Beneath a shade tree in the Guatemalan highlands, women gather to weave. They talk and laugh as they interlace brightly colored threads on simple backstrap looms, virtually identical to the looms their Maya ancestors used some 1,200 years ago.
Most of these women have been weaving for as long as they can remember, following the example of their mothers and grandmothers. For them, weaving is as much a part of the day’s domestic duties as cooking, cleaning, working in the fields, and caring for children. Today’s weavers descend from the ancient Maya, whose civilization developed across a wide swath of Central America from the second millennium B.C. onward. Over centuries, weavers in each village developed their own characteristic patterns and colors of clothing, portraying their communal identities much like a dialect. On a blank canvas of fabric, they repeated characteristic geometric designs, stripes, flowers, birds, and animals using brocading and embroidery techniques.
Today, visitors to Guatemala are surprised and delighted to find that many villagers still wear such traditional attire or traje. Travelers also have many opportunities to watch weavers at work, moving their hands instinctually as they create designs from having repeated these gestures countless times, rather than by following any sort of pattern.
Cotton remains the most widely used material in traditional Guatemalan weaving. The plant is still cultivated, though today, some is imported from the U.S. and Nicaragua. Wool, incorporated after Spanish conquistadors introduced sheep to Guatemala, is also used. Originally weavers colored the fibers with natural dyes derived from plants, moss, bark, and minerals. Today many weavers purchase already prepared yarns, drastically cutting down on the laborious process of carding, spinning, and dyeing. Chemical dyes and even synthetic acrylic threads have mostly replaced the natural ones, though a handful of weavers still prepare the yarns and dyes in traditional ways.
One of the most unchanged vestiges of classical Maya culture is the backstrap loom, which looks the same today as the ones depicted in Maya ceramics dating from A.D. 600 to 800. This simple contraption made of rods is looped around the back of the weaver herself, seated on the ground, to achieve the correct tension of the threads. The other end may be tied to a tree or post. Wooden dowels at the top and bottom of the loom hold the vertical threads, called the warp. A shuttle, or horizontal dowel, weaves the weft, or horizontal threads, through the fibers. Spanish colonists introduced the treadle loom in the 1530s, but although it allows weavers to work faster, it did not completely replace the traditional backstrap loom, which you can see in use across Guatemala today.
The most characteristic purchase you can make in Guatemala is a women’s blouse called a huipil (pronounced “wee-peel”). The huipil is essentially a rectangle with a hole for the head, often stitched up the sides as far as the armhole. It serves as a blank canvas for colorful decoration limited only by the weaver’s village traditions and her own imagination. Elaborate huipiles may take a couple of months to complete. Other Guatemalan woven goods include hair ribbons called cintas, which are wound into crown-like forms. Today these are worn mostly by elderly women and are less widespread than the huipil, but certain villages specialize in making them. In the inland mountainous regions, wool shoulder bags are standard accessories for men, who craft them themselves using a variety of weaving techniques. Keep in mind that many items, such as placemats, purses, bookmarks, and cushion covers, are woven specifically for the tourist trade and are not necessarily traditional.
To ensure that you buy a traditional handmade Guatemalan textile, and not one of the machine-made imitations that unfortunately abound in shops Guatemala City, Cobán, Antigua, and other large towns, whenever possible buy directly from the weaver or at a co-op. It’s worth the effort to arrange a special expedition to one of the villages known for its traditional weavers, most clustered in the highlands of central Guatemala, including Santa Catarina Palopó and the remote village of Nebaj. Santiago Atitlán, which boasts an excellent weaving co-op and museum, is located along the beautiful Lake Atitlán.
If you need help to understand what traditional goods look like, spend a few hours at the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena in Guatemala City, where you can immerse yourself in the colors and patterns of textiles from many Guatemalan villages. Then, open your eyes to the sights around you. In many villages, men and women still don traditional garb. And under the shade trees, the world of the ancient Maya is held—literally—in the hands of the women gathered there to work.
This piece originally appeared in Laura’s column, “The Genuine Article,” for National Geographic Traveler. Read more of Laura Morelli’s “The Genuine Article” at National Geographic Traveler Online…
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