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.
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.
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?
Yes! The speaker view will be recorded and the link will be sent to participants after class.
If you would like to record the session in your screen view, please make sure to log in with a compatible device, and we can give you permission so you can record it directly.
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, and we’ve also created our own PDF guide with pictures and video links to help facilitate your weaving journey.
We also started 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!
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.
Looking to learn a new crafty skill while at home these days? We’ve got the thing for you, then: learn how to weave on a simple backstrap loom.
These looms have been prepped with naturally-dyed cotton warp and weft by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán. The design is already so pretty, there’s no need for complicated weaves – the most simple weave will make a beautiful wall-hanging with all the tools still attached.
To start, these are the contents of each kit. We currently have three naturally-dyed color variants available.
And these are the parts of the simple backstrap loom:
You’ll see droplets of water in the above picture because I decided to starch the warp and iron before weaving. After the starching, I spent some time to separate the threads. After that, though, it keeps the fibers more neat and avoids fuzziness and clumping. It’s up to you if you would like to starch, it is an optional step.
Here are some simple videos filmed at home, following COVID-19 restrictions so not at all professional, but I figured better to just to it. I hope they are somewhat helpful and can get you started on your first backstrap loom.
To start, this one explains the parts of the loom:
See how I’ve attached the loom to a pole on my terrace in the following video. It should be attached higher than where you will sit – whether that’s in a chair or on the ground directly.
Once you’ve got your loom in place, you’re ready to start weaving:
For this simple loom, there are only two steps (yay!). They are demonstrated separately in the following two videos.
Learn Step 1, which is pulling the heddle and inserting the weft from right to left:
To check from the side if you’ve lifted the heddle or rod correctly, you can take a look like in the below picture. In the first picture, you can see that it’s not “right” – there are some threads that are going from above the rod to below the sword. So it’s INCORRECT:
But in this one below, you can see that the sword is inserted neatly without messy threads, so you know it’s been done CORRECTLY:
And then Step 2, using the shed rod and inserting the weft from left to right:
The rest is just repetition. Step 1, Step 2, Step 1, Step 2… until you’ve reached the point in the loom where it becomes difficult to pull up the heddle. I would suggest stopping there, and leaving all the tools attached to the loom, and hanging the piece on your wall as home decor. You’ll be able to tell your friends and family that you wove it, and hopefully those around you will also gain appreciation for the handwoven world.
Remember that it’s ok to make mistakes! You can always retrace your steps, cut the weft (NOT THE WARP), or my personal preference: just move on. It’s all part of the process, and you should be able to see in your work how you are improving. It’s kind of fun to remember how you once made simple mistakes – and learned from them.
So I must admit, I’ve never tried to explain the steps of backstrap weaving digitally like this. I’m not an expert. You likely have some questions. Please feel free to ask questions below in the comments so others can benefit from them too, or if you’d rather ask privately, shoot me an email at email@example.com.
Happy weaving at home! Stay safe and healthy, everyone.
Well, it’s been quite some time since writing here on the blog. Here’s an update on our recent happenings.
COVID-19 has hit Guatemala. And on the day the very first positive virus test result was found, we were meant to start our Textile Travels. What a timing, huh? While we had a few cancellations, there were two participants who were already in the country, along with my mom. We had a good talk together, and we decided to continue with our itinerary to Lake Atitlán. I’m glad we did, as we had a wonderful time there.
But on the day we were scheduled to come back to Antigua, it became more dire to do so, and quickly, because a public transport ban had been announced the night before. While I didn’t think that our private minivan would fall under this category, I was wrong – something about the licensing for transport of that size fits under the same category as the big refurbished school buses we like to call Chicken Buses. At that point, we did decide to cancel the rest of the trip, and hang out in Antigua.
I’d just like to put it out there that although these measures have been strict and drastic (we now have a shelter-in-place curfew at 4pm), I really can’t complain. I think these are good steps for trying to control the virus. And perhaps more than that, these are good measures for controlling the panic that can arise, especially in rural communities. For me personally, the potential chaos arising as well as the antagonizing of foreigners (because COVID-19 is coming from outside the country), have been more worrisome, especially when responsible for a small group of foreigners. Misinformation and at times flat out lies can spread as fast as the virus itself in areas where access to reliable information and the education to be able to weed through such rumors are lacking.
But, we made it. Everything went fine. We cancelled two of our workshops that were planned in surrounding areas of Antigua, and the whole portion going to Cobán. That’s okay. We still had a great trip, an adventure hopefully never to be repeated, but still a pleasant adventure together. What we couldn’t fit in were textile markets – unfortunately, they had been shut down by the day we were meant to rummage through vintage collections of handmade beauties. Well, there’s something left for next time, then. We always have to leave something for next time. Right?
I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy wherever they are. All the internationals from our travels have gone home now. I am still here in Guatemala, hanging out at home with Berry. It’s going to be a challenging time for small businesses and local artisans, so I’ll be pushing online sales, starting with a One of a Kind Sale on our website this Sunday, March 29th.
<I’m super psyched to announce something brand new for us. I shared a little bit about the difficulties being away from artisans, and the idea for Kakaw Designs has always been to support talented artisans in Guatemala. With that in mind, we’re excited to be adding gorgeous handwoven cushion covers by Kaleido Collection onto our website this Fall. Emmy shares her honest story about the how and why behind her new brand, take a look! -Mari>
Emmy practicing her backstrap weaving skills during Textile Travels – she joined us for a workshop 🙂
I first came to know and live in the beautiful country of Guatemala through working at an NGO focused on coffee communities. Working in a small town primarily made up of small-scale agriculture, I worked alongside coffee producers and got to know the skilled work and art of coffee. Along the way, I met several artisans, some who have generations of craft experience and others who are newfound makers. What started as purchases and custom-made requests for myself turned into a desire to share these beautiful forms with others while supporting talented artisans.
Let’s start at the beginning. It’s hard not to notice the colorful and intricate textiles found throughout Guatemala. Sadly, many people, both visitors and chapines, don’t know the hours of meticulous work and faces behind these woven pieces. I was one of those people that admired woven and embroidered textiles but didn’t truly understand all that went into producing a piece. Not to mention that there are a multitude of different processes and techniques. That’s part of what makes Guatemalan textiles so amazing.
Picking up textiles with Francisca
<I interrupt to give a virtual high-five for anyone who can spot a custom Kakaw textile in this shot 😉 -Mari>
My first visit with the Corazon del Lago weaving cooperative was a trip to San Juan la Laguna at Lake Atitlan with my sister. Like many visitors, we came for an afternoon to check out the little shops that line the main road up from the dock. Little did I know at the time that my first scarf purchase from one of those little shops would grow into something more. A year later, I found out that it’s the same cooperative that Kakaw Designs works with. Through Mari I was introduced to Francisca, the co-op president, and I set up a natural dyes demonstration to get a glimpse of the process behind botanical-based dyes. My inner environmentalist was intrigued by the amazing, vibrant colors that plants can produce.
In talking with Francisca, it’s clear that the co-op has benefited many women in the community but like many businesses in Guatemala, it’s not easy to grow in an economy that is often reliant on the ebbs and flows of tourism. Through my work with community tourism in coffee communities, economic markets tied to tourism and agriculture harvest seasons are stories that aren’t uncommon to hear. Diversification is essential.
Over time I began to learn more and more about the world of Guatemalan textiles and the skilled people that make it happen. It also meant that I was acquiring more woven pieces ranging from huipiles from one of the textile shops in Antigua and learning where they are from to requesting custom sewing orders from Elvia, an expert seamstress who I’ve worked with through the coffee organization. One of my favorite personal pieces I have worked with Elvia on has been pillow covers, of which there have been several iterations with the most recent being the collaboration with the weaving cooperative!
In Elvia’s home sewing studio – Lavender Love is her favorite
Throughout all this, I had never really thought about starting a business. After getting to know several brands that collaborate with artisans like Kakaw Designs, I realized that it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. So begun the idea of not just buying pieces for myself, but to contribute to other market avenues for artisans, albeit small. I still have a lot to learn, but I figured that the worst failure would be never trying.
The word Kaleido means beautiful form in Greek. I found it fitting, as there are so many beautiful things in Guatemala – the breathtaking landscapes, detailed craftsmanship and especially the gracious and hospitable people.
Artisan relationships are the heart of Kaleido Collection. Valuing artisans’ work and time is unfortunately not the norm for many of the things we consume and buy. Kaleido Collection hopes to be a small part of that change along with many other like-minded organizations and brands that seek to make just and dignified work the only acceptable practice.
I hope you enjoy these pillows as much as I have enjoyed the journey in producing them!
Though it’s been over a month now since we said our goodbyes to our friends from our very first Textile Travels, I feel like I’m still processing the experience, there is just so much to take in.
First off, I’d like to say that we had a wonderful trip. It was a small group, which was great considering this was the first trip of its kind that I’ve organized, full of workshops with artisans for the goal of collaborative idea exchange. It’s a new concept for me and our partner artisans, so this was a trial run – a successful one at that.
Amanda shows off her shibori work at Lake Atitlán
My favorite part was probably dyeing with Francisca and her cooperative of dyers and weavers. Indigo was especially fun, and I feel like where we were able to explore different designs and ideas well, since we all had a bit of experience with the magical dye, and had at least seen (some had even made) intricate shibori designs. I even stuck my jeans in the vat, and by the end of the day there was a whole line of indigo-dyed jeans, all from the weavers and their family members. I loved that they liked the idea!
Line-up of jeans dyed in indigo
Indigo beauties, trying new things with the weavers
We also organized workshops for embroidery, ikat, backstrap brocade weaving, as well as many visits to observe other techniques. It was a packed itinerary, but we squeezed in down time whenever we could. I would personally prefer a slower-paced trip, but it’s hard when there are so many beautiful places to visit, so many textile workshops to participate in… and not everyone has the luxury of taking part in a longer itinerary.
I have some new ideas on how to improve the trip – how to encourage even more idea exchange, prepare the participants better for them, and make sure the artisans get as much out of the workshops as possible (and not just the travel participants). I’m excited.
Rural travel is beautiful in more ways than just textiles
And now, looking at 2019, I’m wondering if people have any requests on the time of the year. This first trip took place in August, which was meant to be helpful for those busy during the school year. Though we got very lucky with the weather, it’s possibly not the ideal month for travel because it is still during the rainy season. October/November are usually better weather-wise.
With that said, please let me know if you would like to receive more information about the next trip, or if you have any particular requests.
We are opening our creative textile workshops during Textile Travels to those already in Guatemala! Come learn more about the textile traditions of the beautiful Maya country, and practice some of the techniques yourself. Get creative, have fun, exchange ideas to benefit artisans and participants alike.
These workshops also include home-cooked meals and local visits to experience authentic village life. Cultural exchange through shared passions in textiles.
Interested? Let me know! Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Today, we have a special blog post written by Elena Laswick. In case you hadn’t heard yet, we’re working together for a Capsule Jewelry Collection, and we are so excited for this collaboration. So we thought we should introduce the lovely lady – so here she is, ready to tell you how she fell in love with textiles and how she came to working with Ixil women of Guatemala in particular.
My name is Elena and I’m teaming up with Mari this spring to bring you some new jewelry designs inspired by the textiles of the Ixil region of Guatemala!
But who am I and why am I posting on Mari’s blog? Well, let me introduce myself.
I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, a mere 100 km (60 miles) from the Mexican border, where I was surrounded by Mexican culture and immersed in Spanish throughout my childhood. In middle school, I even played the violin and sang in a mariachi band! And in high school, I danced folklorico (Mexican folk dance) in a school club.
Elena in high school in her folklórico dress, circa 2007. Photo: John Laswick.
It truly was an upbringing from the borderlands of the U.S. Tucson is also right on the edge of the Navajo Nation, where there are many talented weavers who produce beautiful rugs. My mom’s motto has always been, “Support your local artists,” so a lot of those rugs found their way into my childhood home. It’s no doubt my parents and Tucson are to thank for my affinity for Spanish and textiles.
Elena’s mom’s current living room setup. Note the Navajo rug hanging on the left-hand wall above the couch. Other textiles featured: On the couch; Pillowcase from Santiago Atitlan, “servilleta” throw from Nebaj, Guatemala. Floor rug: Turkish. On the reclining chair: A Kilim pillow, also Turkish. Wall hangings above/within the mantle: Molas from Panama. On the coffee table: Kuba cloth from the DRC. Under the coffee table: Cat from the local animal shelter. Photo: Elena Laswick.
During and after college, I worked for a few different Central American NGOs and found myself critical of their theories of change. When I initially moved to the Ixil region of Guatemala three years ago, it was to work with a local social enterprise. Although I hoped this model of development would be a breath of fresh air, it too seemed plagued by similar problems as those I had encountered in the NGO world. The true novelty ended up being the wealth of textiles Guatemala had to offer. I soon realized that the only things I cared about spending money on were textiles and artisan-made products in general (not surprising given the type of household I grew up in). The irony was, I was thousands of miles from home and yet once again I found myself living amongst indigenous people with deeply rooted weaving traditions.
Elena’s neighbor and friend in Nebaj, Juana, weaving a new huipil (blouse) for personal use. Photo: Elena Laswick
After I quit my job at the social enterprise, I began researching Guatemalan textile-related brands. In the process, I stumbled on Kakaw Designs’ Instagram, where I eventually learned that Mari, the founder, was studying Sustainable Development in Austria. Before reaching out to Mari about meeting in person when I was traveling through Austria last fall, I tried to familiarize myself more with Kakaw Designs. Besides the beautiful plant-dyed and leather products, what most resonated with me was Mari’s life story. It seemed we had both followed similar trajectories from NGOs to artisans and had ended up returning to our roots as a result. My meeting with Mari confirmed that we are both textile lovers whose theory of change revolves around investing in artisans and trusting them to re-invest in their children and their communities.
This capsule jewelry collection grew out of our shared desire to invest specifically in rural artisans, who have less access to an international market base. Working with me as an artisan liaison to ethically source textiles directly from weavers in the Ixil region, Kakaw Designs will soon offer a capsule jewelry collection with designs that incorporate the intricate brocade of San Juan Cotzal! I hope that these pieces make you feel connected to a place, to skilled weavers and artisans, and of course that you’ll love to wear them for their own sake as well.