Una semana de tinte natural: Conozcan a Doña Lidia / A week of natural dyes: Meet Doña Lidia

Blog por Alejandra Arrué Lou

A continuación encontrará extractos de mi entrevista con Doña Lidia López como parte del taller de tintes naturales con Olga Reiche, patrocinado por Kakaw Designs.

<Below in English!>

Conozca a Doña Lidia

Cuando conocí a Doña Lidia, me dijo que sus hilos tenían sentimientos y que debíamos tratarlos con respeto. Ellos sienten lo que nosotros sentimos. Aprendí que ella está sincronizada con su arte, con las personas, las plantas, y los animales que la rodean. Doña Lidia tiene un corazón cálido; siempre le gusta conocer a nuevas personas y me trató como si fuera parte de su familia. También es una mujer increíblemente inteligente que entiende bastante los colores, habla 5 idiomas, y ha viajado por todo el mundo. Doña Lidia le importa mucho a su familia y cree firmemente en sus tradiciones ancestrales. Ella quiere seguir aprendiendo más de los tintes naturales porque es la forma más sostenible para nuestro planeta.

Alejandra: ¿Cuánta experiencia tiene usted con los tintes naturales antes de este taller? 

Doña Lidia: Estoy muy agradecida con Mari por darnos este curso porque antes había tenido un taller de tintes sintéticos pero no como este. Era más simple. Yo solo iba escuchando y no haciéndolo.  Yo aprendí junto con otras personas que son de Salcajá. También tengo un poco de experiencia con las plantas. Cuando camino por mi casa, miro las plantas y pienso sobre sus colores y tóxicos.

 

Alejandra: ¿Por qué le interesó aprender más sobre el teñido natural?

Doña Lidia: Me gusta pensar en nuestro futuro y la contaminación del planeta. En esta clase, aprendimos que toda el agua de los tintes sintéticos se tira otra vez en los drenajes. Los tintes sintéticos se pueden hacer en cantidad, son bonitos, y rápidos de hacer. Pero, ¿qué pasa con nuestra salud? No podemos seguir contaminando nuestro planeta. 

El color que más me interesa es el banano con el índigo. Me interesa que tenga solo un poco color. Tal vez los colores no salen exactamente como uno quiere pero se trata de la experiencia y de la conexión con la naturaleza. También me interesó aprender sobre las plantas y las frutas, como dependen del clima y si ha llovido.

Alejandra: Ya que aprendió bastante esta semana, ¿quiere seguir trabajando con tintes naturales? ¿Cree que va a poder replicar esta práctica en su casa/asociación? 

Doña Lidia: Estoy bastante motivada.  Si quiero replicarlo y renovar el tejido. Primero, tengo que involucrar a mi familia. Tengo mucho apoyo de mi hijo que también le interesa este concepto. Tengo una hermana que teje. Pero va a ser un poco difícil. Porque ya todos están acostumbrados a los hilos sintéticos. 

Mientras involucro a mi familia, me gustaría tejer algo con los hilos que hicimos con Doña Olga. Algo que tenga el fondo crudo y encima con los colores naturales que tengo.  Y lo voy hacer con diseños de San Antonio. El tejido será un ejemplo para mientras, y después implementó el proceso poco a poco en los huipiles.

Alejandra: ¿Cuáles son los retos que le puedan dificultar a seguir con el tinte natural?

Doña Lidia: El reto es el tiempo. Hay tiempo pero estamos en una cultura que es rápida, con horario, y con mucha competición. Los tintes naturales tardan más en hacerlos. Nosotros estamos acostumbrados a comprar los hilos en el mercado rápidamente. Pero nosotros mismos tenemos que valorar el proceso natural. Tenemos que reconocer el trabajo y la calidad de los materiales, y reflejar eso en nuestros precios. 

A veces he hablado con personas rurales para explicarles que no hay que comprar cosas sintéticas. Hay que tratar de no ser consumista. Mejor produzcamos más que consumimos. Por eso trato de sembrar. Yo siembro frijoles y verduras. Es mejor mantener nuestras propias cosechas. Cuando yo misma siembro mi comida, es un sentido muy diferente y especial. Es orgánica y más sostenible. Es una lucha porque estamos en un círculo de consumismo y de inconsciencia. Algún día ya no habrá maneras sostenibles. Espero que algún día eso cambie. 

Alejandra: ¿En su pueblo (San Antonio), hay gente que trabaja con tinte natural? ¿Por qué lo hacen / no lo hacen?

Doña Lidia: Nadie trabaja con tinte natural. Yo seré la primera. De hecho muchos de los tejidos se están desapareciendo. Como he dicho, es por el tiempo. 

Alejandra: ¿Nos puede compartir algo que le impresionó mucho del taller con Olga? ¿Recomendaría este taller a otras tejedoras?

Doña Lidia: Me gusta mucho aprender de las plantas. Hay muchas plantas que son fáciles de encontrar, crecen, y no se van a extinguir. Me gusta la experimentación y probar sacar nuevos colores con nuevas plantas. Además, Olga es una excelente maestra. Ella sabe mucho. Pienso que todo lo que nos enseñó hay que practicarlo. 

Alejandra: ¿Cómo fue tener a Doña Margarita en su casa esta semana? 

Doña Lidia: Fue excelente. Yo siempre quiero cooperar y compartir sin ser egoísta. Y así seguimos adelante. Seamos positivos, no negativos. Como he convivido con varias personas de todo el mundo en mi casa, me gusto estar con Margarita y la trate como si fuera mi propia hija. Yo quiero empezar a trabajar con ella y aprender más de ella también. Yo seguiré aprendiendo, no importa mi edad. 


Meet Doña Lidia 

When I first met her, she told me that her “hilos” had feelings and that we needed to treat them with respect. They feel what we feel. I learned that she is not only in tune with her art but with the people, plants, and animals around her. Doña Lidia has a warm heart; she is open to new people and treated me like I was part of her family. She is also an incredibly smart woman who deeply understands colors, speaks 5 languages, and has traveled the world. Doña Lidia strongly believes in her family and ancestral traditions, and yearns to learn more about how to dye naturally as she believes it is the more sustainable way for our planet. 

Alejandra:  How much experience did you have with natural dyes before this workshop? 

Doña Lidia: I am very grateful to Mari for giving me this opportunity because I have attended a synthetic dye workshop before but not like this one. It was much simpler where I only listened. I learned with other people from Salcajá. I also have some experience with plants. I always look at the plants when I walk around my house and think about their colors and toxins.

Alejandra: Why were you interested in learning about natural dyes? 

Doña Lidia: I like to reflect on our planet’s future and the contamination of it. In this class, we learned about how the water from the dyes are thrown back into the sewage system. Sure, synthetic dyes can be made in large quantities, they’re beautiful, and faster to make. But what happens to our health? We cannot continue polluting our planet like this. 

The most interesting color for me is the combination of indigo and bananas. I like that they have a more pale color. Perhaps the natural dyes do not come out as one had planned but it’s really about the experience and the connection we have with nature. It was also interesting to learn more about plants and fruits and how they depend on their natural environment. 

Alejandra:  Now that you have learned a lot this week, would you like to continue working with natural dyes? Do you think you can replicate these processes in your house/association? 

Doña Lidia: I am very motivated. I would like to replicate and renew my techniques. But first, I need to involve my family. I have a lot of support from my son who is also interested in this concept. I have another sister who weaves. But it will be a little challenging because everyone is accustomed to synthetic threads.  While I involve my family, I would like to weave something with the threads we made with Doña Olga. Something that has a raw background with a more natural color on top. I am going to design using the patterns from San Antonio. This piece will be an example in the meantime and later I will implement the process little by little in my huipiles. 

Alejandra: What challenges do you foresee if you continue to use natural dyes?  

Doña Lidia: The biggest challenge is that of time. We have time but we now live in a culture that is fast, with tight schedules, and competition. Natural dyes require more time to make. We are accustomed to buy ready-to-go threads in the market. But we need to elevate our natural processes. We need to recognize the work and quality of the materials and reflect that in our prices. 

Sometimes when I am talking with people from my community I like to explain that we should not buy synthetic materials. We must not be such consumerists. It’s better to produce more than consume more. That’s why I like to plant my own vegetables, including beans. It’s better to maintain our own harvests. It is much more special when I plant my own food. It’s organic and sustainable. It is a challenge because we are in a cycle of consumerism and unconsciousness. One day, we will reach  a point where there will not be any sustainable practices. But I am hopeful that we can change this. 

Alejandra: Are there people in your community that work with natural dyes? Why or why not? 

Doña Lidia: Nobody works with natural dyes. I will be the first one. In fact, many of our own patterns are disappearing. Like I mentioned, it’s because of the time it takes.

Alejandra:Can you share something that impressed you about the workshop? Would you recommend it to other weavers?
Doña Lidia:  I loved learning about plants. There are many plants that are easy to find, grow well, and are not in extinction. I love to experiment and extract new colors with new plants. In addition, Olga is an excellent teacher. She knows a ton. Everything she taught us needs to be practiced. 

Alejandra: How was having Doña Margarita in your home during the week? 

Doña Lidia: It was excellent. I like to cooperate and share without being selfish. That’s how we can move forward. We need to be positive, not negative. I have shared with many different people from around the world so I enjoyed being with Margarita. I treated her like she was my own daughter. I would like to continue working and learning more from her. I will always continue learning, no matter my age. 

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Community Visit to Cobán

//Español abajo//

Earlier this season, we were able to organize a visit to our two partner groups of weavers near Cobán, Alta Verapaz. It’s always a bit of a trek to get out there, as it takes a full day of travel to reach their communities, and since the pandemic, it had gotten even more logistically complicated. But when we got news of a bit of funding for improving digital capacities through the Nuttingham School of Art and Design (thanks to Dr. Katherine Townsend), we knew we wanted to take this opportunity to work with the weavers in these communities.

The weavers’ work is spectacular, with delicate advanced pikbil in Chamelco and intricate colorful brocade in Tactic. And we saw great potential benefit in photography training so that we can better represent their work and facilitate the telling of their stories to the world. And because it is important for us that the weavers all understand how digital images are shared and used, we dedicated time to discuss those important topics as part of the “Informed Consent” portion of the workshop.

This visit was led by Evelyn Arévalo, our on-the-ground production manager extraordinaire, accompanied by professional photographer Juan Salvador Galich. Take a look at the Q and A below with Evelyn, as she shares about the very first visit that she lead (spoiler alert – it went very well!).

-Mari

How long have you been working with the weavers in Chamelco and Tactic, and in what capacity?

Since transitioning to full-time with Kakaw Designs in 2020, right during the pandemic, I’ve been more involved with our work with artisans. Before that, I knew the representative of the association in Chamelco, Margarita, but it was this time that I started to work more closely with the group.

And with the weavers in Tactic – we started working together also in 2020 as part of our Artisan Direct project on our website.

Did you already know these towns? Or Alta Verapaz in general?

The department of Alta Verapaz is beautiful and known for its green areas. I hadn’t been able to visit for 15 years, and without a doubt it was joyful to be able to go back. It was my first time in Chamelco and Tactic.

And what did you think?

Chamelco strikes me as a well-organized municipality, with paved roads surrounded by nature. People walk the streets calmly, and the houses are painted colorfully.

The area where the weavers live in Tactic is higher up, with a spectacular view surrounded by plantations, vegetation, and small paths. It’s a small community, so all the weavers know each other, many of them are even family and their kids are always present in their activities.

We visited the house of the group representative, Aura, who is in charge of organizing the group of weavers so that they can offer handwoven pieces for sale. Because her house also serves as the neighborhood day care, there are books, little desks, and other materials for kids. They adapted an area of the house for the weavers to work on their looms after day care, and they come together to share their progress on their work and stories about their day-to-day lives.

Each weaving requires so many hours of dedication, I love the moment when the weavers weave together, and their children are nearby learning, playing, and helping. This is work learned through the generations, and the weavers simultaneously dedicate time to be mothers, wives, daughters.

Was there something that surprised you during your visit?

How beautiful Cobán and its surroundings are! I love that the people are still preserving their traditions, and even given the situation with Covid, business is already going back to normal.

And something that you liked most?

Most definitely the green landscape of Cobán, and the friendliness of the people.

Tell us a bit about the workshop, and the weavers’ reactions.

It was lovely to get to know more members of the two groups of weavers during our visit for the photography and informed consent workshop. In Chamelco, the board members were the participants, and they are in charge of sharing what they learned with other members of the group. It was a dynamic day with delicious food and a one-of-a-kind chocolate drink.

Both of the groups received us with open arms and lots of enthusiasm to learn, both youth and adults paid attention when it came to photography technqies, and with the available resources on hand, we discussed how important it is nowadays to be able to share through images their work and the artists behind each handwoven piece.

It was a unique experience to share with hard-working women, with hands that produce art every day. Without a doubt, I would like to go back soon to get to know each and every one of them more. They told me that each handwoven piece reflects the weaver’s feelings, as a part of their heart is woven into their work. 

Visita Comunitaria en Cobán

Escrito por Evelyn Arévalo

¿Cuánto tiempo llevas trabajando con las tejedoras en Chamelco y Tactic, y en qué capacidad?

Desde que inicié de lleno con la marca Kakaw Designs en el 2020 justo en la pandemia pude involucrarme más con el trabajo de los artesanos. Yo ya había conocido  a la representante de la asociación de tejedoras en Chamelco, Margarita, pero fue entonces que empecé a trabajar más de cerca con ellas.

Y con las tejedoras de Tactic, empezamos la relación en 2020 como parte de Artisan Direct en nuestra página. 

¿Ya conocías a estos pueblos? ¿O a Alta Verapaz en general?

Alta Verapaz es un departamento hermoso y reconocido por sus áreas verdes. No había podido visitarlo desde hace 15 años, y fue sin duda una alegría poder regresar. Fue mi primera vez visitar Chamelco y Tactic.

¿Y cómo te parecieron?

Chamelco es un municipio muy bien organizado con calles pavimentadas rodeado de naturaleza. La gente muy tranquila caminando por las calles, y las casas pintadas de distintos colores.

La aldea de las tejedoras en Tactic está a lo alto, tiene una vista espectacular rodeada de plantaciones, vegetación y calles muy pequeñas. Ya que es una aldea todas las tejedoras se conocen, hasta la muchas son familia y sus hijos están siempre presentes en todas las actividades. 

Visitamos la casa de la representante del grupo, Aura, quien se encarga de organizar el grupo de tejedoras para que puedan ofrecer sus piezas a la venta. Como su casa también es la guardería de la vecindad, tiene libros y mesitas y algunos materiales para los niños. Adaptaron dentro un área para que las tejedoras puedan trabajar en sus telares cuando ya no estén los niños y así compartir como va su trabajo y las anécdotas del día. 

Cada tejido requiere muchas horas de dedicación, me encanta el momento en que tejen juntas, y sus hijos están cerca aprendiendo, jugando y ayudando. Es un trabajo aprendido de generación en generación, y las tejedoras siempre dedican a la vez tiempo a ser madres, esposas e hijas. 

¿Hay algo que te sorprendió durante tu visita? 

¡Lo bello que es Cobán y sus alrededores! Me encanta que aún se conservan sus tradiciones y ver que a pesar de la situación del Covid, el comercio ya está volviendo a la normalidad.

Y lo que más te gustó? 

Definitivamente me quedo con el paisaje verde de Cobán y la calidez de su gente. 

Cuéntanos un poco sobre el taller, y la reacción de las tejedoras.

Fue agradable conocer más miembros de los dos grupos de tejedoras durante nuestra visita para el taller de fotografía y autorización informada. Los miembros de la junta directiva en Chamelco fueron las que asistieron al taller y serán las encargadas de compartir lo aprendido a sus compañeras. Fue un día muy dinámico con comida deliciosa y una bebida de chocolate única. 

Los dos grupos nos recibieron con los brazos abiertos con muchas ganas de aprender y tanto jóvenes y adultos pusieron mucha atención sobre la técnicas de tomar una buena fotografía con los recursos que tienen a la mano y se les explicó lo importante en estos tiempos el poder compartir con imágenes la elaboración de su trabajo y quién está detrás de cada pieza.

Fue una experiencia única compartir con mujeres trabajadoras, con manos que producen arte cada día. Sin duda quisiera regresar pronto para poder conocer más de cada una de ellas, como ellas me indican cada pieza refleja su sentir así que es parte de su corazón plasmado en ellas. 

Meet Kelly Moe-Rossetto!

We have the great pleasure of introducing our good friend Kelly as one of the co-leaders of our upcoming Textile Travel in November, 2022. “From Fiber to Fabric” is our favorite week-long itinerary for fiber and textile enthusiasts. Spinners, dyers, weavers, knitters and overall creatives — this trip is for you! And if you’re just getting started on your fiber art journey, you’ll love the introduction to the techniques included in this week.

So, who is Kelly, you ask?

She is a passionate art educator and practitioner who draws inspiration from her extensive travel all over the world:

Kelly has taught in France, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Italy and has attended classes and art workshops in Italy, Sweden, India, Peru and Guatemala. In her graduate work she took a close look at the way we can explore issues of history, place and community through the artistic traditions. She is the owner of Cardamom Collective, which uses the traditions of textiles and craft along the Silk Road to connect and understand the way we have influenced each other throughout history and across continents. For the past six years she has taught K-8 art in Milwaukee Public Schools where she strives to create a dynamic and supportive space rooted in social justice and artistic traditions around the world. She has traveled to nearly thirty countries and believes the best way to understand the world and ourselves is to have authentic conversations with each other and learn from the communities we are fortunate to visit. She loves Guatemala and is thrilled to be co leading this trip!

Kelly in Iceland

Last year during our week at Lake Atitlán, Kelly was kind to lead a watercolor workshop for the other participants one afternoon. It was so much fun — and we’re sure to include time for some more painting this year!

This year’s trip is sure to be another week full of artistic exploration rooted in cultural heritage, learning alongside our local Tzutujil teachers at Lake Atitlán. Join us November 20-27th! We are currently taking reservations with a $250 deposit. As this trip is held on Thanksgiving week, we have participants joining us both in solo and family units – it will be a great mix of artistic minds.

<Learn more about this itinerary and others here>

Which backstrap loom is the best for me?

Since we started offering backstrap weaving kits in 2020, we’ve added a few different types of looms, and have understandably received questions about them. Have you been wondering the difference among the different looms we offer? We’re here to explain and help you choose the best option for your practice and goals.

1. Practice Backstrap Loom

This is the “original” loom we started with when we made this pivot to offer at-home weaving kits. We designed the loom in practical and achievable measurements, and we think they make excellent wall hangings when finished, with all the tools still intact. These looms are made at Lake Atitlán with naturally-dyed cotton and ikat designs in the warp. The included weft is naturally-dyed in indigo.

This is an excellent choice for beginners who want to practice Plain Weave. We think the softer hues make these looms especially apt for home decor. $60 per kit with all materials included.

2. Brocade Backstrap Loom Kit

This is the loom of choice for intermediate weavers ready to practice supplementary weft brocade! Each loom has been prepared by master weaver Doña Lidia and her family from San Antonio Aguas Calientes. The main difference for this loom is that it comes with two additional sheds created with the “pepenado” rods, seen at the top of the loom. These extra sheds facilitate many brocade figures, and others can be woven by picking up the warp with the included wooden needle (so cute in quetzal form!). $85 per kit with all materials included, and we also have the option listed online for choosing your custom colors.

Looking for a little extra guidance for brocade? We produced professional videos that show how four important local motifs are created with Doña Lidia. Purchase the access through our PDF guide for $15.

The best option for weavers ready for brocade!
Optional: add a brocade sampler to your loom purchase for $30. These are the exact figures covered by Doña Lidia in our PDF guide for intermediate brocade, and are helpful to have on-hand for counting stitches and following directions on the screen.

3. Kids’ Practice Backstrap Loom Kit

As the name suggests, these looms were designed with children in mind for beginner Plain Weave. The looms are smaller for narrower waists and the warp is arranged in a way that makes picking up the “chocoy” (string heddle) easier for the smaller-bodied. Also priced affordably in-line with our committment to making art education as accessible as possible. Made with naturally-dyed cotton just like our original Practice Backstrap Looms. $40 per kit with all materials included.

4. Handspun Cotton Backstrap Loom Kit

Made with organic and local handspun cotton, these looms available in natural white and heirloom ixcaco brown are truly special! Prepared by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán, these looms are made for the eco-conscious intermediate weaver ready to take on a little challenge. Working with handspun fibers is a bit harder. Namely, the string heddle can collect fuzz from the warp fibers easily, making even plain weave a bit more challenging. Weavers should pay attention to all the little movements made during the weaving process in order to limit the lint from collecting. $80 per kit with all materials included.

Available in natural white cotton and heirloom ixcaco brown cotton, while supplies last – we are heavily dependent on local harvests for this loom, production is very limited.

5. Make Your Own Loom Kit

This kit was developed for our “Intermediate Loom Set-up” online class with Doña Lidia. After we received requests for this class, we realized we should make a material to go with it. And ta-da! The Make Your Own Loom Kit was born. The kit includes everything you need to build your own loom, with the warp already prepared, the sticks and rods carved into perfect size, etc. Prepared by Doña Lidia and her family, these kits are $65 each. You can also choose custom colors on the product page.

Questions? Comments? Let us know by emailing hello@kakawdesigns.com and/or joining us in our Backstrap Weavers group on Facebook.

Backstrap weaving troubleshooting 101

While online backstrap weaving classes have made learning and practicing this heritage art form accessible around the world, we’re aware of the unique challenges online learning can pose, especially for beginners. That’s why when I received these questions from a new weaver recently, I thought so many more beginners could benefit.

Take a look below at some of the common beginner questions when it comes to backstrap weaving:

  1. First pic is of my progress. It is very slow especially when I have backtrack because of a mistake. I try to check after each line of weaving but somehow the mistakes showed up afterwards.
  • It looks great! It looks like you are progressing really well. Good on you for also fixing mistakes, I know that can be frustrating. I like to think of beginner looms/panels are practice pieces, that you can hopefully look back on later and see the improvement in your practice and technique from beginning to end. Likely, you will notice that you are making less mistakes as you progress.

2. This next pic shows the back. After weaving a little I noticed a warp thread that was not incorporated. It’s connected to the top and bottom wood pieces but was not included in the the initial weaving at the top or bottom on the loom. Should I just leave it dangling? Or try to include it somehow?

  • It’s not uncommon for loose warp threads to appear on the back, especially when they’re the first or last of that color bordering another color. This is not a problem. I would recommend weaving just like you have been, basically ignoring the loose warp. And when you’re done weaving, you can simply cut it off and tie the top end securely. The bottom loose end shouldn’t really move anymore if the rest of the warp has been woven.

3. Last photo is a close up of the wood dowel that is connected to the bottom warp threads. I really have a hard time bringing the bottom threads up to weave and I noticed there is a lot of fibers stuck on the little threads. Am I doing something wrong? Should I remove these thread fibers or just leave them?  It seems like the more I weave the more there are.  If I need to remove them, what is the best way to do so?

  • I see the fuzz on the string heddle. This is a common situation for beginner; it still happens to me, too. It happens when the weaver moves the string heddle more than “necessary” — advanced weavers are used to making little movements so that the fuzz doesn’t collect. I would recommend trying to get the fuzz off (without damaging the string heddle). I have used tiny scissors carefully in the past, or a pair of tweezers – I wonder if that might also work for you? I’ve found these fuzz balls are hard to yank off. This also happens because the weavers in San Juan la Laguna who dyed the warp and prepped the loom prefer to work with unmercerized cotton. Communities have different preferences, and in many other areas this problem is avoided (somewhat) by using mercerized cotton. It might be that the unmercerized cotton takes natural dyes better.

4. Not that I’m close to worrying about this … But what happens when I don’t have space to continue. There’s the narrow rod at the very top, the thick rod and the rod with the heddle strings. All the rods and heddles take space plus the sword too. 

  • Good questions, again, on how to “finish” the panel. The loom you’re working on was developed as a “practice loom” with the idea of it turning into a wall-hanging as-is with all the tools attached. That would be my recommendation for your very first loom, but of course whenever you feel finished, you can also release the rope going around both ends of the warp, on the warp bars — and this would allow you to take off the panel. While it is possible on a backstrap loom to have a clean four-selvage weave, I don’t recommend this for your first work because it’s super detailed and incredibly laborious. 
  • If/when you’d like another loom, we’d be happy to make you one, perhaps with a longer warp so that you can make a functional item (Scarf? Table runner?). We could make space for fringes on the ends of the warp. If you feel ready, it would also be possible then to incorporate brocade designs into your next weaving. We produced professional videos to help with that process in high-def.

Do you have other questions? Join the supportive Backstrap Weavers group on Facebook; we’re there to help each other!

What do these figures represent?

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.)

  • 1. The Money Bird
“Tzichin – The Money Bird // This bird symbolizes the luck in having money, and having this figure is said to attract financial fortune wherever we go.”
  • 2. The Glass
“Ukab’al – The Glass // The cup or glass symbolizes home life and time spent with family; the warmth of a home. The glass is used to serve water, and represents good health and nutrition.”
  • 3. The Volcanoes
“Mam Munte – The Volcanoes // This figure stands for all volcanoes and mountains in the world, all much bigger than we are.”
  • 4. Family
“Ku Tzuk Ku B’aal – Family // This figure features a father, mother, and in the middle, a child. It represents humans, their unity and how parents take care of their children. Wearing this figure brings luck to the one’s family. “
  • 5. The Four Corners of the Earth
“Kaa Paq’ Il Txava’ – The Four Corners of the Earth // Represents Earth, where we live. Also known as the four cardinal points.”
  • 6. The Deer
“Mazat – The Deer // Because of the strength of this animal, it represents fathers as protectors of families.”
  • 7. The Corn Field Bird
“Toxokopil K’om – The Corn Field Bird // This figure shows the bird that feeds on corn, the greens of nature. It symbolizes life itself.”
  • 8. The Traveling Bird
“Xaol – The Traveling Bird // This Traveling Bird existed in years past. It would travel to the other side of the mountain, and when it rained, they all went up to the heavens. They would sing every afternoon from the clouds. This is the figure that represents human beings, and it protects people who travel to other towns, even countries.”

The cooperative of weavers from San Juan Cotzal, all proudly wearing handwoven huipiles that likely feature many of the above traditional brocade figures. Find their creations for sale here.

Pre-loved huipiles

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.”

Cooperative of weaves in San Juan Cotzal, each wearing a traditional brocade-filled huipil (blouse)

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.

The color red represents strength in Cotzal.

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.

You can find these pieces and more from Cotzal on their section on our website.

Backstrap loom kits 101

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.

  1. 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.

Consider joining our small community of backstrap weavers on Facebook, a space for helping and learning from each other.

You can also look at the “Weaving” category on this blog for more posts related to the topic.

Happy weaving!

XOXO,

Mari

Guatemalan Weaving Vocabulary

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, Doña Lidia in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Photo by Aiko Kobayashi.

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.

Doña Lidia demonstrates simple brocade patterns during an online class: mosquitos, pepenado lines, and semillas. Photo by Lisa Jennings.

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.”

A wooden footloom or pedal loom in Momostenango, used for weaving wool rugs in this town.

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.

Irma from Lake Atitlán shows her ikat-dyeing project. This is the warp to be woven on a backstrap loom. In this case, she started with already dyed-yellow thread. This will be dyed again after the knotting is complete, so the parts under the knots will remain yellow while the rest will be dyed with the second color.
Here is an example of an ikat pattern from dyeing the warp, visible on the loom. During the knotting and the dyeing processes it can be difficult to decipher what the design will look like when finished.

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 on the loom, taken during a Textile Travel visit, Cobán area.

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.

All three panels used for this picbil piece have four clean selvages, which can be noted here by the absence of fringing. Cobán.

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.

All the floral and zigzag patterns above are created on the loom with the incorporation of supplementary weft threads. Master weaver Doña Lidia from San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

Supplementary weft: the additional threads used to create designs for brocade figures. This allows for extra color to be incorporated into the textile.

This ikat warp is being put on the loom after the dyeing process. Lake Atitlán.
The warp on a pedal loom in Momostenango.

Warp: the vertically-arranged yarn/thread that is necessary in all types of looms.

Doña Lidia inserts additional weft into the textile (blue) along with the normal weft (bright pink, wrapped around the shuttle.

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.

FAQ: Online weaving class

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 ❤️

  1. 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 mari@kakawdesigns.com to set this up.

10. When are your next classes?

We will keep updating our Experiences section with new class offerings. Please check there.

Any other questions? Let me know!

XOXO,

Mari