting and sometimes dyeing threads with natural colors. They set up the simple loom, using their bodies to create tension on the threads. As they weave, they incorporate patterns or designs, making each Huipil distinct. This straightforward process demands skill and can take weeks, creating a piece that reflects tradition and the weaver's personal story through genuine craftsmanship.

When woven on a backstrap loom, huipiles usually consist of two or three panels, as this tool can only produce narrow fabrics, or the wrap would swift otherwise. Typically, the panels are of equal width, but in some designs, especially those from the highlands of Chiapas, the central strip is larger.

Cotton is the most common material for huipiles. Still, wool and silk are also used, and it's not uncommon for more than one type of material to be combined in a single garment. Occasionally, parts of silk, artificial silk, ribbons, or feathers are woven in as embellishments. Nowadays, in some instances, traditional fabrics made on backstrap looms have been replaced by industrial textiles like muslin and poplin.

What To Their Designs Mean?

The Huipil is a form of communication, a means of storytelling, and a piece of living history. Each group and community makes and decorates its Huipil according to its intended use and the worldview of its ethnicity. Some are distinguished by their weaving techniques, others by the colors used or the specific decorations they feature.

The embroidered or interwoven motifs on huipiles can be geometric, more like the one made in the Amuzgo region, while others represent human figures, animals, or plants, like those found in Jalapa de Díaz. Although it might be challenging for an outsider to interpret their meaning, for the artisans, each decoration carries its own symbolism. Due to the traditional yet distinct characteristics in each community's designs, one can often tell a woman's origin simply by observing the Huipil she wears.

These designs, in fact, serve as a visual language, conveying stories, status, and beliefs. The Huipil, therefore, is a canvas that tells of the resilience, adaptation, and creativity of the people who wear it, linking the ancient past with the vibrant present.

How Are They Worn?

Generally, a huipil falls loosely around the waist or hips, and sometimes it covers the body entirely, reaching down to the feet like a dress. Except in some cases of very long huipiles worn as a single garment, they are often paired with a wrap or a skirt with a waistband. Most of the time, it hangs loose; sometimes it's tied around the waist, and other times it's tucked under the wrap or skirt, like a blouse.

Often, there's a type of Huipil for everyday use and another for special occasions. For instance, in Ocotepec and Cuquila, in the cold high Mixteca region of Oaxaca, the everyday Huipil is made of wool, while cotton is used for celebrations. When a woman reaches a certain age, she might weave a huipil of the finest quality possible, still within the local tradition, intended to serve as her burial garment. Other times, when a woman passes away, she is dressed in all the clothing she owned, as was customary in pre-Hispanic times.

There are special huipiles, distinct from those worn daily, that a woman dons for her wedding. She then stores it carefully and does not wear it again until her death, when she is adorned with it. There are also garments reserved for women who hold a certain rank within their society, to be worn only on specific ceremonial occasions. In some places, saints are dressed in indigenous attire, like in the highlands of Chiapas, where the virgin saints possess an entire wardrobe.

The journey of a huipil from the loom to the marketplace is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of indigenous crafts. Despite the pressures of globalization and the challenges faced by traditional artisans, the Huipil remains a vibrant and cherished element of Mexican culture. In towns and villages across Mexico, huipiles are proudly worn and displayed, each a unique masterpiece of craftsmanship and design.

For those who seek to support this tradition, purchasing a huipil is a way of honoring the artisans' skill and dedication, supporting sustainable practices, and keeping a rich cultural heritage alive. At Lolo, we understand this journey and are committed to ensuring that the artisans are fairly compensated for their work, that their crafts are respected, and that the stories embedded in each Huipil continue to be told.

Now that you understand the significance of the Huipil, remember that when you acquire one, wearing a huipil means carrying with you the pride and meaning of an entire community and the labor of women. Think about what each one represents; whether handmade or machine-made, it carries a piece of the soul of the person who crafted it. When you wear it, do so with pride, and remember there is no greater luxury than wearing art with meaning.


So, what do you think? Is there a specific artisanal technique for Huipiles you would like for us to highlight? Were you familiar with huipiles before? What is your favorite huipil? For us, it is important to highlight the work and value of each product we offer, especially as they show the power behind culture and tradition, and one that makes us even more passionate about Mexico and its people. 

If you would like to support women who make these gorgeous huipiles and our efforts to communicate our cultura, be sure to explore our artisanal clothing section. If you are looking for ideas on how to style a huipil, be sure to check out our blog: How to Style a Huipil.

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