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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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 weaving organizations in highland Guatemala

Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico (Cooperativabotanica@yahoo.com.mx) began in 1971, the earliest of all the organizations I visited in Guatemala recently. It is self-sufficient through sales of its products, without external funders. Forty Tzutujil Maya women from San Juan La Laguna are members of the association. They focus on spinning local natural cottons (cuyuscate):

Hand spun natural cottons, Lake Atitlan

dyeing with local natural dyes:

Selection of natural dyes, San Juan La Laguna

and weaving cloth with community designs:

Traditional jaspe shawl

The manager of the association has been a gold medal winner for the quality of her natural cotton ceremonial over-huipil, which you can see below hanging next to the framed certificates on the showroom wall.

Award won for natural brown cotton huipil

Resist-dyed shawls, traditionally woven in San Juan La Laguna, are hung around the area where visitors can watch spinning and natural dyeing demonstrations. We arrived just after a large group of French visitors, so we were able to participate in a complete demonstration.

The director and our guide

I was invited to try my hand at spinning cotton with a gourd bowl and a spindle stick to twist inside it. The experience just served to show how difficult it is to do what the local women succeed in making seem easy!

Spinning natural cotton with a spindle

One of the association members gave a natural dye demonstration with the leaves and stems of a local plant that the dyer called indigo, and a skein of undyed silk. The natural dyes are fixed in the dye bath with slices from the trunk of banana plants, an alternative to vinegar or salt, which are not so readily available.

An undyed skein of silk

Dyeing silk with natural dye

Dyeing silk in a pot of indigo plant leaves

I was told later that the plant in the photos below is what the dyer called indigo, and which was used to achieve the blue colour, shown above.

Indigo plant on shed roof, Lake Atitlan

 Indigo plant, Lake Atitlan

Many thanks to my friends Vanessa and Santiago who took me on the most interesting fabric arts adventures in the highlands of Guatemala. I shall be telling stories about Guatemalan weavers, and the fabrics that they make, over the next while. Vanessa runs a travel agency called Paradise Travel Guatemala (paradisetravelguatemala.com) and Santiago runs a driving and shuttle bus service (santy.delacruz@hotmail.com).

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