Learning to Weave

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.

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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.

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Crushed cochineal bugs produce a vibrant red dye.

Crushed cochineal bugs produce a vibrant red dye.

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.

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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.

I wind threads around the shuttle - a large wooden dowel that passes the thread through the layers of the yarn - while Ana Lady sets up the backstrap loom.

I wind threads around the shuttle - a large wooden dowel that passes the thread through the layers of the yarn - while Ana Lady sets up the backstrap loom.

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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.,

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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.

Mum and I in Portland after I presented her with her birthday scarf.

Mum and I in Portland after I presented her with her birthday scarf.

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