Threads of Sisterhood: Weaving With Mayan Women in Guatemala
By Sheila Mary Koch
Yarns of every hue fill the marketplace in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. This highland village in Western Guatemala boasts the country’s most celebrated weaving. Women handweave these vibrant colors into blouses called huipiles. No huipile or men’s shirt collar is alike.
Studying Spanish, not weaving, was my itinerary when I arrived. I started studying Spanish at one of the village’s language schools and living with a family. They spoke Mam, a Mayan dialect, like nearly everyone in Todos Santos. The longer I stayed, the more learning to weave seemed the best way to experience Mam culture. Maria, my host, agreed to give me weaving lessons.
First, I needed yarn or hilo. She gave me a little piece to take to the market as a sample and told me to pick my colors. That afternoon, I came upon a yarn vendor but realized my sample wasn’t with me. After the woman assured me that this was weaving hilo, I spent 45 minutes touching the
soft bundles of color. There were at least four different shades of purple and yellow, and blues and turquoises that inspired images of coral seas. Finally, I narrowed my selection to five, promising myself that I’d come back to get the other colors for future pieces.
When I got home, Maria shook her head. I’d bought the wrong type of thread-this was for embroidery not weaving. She put both in my hand so I could feel the subtle difference. Later, with the right thread, I started wrapping the colors around pegs on a wood board so it would fit on the
loom. Washing the hilo in a corn meal paste then drying it in the sunlight was one of Maria’s special techniques.
The next day, she helped me mount the now-crunchy hilo on sticks. I was anxious to start weaving my cloth. Maria assured me that there was only one more task before I began-putting in the “comb” that would let me lift alternate threads. This turned out to be a painful process of looping each hilo with a thick white thread on alternate sides of a thin stick. It took me all day.
The next morning, we started work while the sun was still bright in Maria’s hillside garden. Her three children were at school. She hooked one end of my loom to a rope hanging from one of the poles that held up the roof of her mud brick house. The loom’s other end was attached to a woven strap that went around my hips. I’d seen men wear these same straps around their foreheads to carry heavy loads of firewood with their heads.
After Maria demonstrated the weaving technique, I strapped myself into my loom and hit the stretched threads with the smooth wooden shuttle while attempting to lift the comb with my left hand to separate the threads. Sliding the shuttle and weaving thread through this separation proved impossible. What I hadn’t noticed while watching Maria was the precise place to hit the threads and the slight lift of the hips to loosen the loom while lifting the comb.
By mid-afternoon, I could manage by myself. Maria left for community grinder with a plastic tub of corn kernels on her head. Soon the kids returned from school. They congratulated me on my progress. The oldest boy gave me tips to help me work more efficiently and the girl showed me her weaving.
Maria came back up the hill with her corn meal, checked my progress and proceeded into the kitchen. The familiar clapping sound of tortilla making followed. After dinner, she prepared me a chuj. I crawled into the mud sauna and let the heat soak into my overworked back.
Maria asked me the next day how I had enjoyed my chuj. As I wove, she shared how women bath in the chuj daily after giving birth to help them recover from childbirth and keep the kids healthy. She didn’t have the advantages of the chuj because she’d been working as a maid in Guatemala City when her children were born, yet she’d learned Spanish during this time. I too was grateful that I knew enough Spanish to understand the stories she shared.
I went back to weaving, determined to learn what she and the other women of Todos Santos knew so well. Like the day before, Maria took the boiled corn to the grinder and brought back corn meal for today’s tortillas. Again, the kids encouraged me when they returned from school.
While weaving never became easy, I persisted. After four days, I’d created my own unique cloth. More importantly, I’d experienced the daily rhythm of family life in Todos Santos. Later, as I traveled around Guatemala, my weaving experience opened up many conversations with women.
While I still enjoyed the bright colors, I could also see and appreciate the different techniques they used to create their beautiful huipiles.
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