Guatemalan Handicrafts: Backstrap Weaving

Backstrap weaving while tending the store

There are a number of handcrafts which are familiar to anyone who has traveled to Guatemala; the  most common are weaving and embroidery.  Weaving takes a number of forms but for now I’ll just talk about my favorite.  Backstrap weaving is a craft and an art-form but more importantly for women of Mayan descent, it is an ancient tradition carried on from pre-Columbian times, a ritual and a means of maintaining cultural identity in a country where Mayan cultural traditions are devalued by the ruling minority.  

As a visitor to this country and a lover of “all things fiber”, it is enthralling to see so many people embrace their culture.  In fact, there is likely no other country in the world where people (mostly women) literally wear their culture on their back.  

Selling Guatemalan handicrafts: Chichicostonango Market Day

Backstrap Weaving

Sitting on the floor with a strap behind one’s back, the other end of the strap is tied to a post or tree, the weaver creates a design often from memory, by passing a shuttle from side to side.  The maximum width is 14-15″ and the length has no limits. With a 15″ width there is a huge amount of pressure on the back of the weaver.  One of my Spanish maestro’s told me that because of back pressure from the strap, it is common for backstrap weavers to have serious back problems in later life.  There is a Guatemalan cotton and dying market to keep weavers supplied with yarn – grown, processed and dyed in Guatemala.  On this visit we also saw some shiny yarn in markets, which I think is rayon.

Weaving yarn for sale in the local market

It is important to mention that backstrap weaving is not  unique to Guatemala.  What makes it important in this country is the cultural significance.  

In areas where tourism is well-developed, the markets are filled beautiful table runners, scarves, purses and other woven items.  For a 15×80″ table runner such as those in the following photo, weaving time is approximately one month.  In the markets or from street vendors where there isn’t a middleman, these weavings cost approximately $30 – I don’t want to know the hourly wage.

Close-up of 15x80" runner

Catarina

At the ICA Spanish School in Xela, Catarina visited several days each week to sell her crafts (and likely those made by other family members or friends) to the ~25 students at the school.  While this was a pretty small market, it was also an opportunity for Catarina to learn to speak English and to engage with English-speakers.  And engage she did.  She was incredibly proud of her work and she was one of the loveliest people we met during our one month in Guatemala.

Note:  Most people of Mayan descent speak their native Indian language and Spanish (national language).  English is usually limited to whatever is required to speak with or sell goods to tourists.

Of course, she was the person from whom I would purchase my weavings.  This deep blue table scarf is 14×24″ and is made with blue cotton and the white shiny yarn I mentioned above.  It’s really quite striking and it makes me think of lovely Catarina.

If you have the opportunity to see Guatemalan handicrafts, I’m hoping that this brief description will make you appreciate the incredible amount of work that goes into the finished product.

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Mira’s Special Creation

On several occasions in the past year, I have blogged about by GD Mira’s progress in learning to sew.  She has been very eager to learn to sew however because we see each other infrequently, there are months between lessons.  (When we move from Philly to Wisconsin this will change).

On our last visit to Wisconsin and after not being together for about 3 months, Mira couldn’t wait for her lesson.  On a phone call before our visit she asked if we could have some special time together: “I have something special to show you”.  I wasn’t sure of what was up but now I know that she was excited about her “creation”.

Once again this turned out to be a lesson for me.  I didn’t understand that she wanted to “create” and I was thinking that she wanted to sew.  Now I understand these to be distinctly separate goals.  I came to the after-school lesson with a piece of pre-smocked sun-dress fabric, thinking this would be a quick win.  She could sew up the side seam and add ribbon for the straps.  Quick and easy and she would have a sense of accomplishment.  Wrong I was.

About a year ago, Mira received a Fashion Design Kit, which includes a small dress form.  For a long time she didn’t play with it but prior to our lesson she draped the dress form with several pieces of fabric.  She had ever so carefully pinned her design onto the dress form (sorry, I forgot to photograph) and some of the pieces were already hand-stitched.  In the following photo you can see where she hand-stitched a small collar and as well as the back seam on the leopard fabric for the jacket.  

Together we discussed options and decided on a plan to convert her idea into an outfit for her Barbie Doll.  Mira used the machine to sew the jacket to the skirt, dictating that the length of the skirt had to be “just right”.  Somehow I needed to construct sleeves, which were a part of her intended creation.  Together we pulled it off, and then she sewed a red ribbon onto the outfit – the perfect alternative to sewing on snaps; or worse, a buttonhole and button.  Last of all Mira sewed several sequins on the top to make it ever so special.

And here is the proud girl with her creation. 

For many reasons, I can’t wait to live nearer to our GD; having more time to teach Mira to sew is at the top of the list.  She really enjoys it and already understands that it’s a creative outlet.

Note:  If you’re thinking of purchasing a Fashion Design kit, please be aware that the model/dress form is quite a bit larger than a Barbie doll.  This was a little bit frustrating but in the end we were able to use a real Barbie to assure that the dress would fit properly.

Forty Years Ago Today

Forty years ago today and six weeks after Kevin returned from a 14 month tour in Viet Nam, he and I were married.  In the ensuing years we have been blessed with wonderful times (and of course some tough times); three incredible children, their wonderful spouses and two adorable grandchildren for which this blog is named.  Along with family and friends, we have created a lifetime of great memories and Kevin is still not only the love of my life, but also my best friend.

Our family - Megan and Chris's wedding

Congratulations to Megan and Chris, who are celebrating their first wedding anniversary today!

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Oh my, how times changed us.  I guess you would call us “vintage”.

At Shaun's Wedding - Sept 2010

About my dress:  Because this is fundamentally a sewing blog, a little information about my wedding gown only seemed appropriate.  (And for those of you who remember the awful plaid suit I made for Kevin in the 70’s, I didn’t make his tux.)

The following is an old folded copy of the dress I copied from a 1970 bridal magazine   then I like “knockoff’s”.  The fabric was a sheer poly of some type purchased from a fine Milwaukee fabric store that bit the dust about 20 years ago.  The cape and veil were made from yards of silk illusion, which is now a rare find and the lace was beaded French alencon.  I cut all of the lace and spent hours beading it, but had lots of time since Kevin was in Viet Nam.

A little hiccup:

For the  year that Kevin was in Viet Nam, I lived with my parents.  They had a toy terrier who was usually well-behaved but like all animals he had his moments.  One day I was working on the nearly completed cape (fine silk – just right for a dog bed) and left it on the couch, never expecting that the dog would climb on the couch and nuzzle in my dress.  But he did, and tore the fabric in several places.   Grrrrh.  I was able to move some of the appliques and cover the tears so all was well in the end but at that time it seemed such a big deal.

Eeks! Suicide Showers

One of the most fascinating parts of our recent trip to Central America was the daily shower.  We had been warned about cold showers which are OK in a tropical climate but certainly not in 60 or 70 degree weather.  Here’s a little information about our “shower” experience.  Before I complain too much, this was in large part an outcome of our decision to stay in hostels or small inexpensive hotels.

Cold Showers

As a person who loves a very warm shower, I never thought it was humanly possible to enjoy a cold shower.  When I say “cold”, I mean that the water is the temperature of the public water system or whatever type of storage or holding tank is the source for the water, but for me that’s still a “cold shower”.  In Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Cartagena, there were no tears shed at shower time because it was 95 degrees outside – even I will admit that a cooler shower felt good.  To sum it up, we traveled for a full month without a warm shower.  I am still in disbelief that I survived it.

The Alternative Shower

We had so many experiences which are incredibly innovative – often out of need – I think there are quite a few lessons we N. Americans could learn if we could get over the thinking that environmentally conscious solutions would take us a step backward.  For example, when it comes to warm showers, there is an alternative to water heaters which run constantly and burn gas or electricity.  A “suicide shower” is a solution we could adopt.  In fact, here’s a photo of some of the options:

Intrigued and want to learn more?

 Often called “suicide showers” by travelers, these showers have a single cold water line coming into the device (in fact, most homes didnn’t have a hot water line, even in the kitchen).  As you can see, the “super ducha’s” are available in a variety of sizes and shapes – some have a wider shower head (but none of them have a Holiday Inn style smart spray!)  A small pea-can sized heater within the shower head warms the water immediately when the faucet is turned on.  There is one caveat – with a small stream of water, the temperature is nice and warm however a higher velocity resulted in cooler water.  On average, the water was warm.

So why the name?  The first time we encountered one of these strange-looking devices, I turned on the water and sparks flew.  It didn’t take an electrical engineer to figure out that I shouldn’t step in.  Instead, I notified the hotel staff and soon a workman came to rewire the shower, which looked something the one below but with more dangling wires.  As we met more travelers, we learned that my experience was quite common.

In one of our homestays, we showered under this modern beauty:

Last of all I want to mention that these showers are no reason to stay away from Central America as a travel destination, in fact it’s one of the dozens of experiences that make it a wonderful travel destination.