Last January we travelled to Guatemala in search of these exact hand-woven textiles to make up our spring/summer collection. Having done a ton of research pre-trip, I thought that I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect to find. But as soon as I laid my eyes on the absolute treasure trove of vintage textiles that the markets of the Guatemalan highlands had to offer, I was entirely blown away. Everywhere I looked there lay a mass of colour and patterns beyond my wildest dreams. But even beyond the beauty of the textiles, there was another feeling I hadn’t anticipated - the genuine connections that we’d make to the weavers that we met in the tiny villages around lake Atitlan.
It’s believed that the Maya people have been weaving fabric since 1000-800 B.C.E. It’s utterly astounding when you take a minute to think about it…
But what’s even more incredible than the length of time that they’ve been weaving, is to see that these same traditions are still a vital part of Maya culture today. We had the unique opportunity to visit with some incredible artisans on our trip and they shared with us a look into how they are carrying on a weaving tradition that has been handed down through the centuries.
In ancient times, female weavers had two natural types of cotton to work with called Cuyuscate(one white and one light brown). Cotton fibers had to be spun into threads before they could be placed into a loom for weaving and ultimately made into cloths. Once thread was spun it was dyed with natural materials to produce exquisite colours – today the women in San Juan take natural colorants from local plants, as well as roots, bark, berries and insects. Knowledge about these dyes has been passed down to modern Mayan women by generations and generations before them, equipping each weaver with her own wealth of information on which plants and natural products yield which specific colours.
Once the yarns have been spun and dyed, they are ready to be woven into textiles. There are two popular loom methods, the foot loom (used mostly by men until more recent times) and the backstrap loom, which remains almost exclusively used by women.One end of the backstrap loom is attached to a tree or post while the other is fixed behind their lower back so that the tension of the yarn can be increased or decreased by the position of the body. As a result, the width of the textile depends on what the weaver can manage. After several hours of labour, the loom produces enough material (in the the shape of rectangles) to stitch the pieces together for clothing. Since each work is unique to the individual weaver, pieces vary in pattern and colours.
There are 21 different Mayan communities in Guatemala and the traditional style of weaving varies from town or region. Textile enthusiasts will tell you that the styles vary so much that it’s possible to identify a textile’s origin within the country based on it’s shapes, colours and the method that has brought it to life. And still, modern weavers are taking more creative liberties with their work, pushing the boundaries of traditional styles to create new and interesting patterns. Styles are also influenced by the nature in each region, for instance, San Antonio Palopó is known for their deep blue huipiles (rectangular shaped blouses) which represent the blue tones of Lake Atitlán.
In the villages surrounding the lake, these incredibly talented weavers are now using their creativity to to turn their weaving skills into economic opportunities to provide for their families. During our visit to the Tinte Maya weaving Co-operative in San Juan La Laguna, we had the pleasure to meet Amalia Tay Mendoza, one of the 25 weavers that make up the co-operative. While teaching us her beautiful craft, she also began to share her story with us. The following is a direct quote from Amalia:
“My mother had to wait for her husband to give her money because she didn’t have a way to earn an income. Now I’m earning money to buy food for the family and cover the costs of my children’s education. When my husband and I built our home, I was able to contribute. I was able to tell him I want a house now. I can buy some of the roofing material, iron, and even the bricks. Now we women have a little bit of economic independence.”
Weaving offers these women an income that gives them the power to make their own financial decisions. Through these economic opportunities, they are able to continue challenging cultural expectations that the man of the household be the sole source of income. Amalia’s story is one of many reasons to remember that buying handmade instead of commercial often means putting money right on someone’s table, rather than into a large corporation that pays its labourers less than a living wage. It’s extremely important to pay a fair price for a person’s craft, especially when you have the means to do so. When you shop handmade, you’re not only buying a product, you’re supporting the artisan behind the product and in turn, adopting a piece of their history.
In our creation of the ChiChi collection (lovingly named after the largest open-air market in Central America, Chichicastenago) we hope to preserve the craft and history of weavers like Amalia, while giving new life to their beautiful hand made textiles under the Ebb & Flow brand.