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.
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.
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.
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.