We’re often asked about the meaning behind brocade patterns found in Guatemala, woven row by row on backstrap looms, probably most noted on traditional huipiles. Some figures and patterns are specific to regions or towns, and others such as geometric figures seem to appear in many areas. Specific techniques used (Yes, there are many variations to brocade!) and color choices may differ, but certain repetitive patterns like diamonds, crosses, and zigzags are widely used.
But just because a figure might be “common” doesn’t mean it’s simple to decipher the symbolism behind them. Beliefs are often regional, and interpretations of similar figures can vary so much depending on who you ask. And just like other cultural aspects, these beliefs have probably shifted over time, adapting, mixing, evolving.
In this post, we’ll focus on just some (eight, to be exact) of the more prevalent traditional brocade figures currently found and used in San Juan Cotzal. These explanations were prepared by the cooperative of weavers from the same town that we work with, the ones whose work we feature here on our Artisan Direct page. Translation from Spanish to English is done by me (Mari) and I’ll also note the name of each figure in Ixil as the weavers have written them.
Can you spot some of the same figures in the beautiful huipil? (Pssst it’s available for sale by the same weavers! Find it here.)
If you know Guatemalan textiles at all, I’m sure you are familiar with brocade-rich traditional huipiles, with each region or even town featuring different patterns and styles. This is usually what comes to mind when people think “Guatemalan textiles.”
That’s with good reason, because traditional huipiles are so beautiful. They are also very personal, as weavers have been known to incorporate their hopes, dreams, even prayers into the panels on backstrap looms. And when it comes to the sale of such labor-intensive weavings dear to hearts, there are some ethical concerns. In rural areas, weavers often resort to selling their handwovens to textile vender middlemen who have a reputation for bargaining down to the lowest price possible, knowing that rural weavers generally do not have direct access to markets and taking advantage of such a situation.
And there’s another challenging factor: how to fairly price used handwovens. When brand new, handwoven huipil pricing can be made by considering material and labor costs. But once the garment is worn, how does that affect the retail value of the piece? As with most used things, there is devaluation to consider. There may be stains, even holes; overall general wear and tear that come with use. And then, when does something go from “used” to “vintage”? And when labeled as “vintage” does that imply higher value, as in a rare antique or an item that is museum-quality? How old does a piece need to be in order to be classified as “vintage”?
These are some questions I personally have, and clearly I don’t have the answers. As a general rule as Kakaw Designs over the years, we have tried our best to stay away from the repurposing of traditional huipiles, unless we are able to source directly from weavers or find pieces that are very worn — in the sense that when a garment is almost falling apart, we feel better about cutting certain parts and using them for other purposes. But in general, cutting brocaded textiles is not something we take lightly. But maybe that’s a topic for another post.
As far as traditional textiles go, I also think it’s true that weavers have the right to sell pieces they have created. Like anything we own. I don’t see why or how this right to sell one’s own belongings should be taken away. What is important, though, is making sure that the weavers are compensated well, even for worn garments, and honoring the cultural heritage of these artworks.
This week, we listed 8 huipiles being sold by weavers themselves from our partner cooperative at San Juan Cotzal. I like to refer to these artworks as “pre-loved.” They have all been worn, are in good condition, and show excellent brocade backstrap weaving skills of each weaver. They are full of traditional motifs from the town like birds, corn, and deer. And most importantly, because the weavers are all part of the cooperative, they have learned how to price their pre-loved garments fairly. I agree with how they have valued their work, and believe that clients should feel confident that the weavers are receiving good compensation for their work, even with the challenges of including general use devaluation.
The pandemic last year allowed us to make some really important pivots. Opening up our Artisan Direct page was one of them – started out of need for rural artisan groups to reach markets when everything got shut down in a very literal sense, including local markets, stores, transport, and tourism. Now, Guatemala is open, but the benefits are only very slowly trickling down to rural communities like Cotzal. We will keep our Artisan Direct efforts going for as long as it feels “right” — for us and for them.
Weaving is a wonderful activity that can be practiced easily from home on a simple backstrap loom. But for those of you who didn’t grow up with weaving, it might still look and feel intimidating.
Don’t worry! I put together these simple videos to show you exactly what to expect in your backstrap weaving kit, and how to get started.
This video shows how to unwrap your bundle and attach the loom in your home, and get into the right position to start weaving (4:40min):
2. In the second video, I show step-by-step how to get started with the simplest of weaves, the plain weave. I tried to explain also the basics of weaving in this video (7:10min):
These two should help you get started. Looking for more? Check our Experiences section for Zoom classes with master weaver Doña Lidia. Learn about the basics of textile traditions in Guatemala and weave together with experienced and patient teacher, Doña Lidia in English, from the comfort of your home.
As we get more and more involved with online weaving classes, we thought that a short list of common vocab might be helpful. The following is meant to be a simple introduction, and explained by me (Mari) in the context of weaving in Guatemala only. Please keep in mind that there are so many different textile traditions around the world, and many of these techniques in a different context are applied in a different way. But here’s something to get you started, with pictures:
Backstrap weaving: a pre-colombian simple loom technology that consists basically of sticks and yarn. On one end, the loom is attached to a pole, tree, or anything stable, and on the other, to the weaver, around the waist with a belt. It can be rolled up and moved easily. This is the technique used in Guatemala for traditional huipiles (blouses worn by women) and more garments. Predominantly practiced in Guatemala by women. Similar looms are found in many parts of the world.
Brocade weave: technique used to create patterns in the weaving. In Guatemala, the type of brocade is supplementary weft brocade. Many additional threads are introduced into the weft during weaving, row by row. Some people describe this process as “embroidering while weaving.”
Footloom weaving: using a larger wood-based loom that was brought by the Spanish to Guatemala. Also called “pedal loom” or “treadle loom.” This type of loom allows for much wider and longer textiles to be woven. In Guatemala, the weaving on such a loom is performed predominantly by men. It is possible to incorporate techniques such as ikat and brocade on this type of loom, as well as tapestry weave.
Ikat: a resist-dye technique applied to thread before the weaving process. Knots are placed in calculated positions in order for the thread to reveal patterns when the knots are opened after dyeing. In Guatemala, ikat is referred to as “jaspe” and the technique is practiced for both warp and weft threads independently, and in both backstrap and footloom forms.
Picbil: a light-weave with supplementary weft for gentle brocade, regional from around Cobán. Traditionally, this weave is for blouses, using only white on white.
Selvages / Selvedges: the finished edges of a fabric that do not fray. Footloom-woven textiles usually have two clean selvages, but not the starting and ending points of the panel, because these parts are cut off the loom. Backstrap-woven textiles may have four clean selvedges, but making a textile like this requires the knowledge, skill, and patience. Not all backstrap-woven panels have four selvages; they may have two, three, or four. Traditionally, Maya textiles are used to their fullest extent by not cutting the panels, thus keeping the structure intact an utilizing the selvages.
Supplementary weft: the additional threads used to create designs for brocade figures. This allows for extra color to be incorporated into the textile.
Warp: the vertically-arranged yarn/thread that is necessary in all types of looms.
Weft: the yarn/thread that is inserted into the warp to create a structurally-sound weave. In Guatemala, the use of additional weft threads create colorful brocade designs.
When the pandemic hit Guatemala this March, we started selling cloth masks that one of our partner artisans was making. Abigail reached out to me during this time, interested in a few colorful masks for her own use, as wearing a mask had become mandatory rather quickly in the country. We met up on the side of a small street in Santa Ana, Antigua, me walking Berry and she walking to meet us. We ended up taking for over an hour there, on the sidewalk, masked and keeping our distance. This is how our friendship began.
Somehow, this collaboration is different from any other we’ve worked on before, simply because we didn’t have a business agenda. What began as a quarantine creative activity for four friends, dyeing together in Abigail’s indigo vat babies, was meant for us. Not for anyone else, but just for us, friends figuring out how to live in a pandemic world with strict regulations. We took refuge in this small but meaning way.
And now, we’re ready to share a little bit of this joy with you in the form of these indigo-dipped earrings made with handspun local organic cotton. For this, we have our supporters to thank, who have encouraged us even from afar on our social media accounts to do something with the indigo fun. Muchas gracias.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Abigail and her craft in this little Q and A we put together for you.
1. What’s the story behind your brand name, Mysa?
Mysa is a Swedish word that refers to a state of comfort or contentedness with something. One online resource gave a definition I particularly like: “To smile (with only slight movement of the mouth), particularly as a sign of contentedness or comfort.” I imagine in Swedish the definition is a bit more stoic than my interpretation. But I like the idea of a small, knowing smile because you’re remaining playful in the face of challenge, and finding joy within life’s responsibilities. Perhaps you are carrying around a morsel of glee in your pocket while wading through some grim practicalities. It is there, with that morsel in your pocket, that you find contentedness. It’s a bit sneaky and very beautiful. That’s Mysa.
2. Were you always interested in natural dyes? How did you get started?
Actually, no, I can’t say I have been interested in natural dyes for very long. Living in Oaxaca, Mexico I learned about cochineal, which is a captivating dye, but I hadn’t ever thought about working with it. My indigo journey started about one year ago in the textile museum in Oaxaca. An exhibition on indigo detailed the plants used to make the dye and showcased indigo textiles from all around the world. The most interesting part for me was a video they showed of men in Niltepec, Oaxaca oxygenating a large tank of water that was turning more and more blue—they were making indigo! The men pushed the water over and over for hours with broom-like tools, and the water would sloosh against the concrete wall of the tank. The repetition of the sound and the movement of the water fascinated me. I wanted to see it in person. I wanted to be in that tank and feel my arms tire as I moved with the water, watching it change color.
3. Do you also work with other dyes, or focus specifically on indigo? Why?
The process of getting indigo dye from a plant is fascinating, as is dyeing with indigo. Oxygen, either removing it or adding it, is key to work with this particular natural dye. So, you’re working with air, water, and earth (a plant), and there is something very rooting about that.
Too, indigo is a storyteller, and working with indigo is a practice. Each time I visit with my vats I give them all my attention, and then I ruminate on what they’ve taught me. If I started working with other natural dyes, I think I would feel pulled in different directions, and what was once interesting would become frustrating due to my own impatience for things to “work.” For me, the most important thing in my indigo practice is that I feel joy in it. So I keep it simple, and that keeps me engaged. Indigo still has many stories left to tell me, and really, I’m all ears.
4. What has it been like to start up your indigo exploration during the pandemic in Guatemala?
I feel very fortunate that I was able to take advantage of a time of lockdowns, curfews, and limited human interaction to focus on a craft. Indigo gave me purpose when I was without work, in a different country, and unsure of where I was headed. I was able to take the time and space to start my work with indigo and get it wedged into my life enough that now—as uncertainty continues, but life moves on—I carry my craft with me.
5. What are you working on these days? Can you share a little bit about your projects?
My main and on-going project for myself is dyeing threads. I focus on threads because I love the idea of my threads being woven into people’s ideas. I think I enjoy being the source of some secret, behind-the-scenes magic, and helping someone create something beautiful (like our earring collab!) is utterly gleeful.
In addition, I’m leaving myself space to respond to others’ interest in indigo which has put me in a kind of exploration-facilitation role. I’m involved in two projects now. One I see as helping a local brand find out if working with her own indigo vat is a good fit for her. Everyone loves the magic of indigo, but that beautiful blue comes with costs, both financial and energy, so it’s not a right fit for everyone. I’ll also be co-teaching with a fellow indigo enthusiast (both a teacher and a life-long learner herself) a group of dyers who have limited access to indigo resources. This is a fun challenge for me—learning how to start and maintain vats using locally accessible materials. I hope both of these ventures lead to better understanding how local (Guatemalan) artisans might more easily pick up the lost practice of indigo.
We’ve hosted several online backstrap weaving classes with Doña Lidia now, and thought it might be helpful to share some questions we’ve received. We’re really learning a lot through these online offerings, and are enjoying being able to facilitate connections between international creatives and master weaver Doña Lidia ❤️
Do I need to know Spanish to take this class?
No, you don’t! Doña Lidia speaks great English (as well as Kakchikel and Spanish), and I’m also online to help translate, narrate, and overall facilitate the experiential learning (Mari). We always have one more helper actively involved on the ground, too, as we are sharing the weaving action on two different devices always – one computer view for a larger view and one cell phone view for a more detailed close-up.
2. How much weaving experience do I need?
For a beginner class, nothing. If you’ve never practiced backstrap weaving before, we recommend taking a look at this short blog post with videos before the class (we’ll also send you more info to prep a few days before the class).
For a more advanced class, we do recommend some relevant experience. Please check each course description in our Experiences section to choose the right one for you.
3. Do I need a physical backstrap loom to take the class?
While not an absolute requirement, we do recommend having a loom either for the class or shortly after, so you can practice your learnings. Need a loom? We have three options prepared by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán and Doña Lidia’s family for you.
4. Will the class be recorded?
Because Zoom will record only the screen view of a particular device, we’ve decided to just give recording permission to all participants, so that they can each choose which screen to record, ie. gallery view of all participants, or larger view of the computer view and/or the close-up cell phone view.
If you would like to record the session, please make sure to log in with a compatible device.
5. Do you have any documents to guide us with weaving?
Yes, we do! Doña Lidia has shared with us some handouts that she has in the past used for her in-person backstrap weaving workshops around the world. We will send a portion to you before the class and the rest after the class.
We’ve also created this Facebook group for backstrap weavers to share their progress and challenges. We hope to build a community supporting and helping each other. If you have any questions, you can share them there, also.
6. How do you know Doña Lidia?
Actually, she’s known me (Mari) since I was a little girl. Our connection is even originally from our parents- Doña Lidia’s mother Doña Margarita was a master brocade weaver also, and my mother’s friend ( Aiko Kobayashi).
7. Where does Doña Lidia live?
She lives in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, just 15 minutes out of Antigua, Guatemala. The online classes are hosted from the open patio of her home.
8. What is that strange noise we heard in the background?
That was probably Tikal, the beloved family parrot. He gets a bit talkative sometimes — saying things like “Hola!” and “Tikalito” 😆
9. I’d like to request a special topic class with Doña Lidia, Is this possible?
Yes, this is how we first got started with the classes! Doña Lidia is a wealth of knowledge and we would be happy to facilitate either a private or a special topic group session for you. Please write to Mari at firstname.lastname@example.org to set this up.
10. When are your next classes?
We will keep updating our Experiences section with new class offerings. Please check there.
Can you believe it? Even from a small town in Guatemala, we figured out how to host online weaving classes. I might be even more impressed than you are 😆
I guess I had set my expectations pretty low, knowing Guatemala and all its quirks. But hey, our trial run went really well and we are excited to launch what we hope will become a series of weaving classes with Doña Lidia over Zoom!
The first class will be held on Saturday, October 10th, from 9-10am Guatemala time. We hope that you’ll join us!
Sign up with only $15, a special introductory price. After the hour-long class, we will hold a live bazaar with handwoven pieces being sold by Doña Lidia and her family.
We are absolutely in love with the bird embroidery talent over at Mujeres de Maíz from Santiago Atitlán. We had a few special custom orders of embroidered pieces for very special occasions – one for a newborn joining a family, another for an anniversary, and another for a birthday. Take a look at how these sketches have come to embroidered life!
We found these personalized orders to be so sweet, and we think this would be a great option for the holidays also. Since the handmade process takes time, please plan ahead and get in touch with us if a custom embroidery piece interests you. We can also facilitate turning the embroidery piece into a product, but of course every step takes time 🙂
Welcoming a new baby to the family
A wedding anniversary gift
They turned into beautiful hand-embroidered pieces!
From photograph to embroidery…
For a personalized birthday gift
The best way to get started on your own custom order is to either send us a sketch or a photograph of what you had in mind, to email@example.com. We can get the conversation started this way and move on from there.
This year’s theme word seems to be “pivot.” It feels like more than ever, the importance of shifting perspectives and priorities is evident. With the arrival of COVID-19 to Guatemala in mid-March and its following restrictions, we’ve been pivoting as much as possible.
Here are six ways we have been shifting, adapting, pivoting:
1. One of a Kind creations online
With our retail stores closed in Antigua, I decided to take products out of stores and try our luck selling one-of-a-kind items on our website. We had been creating products with customizations tailored toward each local store, so the result was that we had many unique variations at hand. In the past, I had dreaded putting in the work to list one-unit variations online, but in this pandemic emergency state, there was no time for complaining. This lead to our One of a Kinds page, where we continue to list unique items online.
2. Direct sales from our artisan partners
The need for work in our partner artisans’ communities became evident very quickly, as people lost jobs all over, and tourism (both national and international) came to a sudden halt. This inspired us to start our Artisan Direct Pop-up online, and we have been pushing this page most during the pandemic as these items represent products that our partner artisans had already invested time and material into making. These are beauties our friends already had, ready to sell, when the pandemic hit. We do our part in checking quality, taking pictures, and writing down honest details of the work, incorporating techniques used as well as materials and measurements, and take care of all the logistics like payments and shipping. We hope our work creates an atmosphere of transparency and trust that can often be difficult to achieve with online shopping from countries afar.
3. New work space in Antigua
These two new online sales efforts created a physical challenge in that I found myself without sufficient space to work given COVID-19 restrictions. So, I moved into Xibalba at the center of town, and have been working from there also with the help of Evelyn, who was instrumental in keeping Kakaw Designs going as our Production Manager while I was working on my master’s in Europe. I’m so grateful for the pieces falling into place in order to help us shift and grow our online offerings when it became suddenly necessary to go 100% digital.
4. Online sales in Guatemala
We realized that there was suddenly a market for online local sales within Guatemala, too. That’s why we launched our Kakaw Designs store on the new platform MejorShop. This Etsy-like concept allows us to reach local customers, and we can offer local discounts, too. We’re pretty excited to see where this project goes as online shopping is pretty new here in Guatemala.
5. Affordable and beautiful cloth masks
Our best-selling item during this pandemic time has by far been the Cloth Masks made by Juan Carlos, which are going for $35 for a variety pack of 10. We’ve sold over 2,000 masks at this point, and the work has incorporated two other families, meaning that these orders have been supporting three families during this pandemic. We went through several changes on these masks as we faced material supply shortages and wanted to incorporate general improvements, like adding a nose wire and creating an opening for optional filters, which we also offer as an add-on. (You can read more about these changes here.)
6. Creative orders in a sheltered time
We’ve been fortunate with custom orders, and we are so grateful for our supporters! Somehow it feels like maybe people everywhere are trying to add color to their lives, to add some joy, and at the same time are doing their best to be conscious about where their money goes, who their purchases support during this challenging time. And maybe the concept of time has shifted too, like all of the sudden it doesn’t feel like a gigantic barrier to wait one month for a custom textile, bag, or a pair of shoes.
We’re continuing to pivot in different ways, and right now I’m pretty excited for these beautifully hand-embroidered cloth masks. Not only are they joyful, these masks provide work for our artisan partners in Sumpango, who are able to embroider from home.
We look forward to where the future takes us, and we hope to be able to shift perspectives to keep up. This year has provided the opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and re-align ourselves to our principal mission of working with rural artisans and facilitating access to markets through design, quality control, and overall enhanced trust. Thank you for joining us on this journey.