Delfina pauses to answer a question about the weaving process
Delfina, a middle-aged Maya weaver, put down her heddle stick, unhooked her loom from around her waist, and walked over to introduce herself.
‘Would you like me to explain our process?’ she asked. The weavers are used to curious outsiders coming into the workshop, and they are prepared for questions.
Delfina is a senior member of Artesanías Cultural Ancestral Tz’utujil (Ancestral Cultural Handcrafts of the Tz’utujil). It is one of several weaving associations in the village of San Juan La Laguna, which lies on the western bank of Lago Atitlán in upland Guatemala.
The village of San Juan, on Lago Atitlán
Each village around the lake has its own weaving or embroidery tradition, with symbolic motifs that go back to Maya ancestral stories as well as contemporary designs. The weavers focus on working with cotton coloured with dyes they extract from plants, minerals, and the cochineal insect.
‘Our raw cotton comes in two colours, white, and this brown, which we call algodón ixcacao (cocoa cotton), like the colour of our skin,’ Delfina says.
Nope, that's not a big bowl of granola on the right! One basket contains cotton dyed in some of the colours the women make, the other is raw algodón ixcacao, "cocoa cotton". Above them is cloth in a typical local pattern.
Guatemalans have been cultivating and using cotton for thousands of years.
The cotton fibres are spun using a drop spindle.
‘This is the first thing a child learns about weaving,’ Delfina says. ‘Mostly it’s girls that learn. She starts when she’s eight. At ten, she will start weaving simple things.’
The spun cotton is wrapped into loose hanks and dyed. The range of colours the weavers make is extraordinary, reflecting a deep and intimate knowledge of their environment, and a love of colour.
As weaving begins, the beautiful and complex pattern begins to emerge. This gorgeous warp also illustrates the wide array of natural colours the weavers know how to create.
Two ingredients, one a leaf, and the other the bark of the campeche (logwood) tree, can give different intensities of colour.
‘If we collect the leaf or the bark when the moon is full, the colour comes out darker,’ Delfina says. ‘It’s the same with our crops: we plant them and manage the plots according to the lunar cycle.’
A piece of banana stem is soaked in water to make a fixative so the dyes won’t run.
Delfina sets up the warp. The length of the piece is determined by how many pegs are used.
Then the weaving starts. The warp is made vertically, using a frame that consists of a board with two rows of evenly spaced pegs set into it. Once the warp is made, the weaving continues in a way familiar among Peruvian Andean weavers, using a backstrap loom (which in Guatemala is called a waist loom).
With this technology, the women weave a wide variety of clothing and household goods, from hammocks large enough to hold a family to belts and coin purses, as well as the garment that is distinctive of this area, the blouse known as the huipil.
Article and photos by: Claire Heath