Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Color, pattern and weaving in Guatemala!

 I arrived home a few days ago from a textile tour of Guatemala led by Debbie Maclin of Spanglish Fabrics.  Debbie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala some time ago, and she has been working with weavers there for years to make fabric and other items to import into the United States and sell in her Etsy shop.  I was excited to join her first official textile tour,  in the company of three other interested--and interesting!--women.  Debbie's contacts in the weaving community and her deep knowledge of local markets, customs, and the language ensured that we had an immersion experience.

I am still processing everything I saw.  It was my first trip to Central America, so everything was new to me.  Some spectacular Spanish Baroque architecture survived the Antigua earthquake of 1773. The many churches and convents that were damaged remain as picturesque ruins now.   You could spend days exploring those ruins and related museums.

Ruins of Santa Clara convent; birds-of-paradise in foreground
The first market we went to in Antigua was adjacent to a ruined church.

La Merced Church in Antigua, one of several examples of wedding-cake style Baroque architecture.
This church is still in use.

We stayed in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan for several nights, and rode a launch across the lake to our weaving workshop in the lakeside village of San Juan la Laguna.

Sunset on Lake Atitlan from Panajachel 
But of course the weaving and fabrics were why I was there, and I was completely blown away by them.  Pictures in books or online cannot do justice to the intricate weaving and vivid color of the work in real life.  It was thrilling to see Maya women wearing their handwoven huipiles (blouses), cortes (skirts) and wide belts, a traditional clothing, or traje, that has changed very little in hundreds of years.  To my eye it was exciting to see colors and patterns freely combined in outfits with little concern for "matching" as we would do in our clothing.

Adelaida demonstrating spinning cotton

Jessica, foreground, and Christina, background.
Wearing traditional traje doesn't mean you don't use a cell phone!
For me the highlight of the week had to be the two days we spent with the skilled weavers of the weaving co-op Asociacion La Voz de los Tz'utjiles.  Adelaida, Christina and Jessica had warped and begun weaving scarves on backstrap looms, one for each of us in the group, and they instructed us patiently in a simple plain weave that was surprisingly difficult for me to grasp on this loom.  I was horrified when after lunch the first day I went to pick up the loom to strap myself back in, and two of the sticks slipped out, losing part of the cross!  Adelaida patiently reconstructed the cross and the loom and tied on a couple of lengths of yarn to hold the sticks in place.

Look, ma!  I'm weaving!
The view from the loom.
Weavers say that "it's not the loom, it's the weaver" that determines the quality of the final product, and the backstrap loom makes that abundantly clear.   We got to bring our looms home with us, and I look forward to finishing up the indigo ikat scarf on mine.  My selvedges leave a lot to be desired, but I'm going to wear that scarf!  

There were a number of woven pieces in the workshop that I had to bring home.  The intricacy of this indigo ikat (called jaspe here) entranced me.  The whole piece is large enough to cover a queen bed,  three widths decoratively seamed together. 

I'm not sure how I'll use this piece of green brocade fabric but I knew I couldn't live without it.  

Much of our week involved visiting various markets.  We went to Central America's largest market, in Chichicastenango, and I was able to find small amounts of hand-dyed cotton-blend yarns.

There was also a stall selling loom parts and other wooden weaving tools, where I bought these combs.

Note the new double-ikat pants I'm wearing.  A practical purchase!

The best bargains of the week were found in the Los Bomberos market in Sololá, a flea market of used huipiles, cortes and other items.  There I purchased probably my favorite pieces:  these two huipiles and this jaspe corte, pictured at bottom.  This green fabric is sewn into a tube that would be worn as a skirt, cinched around the waist.

During my long trip home,  I kept sneaking peeks at these treasures, pulling them out to study the patterns and try to determine how the weaving was done (the huipiles are a type of brocade).  The more I looked, the more I saw.  I felt as if I were trying to read an epic poem in the original Greek, or in this case, one of the 22 Maya languages.  These works and others like them represent, thanks to the skill of generations of weavers and dyers, a monumental achievement in color, pattern, and beauty.  The city of Antigua is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it seems to me that Guatemalan weaving deserves similar recognition as a priceless human cultural treasure.

Since I returned, I find myself wondering about how color is connected to place and to culture.  I am familiar with the basics of color theory and harmony and I have books that can tell me about the history and use of this or that color or dye.  But I wonder, is it true that color use in tropical climates, for example, tends to be more bright and unrestrained than that in northern climates?  Why?  Of course colors are influenced by the local natural dyestuffs available.  I saw vivid colors in naturally-dyed cottons in Guatemala that put the lie to the conventional wisdom that natural dyes are more subdued than synthetic dyes.  I know that I will continue to research questions of color, place and culture, and the history of Guatemalan textiles.

I'm not sure yet how this trip will impact my own work.  I can say that when I arrived home, my own tapestries in progress looked pale in comparison to my Guatemalan treasures!