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.
A Lifelong Pursuit
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.
Materials and Techniques
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.