Learning to Weave
Guatemala is known for its beautiful textiles, and the towns around Lake Atitlan are no exception. Everywhere you look women wear beautifully-woven skirts, and shops display colorful scarves, blouses, purses, and much more. Michael and I recently visited a local weaving co-op during a field trip with our Spanish teachers, Manuel and Susana.
After a quick 10-minute drive from our school in San Pedro, we arrived at Ixoq Ajkeem in neighboring San Juan. One of the women there demonstrated the complex process involved in weaving a scarf, a relatively simple item. First, weavers open pods of cotton harvested from trees and remove the dark seeds embedded inside. Then they spin the de-seeded material into a thread, gently holding a puff of raw cotton in one hand and a wooden spindle in the other. Michael and I both gave this step a try, with very slow results.
The cotton thread is then wound into long ropes of yarn to be dyed. All of the dyes used are naturally derived from local plants or insects: crushed cochineal bugs produce a vibrant red, ground coconut husks make a light brown, and pressed chipilín leaves (a local herb) create yellow. The weavers first submerge the yarn in a solution made from the bark of banana trees, which prepares the fibers to absorb color. After a few hours, the yarn is ready to be dipped into the selected color, and then rinsed again in the banana bark solution to permanently bind the color.
After the yarn has dried it is wound around a wooden apparatus called a uridora (a warp board) to begin creating the pattern of the item they are weaving. Then, the weavers turn this into a backstrap loom with one end tied around their waist and the other to a stationary object - typically a post or a wall - nearby.
One of the most special things about this process is that the profits from these female-run weaving co-ops go straight into the hands of the women who make the products, many of whom are single mothers and/or domestic violence survivors. Each item has a tag attached with the name and photo of the woman who made it, several of whom were working in the shop when we visited.
About a week after we toured Ixoq Ajkeem, I discovered that Lake Atitlan Women Weavers, the weaving shop located just below our school, offers private lessons! I jumped at the opportunity, and decided to make my mum a bufanda (scarf) for her birthday. I selected three colors: fuchsia, made from beets; grey, made from eucalyptus leaves; and a soft green, made from mint leaves. After winding the trio of yarns around a warp board several hundred times, shop assistants Ana Lady and Antonio set me up with a loom.
The entire process took just over eight hours, which I completed over several visits after our Spanish classes each day. Weaving really takes a lot of time and patience, and I discovered a new appreciation for this art form during my hours spent on the loom. I had been optimistic that my prior experience working with yarn could translate to weaving as well, as my mum and grandma taught me to knit at a young age, but it turns out that the shop’s estimate for completion time was spot on. The class cost of 300 quetzales ($40) includes materials and instruction, and although I could have purchased a similar scarf in-store for 120 quetzals ($15), I’m glad I spent the extra money to make one myself.,
Full disclosure: after the supervised class I could probably complete much of the process myself, but I wouldn’t be able to set up the loom without assistance. This type of weaving is definitely an art and it wouldn’t be feasible to master with just a few rounds of instruction. But it was a great way to spend a few afternoons, and my mom loves the scarf and the effort that I put into it.