Backstrap loom brocade in San Antonio Aquas Calientes, Guatemala

Parque central, Antigua Guatemala 2015

Every morning the central park of Antigua Guatemala fills slowly with Maya women, and a few men, who sell their merchandise throughout the day. The women carry piles of fabrics tied in traditional carrying cloths across their shoulders. Most of the women seemed to come from a nearby town called San Antonio Aquas Calientes. Most of the fabrics are scarves, most are for sale to tourists, and most are of good, but not exceptional, quality. Verta approached me to sell me a scarf, and I bought a cotton one in a pleasing combination of olive, chestnut, mustard and purple.

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She pressed me to buy another one at half price, but I replied that I was really only interested in traditional textiles.

Brocade sash, Aquas Calientes

At this, Verta reached into the depths of her fabric bundle (tzute) and brought out a beautifully woven brocade sash; this was her work, she told me, and it was perfect on both sides, a double brocade, which only Aquas Calientes weavers can do.

I had assumed the sash was embroidered after weaving, but she said no, it was woven on her backstrap loom. Aquas Calientes is well known locally for the high quality of its double brocade fabrics. Verta invited me to come and watch her weave brocade on her backstrap loom at home. We eventually made it there with her, to a pretty town set in the mountains between Guatemala City, Antigua, and the local volcanoes.

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The town has a weaving co-operative, a textile museum, and a two-storey textile market where affable local women weavers jostle to get visitors’ attention.

museum, Aquas Calientes

Verta told me that she was not raised a weaver, but wanted to learn when she was about eleven years old. She found a weaver in the village to teach her, but found it very difficult to remember what she was taught until she noticed women using cross stitchpatterns as a design to weave vibrant images of flowers, birds and fruit. She has become an expert weaver.

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brocade huipil 1

Fifty cotton threads make the warp for a sash, and to weave the floral brocade, she might have up to twenty different threads meeting and separating across the warp. The whole is held together by a regular single row of weft threads. I weave tapestry myself, but after trying her technique, I told her that I wouldn’t have the patience to do such fine work, to which she replied that you have to have patience if you want quality.

Dressed by Verta

After showing me how the weaving was done, Verta dressed me up in one of her own trajes (traditional dress) consisting of double ikat skirt (corte), sash (faja), blouse (huipil,), and carrying cloth (tzute) folded over my head. Then she stood back to look at me, had a good laugh, and told me that now I looked exactly like a local Aquas Calientes woman.

Verta doesn’t have time to weave every day, and must find the time in between her other work, when she can. She has six children, five of them in school. As the school year had just begun (January 2015), she was working to make the money to buy them all uniforms before the end of the first month at school. She had two uniforms to go, and two sets of text books.

The United Nations Peace Accord that ended the civil war included a clause that all indigenous children must be given access to school education, and the opportunity to learn their native language. Many people in Guatemala spoke to me about the education of their children with great pride. There are also many North Americans who come to Guatemala to help build schools in indigenous communities.

Verta usually takes the bus to Antigua five days a week to sell textiles around the town centre. When I asked her if she could make a living selling her weaving, she said yes, she could. Local people also come from other villages to her house to buy her huipiles, she said, but of course she did not charge them as much as she had just charged me. I agreed that was perfectly logical: there seems to be a double economy separating those who have access to American dollars and those (indigenous Maya) who use only Guatemalan quetzales.

Aquas Calientes 2015 We returned to Antigua satisfied, if somewhat disheveled! If you are interested in reading more about Aquas Calientes,

Sheldon Amis wrote an ethnography in 1987 about the growth of Protestantism in Guatemala amongst the weavers of Aguas Calientes: God and Production in a Guatemalan Town (University of Texas Press).

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Maya women’s local weaving co-operatives

San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan

There are many women’s weaving organizations that are smaller, more local, less accessible, and dealing primarily in Guatemalan quetzales rather than U.S. dollars or Visa cards. Such was the case with the weaving co-operatives that I visited in the village of San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlán.

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Vanessa (paradisetravelguatemala.com), Santiago and I took a lancha across Lake Atitlan to visit several women’s co-ops in San Juan La Laguna, Sololá. The people here are mostly Tz’utujil Maya.

Corazón del Lago is the first showroom that visitors come to as they walk up the hill from the launch boat dock.

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Mayan women demonstrate the weaving process on a back-strap loom, and are happy to answer questions about the materials and techniques that they use.

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They weave with traditional techniques, and they produce a popular resist-dyed scarf, which I have seen for sale on fair trade sites on the internet, available in several natural dyed colours.

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 Their scarves are back-strap loom woven, and they use only locally grown natural dyes. It is one of the smallest and most recent women’s weaving co-operatives, opening with two weavers in 2007.

The Asociación de Autoayuda Chinimayá (ASOAC) “specializes in natural dyes made by Tz’utujiles Mayan women from San Juan La Laguna.”

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There are about thirty active members, and they focus on recovering a tradition of dyeing thread with natural plants. ASOAC was created in 1992 by 10 artisan women who got a credit line from PPA, with funds from the KAS Foundation from Germany. The Association has also received support from FEDEPMA, and is currently funded with the help of HELVETAS, Guatemala.

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Asociación de Mujeres, Telar de Cintura Chinimaya focuses on the local natural cottons, which the woman below is spinning, and on natural dyes.

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 The natural undyed cotton (in shades ranging from creamy white through tan, rust and chestnut) is known locally as cuyuscate or ixcaco.

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On the way back to town in the lancha that afternoon, the two young women sitting in front of me epitomized the continuities as well as the changes that are constantly evolving in the language of clothing, a language which is so complex and subtle in the Guatemalan highlands. But more about that later…

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“Weaving modern opportunities through traditional techniques”.

Fundación Tradicionales Maya (Maya Traditions Foundation) was founded in 1996 to help skilled indigenous female artisans access a Fair Trade global marketplace. Over the years, the foundation has grown to include social programs in youth education, community health, and artisan development. Maya Traditons currently works with eight artisans’ co-operatives in the western highlands of Guatemala.

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I took a tuctuc ride across the river to speak to the coordinator of sales and marketing at the Foundation offices and showroom at Casa del Arbol in Panajachel.

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Jane Mintz, who founded Maya Traditions, was a graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work (MSW) in the United States. She became a tapestry weaver and teacher after she retired, which took her to Lake Atitlán in the 1980s, where she fell in love with the country and the people.

Maya Traditions

Jane Mintz observed that the women’s traditional skill of backstrap weaving was a chance for them to earn a more stable income for their families. This would enable them to work from home so they would still be able to provide care for their children. Fair trade federation logo Maya Traditions Foundation was recognized as one of the first organizations following a Fair Trade model, and member of the Fair Trade Federation (FTF).

There are nine Fair Trade Federation Principles, intended to

  • Create Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized Producers
  • Develop Transparent and Accountable Relationships
  • Build Capacity
  • Promote Fair Trade globally
  • Pay Promptly and Fairly
  • Support Safe and Empowering Working Conditions
  • Ensure the Rights of Children
  • Cultivate Environmental Stewardship
  • Respect Cultural Identity

Comunidad K’em Ajachel

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I had read about K’em Ajachel on their website, and they have presence on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. The tag line on the Kem Ajachel business card reads “Weaving Modern Opportunities Through Traditional Techniques.” The showroom is situated at the bottom of the main tourist street in Panajachel, as in the photograph below.

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There are seventy women in this handweaving co-op, and they use natural dyes only. It is not just natural dyes: there is also an emphasis on natural fibres like cotton, rayon, bamboo, and silk. Only cotton is traditionally hand woven in this area, although silk does have a long tradition of high status use in Spanish central and south America.

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Although the scarves and shawls are all woven using traditional weaving techniques, there is room for the weavers to experiment by trying new natural fibres, and new colour combinations that are not traditional at all. This combination of traditional techniques combined with new materials and colours is a common theme for the weaving co-operatives.

The weavers work at home, and bring in their products for sale into the showroom in Panajachel. Most of the weavers who work with Kem Ajachel have no schooling, and many of them participate in Microcredit Education programs with Friendship Bridge. Their handout emphasizes that the weavers’ work is paid for through fair trade.