Past, Present, and Future: Salvadorean Textiles and Clothing

The claim that there are no indigenous people in El Salvador led to wonder about what makes someone “indigenous.” Census information conveys that Lenca and Nahua (Pipil) indigenous people make up about 10% of the population in El Salvador. It is assumed that the indigenous population is much larger, but underreported based on the narrow definition of what makes a person “indigenous” in El Salvador.


In her book, Virginia Tilley explains that in El Salvador, being indigenous is defined as practicing traditional customs, including wearing traditional traje (dress) and speaking an ancestral language. However, in her ethnographic research, Tilley found that it is not uncommon for people who identify themselves as indigenous to wear “western clothes” and speak Spanish, a non-ancestral language. Physical characteristics and class, specifically poverty are also presumed characteristics of being indigenous. Unlike the strong visibility of indigenous people in neighboring Guatemala, it is more difficult to see indigenous people in El Salvador, especially since indigenous communities are fragmented throughout the Salvadorean landscape.

Regarding traditional traje, it was assumed that the 1932 Matanza (massacre of indigenous people) led to laws prohibiting wearing the traje. However, based on interviews, Tilley found that social stigmas, labor intensive work, and availability of cheap American clothes, rather than laws, led people to wear the traje less. Colonialism had a strong influence by associating the traje with “primitivism” and being “backward.”

The traditional traje of men was a white cotton mantle  and loose pants. Women were typically topless or wore a huipil with embroidery, and a refajo (wrapped skirt shorter than the Mayan corte). Characteristics unique to the Nahua refajo was the overlay , and an embroidery of vines, flowers, scorpions, and birds along the seam. Tilley indicates that the textiles to make refajos were still created in Nahuizalco until the mid 1970s when the factory closed (western El Salvador). In the 1990s, textile cloth to make refajos was still sold, but imported from Guatemala. Tilley indicates that older women in Nahuizalco are seen wearing trajes they have kept over decades. Few women under 40 wear the traje, and no men wear it.

Tilley found that for women, cost to pay for the hand-woven textile to make a refajo is what led them to stop wearing the traje. Tilley indicates that the cost for the material was between 300-600 colones ($40-$80) in the ’90s. The cost today must be much higher since El Salvador implemented US dollars as their national currency in 2001 and cost of living has increased. Textile vendors in Nahuizalco estimated that they sold about 50 textiles for refajos in 1995. In Nahuizalco, it was estimated that 10-20 women in each canton (small town) wear the traje everyday. Two seamstresses expressed that it was more common for women in Nahuizalco to have refajos sewn of textiles from Guatemala.

Influx of cheap, brand-name American clothes through the second-hand clothing market has also led to reduced interest among young women. According to OTEXA, imports of second-hand clothes from the United States and Canada are allowed duty free under CAFTA-DR. Clothes must have a health certificate and must be fumigated before entering the Salvadorean market. There are no restrictions, or bans on the clothes imported.

In the 1990s, Salvadorean indigenous organizations initiated rescate projects to stimulate interest in indigenous textiles and the act of making them. A priest in Panchimalco, an indigenous community south of San Salvador, raised funds for two floor looms to extend knowledge to the youth. Additionally, textiles were woven on back strap looms. Economic benefits were meager with small woven squares selling for about $3.50. The ultimate goal of the rescate project was to “remember, revive, and revitalize material indigenous culture” (p. 74). Providing creative agency and economic opportunities aim to break down previous stigmas associated with indigeneity of being “primitive.” Efforts to increase weaving aim to engage community members to consider past and current values and shifts in meaning.

Salvadorean weavers have found it difficult to compete on in the global market, especially since Guatemalan indigenous textiles have stronger appeals to tourists. Guatemalan textiles are rich with symbolism that conveys spirituality of the Maya. In comparison, Salvadorean weavers have limited knowledge of the meaning of the symbols created by their ancestors. It is difficult to compete based on ethnic and cultural marketing strategies.

Limited economic profits from weaving, limited tourist interest, and limited income for Salvadorean women to buy  hand-woven textiles for refajos has contributed to the decline of making and wearing the traje in El Salvador. Tilley explains: “The public ethnic symbolism of traje developed by the Maya–traje as symbol of an ancient and noble culture–is here working backwards. The absence of the symbol is treated as evidence of the absence of what is symbolized: the indigenous community itself” (p. 76)

Growing up El Salvador in the late 1960s and ’70s, my mom described the high value of seamstresses. They had specialized skills to make clothes for people in the community. My mom had several well-made dresses that fit her. This suggests a prevalence of sewing and creating tailored clothes, which was most likely introduced by the European-Spanish. With a mechanized sewing machine, making clothing became easier especially with mechanized looms that may have easily replaced hand-looms.

In 2005, I remember my mom explaining that everything was different, everything was Americanized. Almost everyone was wearing t-shirts and jeans. A few older women were seen wearing pleated skirts that were made by Salvadorean seamstresses.

Even though El Salvador has several maquiladoras (factories) and produce clothes for people around the world, there are declines in clothing produced for members of the local community. Clothing produced in maquiladoras is cheaply exported brand new from El Salvador only to return used in the second-hand clothing market.

The worth of a costurera (seamstress) with a specialized skill set to produce customized clothing has been de-valued with low-skill employment opportunities in maquiladoras. Negative experiences in these factories, especially with limited skills gained in the assembly line, may reduce interest in asserting creative agency in El Salvador.

El Salvador once had over 400 maquiladoras that provided employment for thousands of workers. As of the 2005, only about 100 maquiladoras remain due to closure of factories based on unionization, demand for higher wages, and the higher cost to export from El Salvador. El Salvador’s strife to get out of the “race to the bottom” deterred North American apparel companies from continuing their business there. Although declines in maquiladoras and subsequent unemployment may be seen negatively, it can also be an opportunity to initiate strong national creative agency (Gomez-Aubert, 2011).


Salvadorean Carolina Gomez-Aubert has established a label “Lunamano” to provide economic opportunities to Salvadorean women. The fabrics are  pre-consumer excess fabrics collected from maquillas throughout the country.”Manta” fabric–untreated, raw cotton that was commonly worn by indigenous groups is also incorporated into clothes. Women hand embroider floral designs on childrenswear, and continually practice embroidery, a Mayan technique (seen in Salvadorean refajo seams). Carolina works with a Salvadorean guru embroiderer, Santamaria who has over 35 years of experience embroidering. Santamaria is currently helping Carolina figure out which natural dyes can be used for “Lunamano.” Santamaria explains: “My dream is to teach all the ‘cipotes’ (children) how to make textiles. I want to set up a school and Lunamano is the beginning of this…” This is one example of a fair-trade cooperative business that is helping re-vitalize interest in textile crafts for the global market. “Lunamano” is based in the UK, and is one example of how a designer can encourage continuation of crafts and creativity, while empowering Salvadorean artisans to expand their knowledge to members of the local community.

Greater interest and economic opportunities from domestic and international designers can stimulate creativity in textile crafts that can benefit indigenous and non-indigenous Salvadoreans. Continued efforts and development of expertise in weaving is essential in El Salvador. Re-vitilization of weaving can significantly contribute to discourses of sustainable fashion, slow fashion, and zero-waste design. Shifting attention to people, their well-being, creativity, and contributions to their communities is essential in a time when the bottom line business model globally promotes maximum efficiency for maximum profits. The true worth of people is perceived as irrelevant, and an emphasis on technology and mechanization is pushing us away from reaching true progress as members of humanity.


“Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador” by Virginia Tilley, 2005

“New Rules for Old Gems: Can El Salvador Sustain and Develop Home Grown Design?” by Carolina Gomez-Aubert, 2011

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