Guatemalan Textiles
Produced by: ​​Tesoros Maya   -    Directed by: Kris Garcia
The Importance of weaving in guatemalan culture

One of the most fascinating elements of Guatemala are its textiles and the techniques used to make them. The textiles of Guatemala represent an important part of its cultural identity. The country has a long history of textile production, which was once the main source of income for many families. However, the industry declined in the 20th century as demand for traditional weaving plummeted. In recent years there has been a resurgence in local interest in traditional textile production, and new initiatives are supporting weavers and helping them produce goods that are more marketable. As a result, there is a growing market for authentic Guatemalan textiles and clothing made in the most rural communities in Guatemala.

This article explores the ancient technique of backstrap weaving and the ancestral process used by the Maya community in Guatemala. 

The Art of Backstrap Weaving

One of the most common types of Guatemalan textile is backstrap weaving. This technique dates back more than 1,000 years. The backstrap loom is an essential element of any Maya household, not only because it produces the cloth that keeps the family warm, but because it connects them with the past and provides an outlet for artistic talents.

A huipil (pronounced wee-peel) is the traditional hand-woven blouse crafted by and worn by Maya women in Guatemala. Indigenous women in Guatemala are known for creating the most fascinating patterns and color-combinations in each huipil, which are all one-of-a-kind. Their entire wardrobe is woven by memory and it’s a prime example of the weaver’s skills and passion.

The selection of huipiles are endless! Every indigenous region, town and village in Guatemala can be identified by their unique wardrobe. Each hand-woven pattern belongs to a specific community and is woven on a traditional back-strap loom with great detail and cultural symbolism. 

The process of weaving a huipil is a long and extensive process that can take up to 10 months depending on the weaver's skills and her intricate design.

Guatemalan weaving
The Beginning process of the Loom

The backstrap loom is a device of simple design that has survived essentially unchanged from ancient Maya times. Before the weaver puts on the warp or vertical threats, part of the loom appears to be just a pile of sticks. Young Maya girls traditionally learn to weave around 8 years of age; they learn from the older weavers of their household. Although a back strap loom looks like a simple contraption, it can produce the most stunning textiles at the expert hands of a skilled and patient weaver. 

Guatemalan Weaving Technique

Once the color is ready, the weaver forms a ball of yarn through a process called ‘Debanadera’. Next, she will arrange her yarn in the warping wood board - called the urdidora.

The pegs on the wood board can be used for different panel lengths. Once done, the weaver will transfer the warp to sticks which form the Backstrap loom. 

It is only after all of these processes that the women can begin to weave with the traditional backstrap - loom technique. Depending on the complexity of the design, it can take weeks and months to create just one piece.

Guatemalan Textiles
Guatemalan textiles

backstrap loom technique

For some, it is hard to believe that these wooden sticks and rods come together to help create the most stunning textiles, but as the skilled weavers set them up with the warp threads, the stunning loom and design becomes apparent.  

The weaver assembles her own loom manually before beginning the weaving process. This includes tying each thread individually one by one to the horizontal wooden rods. Depending on what she is creating (huipil, faja, or a skirt) there are between 200 - 400 individual threads that have been perfectly counted and tied.

The backstrap loom consists of the strap which wraps around the weaver's back (giving the loom its name), a series of bars which hold the yarn in place, and a rope attached to a tree or post to provide tension. The loom is portable, and many women prefer to weave outside, where the sun brings out the textiles' colors and the beauty of their surroundings. 

Weavers use their fingers to produce the many brocaded designs typical of their area. For many Maya women in Guatemala, weaving provides the only viable means of support. They do this in an effort to sustain themselves, their families and their culture.

Like a language, weaving skills normally begin as a small child and develop throughout life. Now as education becomes more accessible and the influences of the western world more  visible in rural Guatemala fewer Maya girls are interested in the art of backstrap weaving.

Guatemalan weaver

the importance of guatemalan weaving

Like a language, weaving skills normally begin as a small child and develop throughout life. Now as education becomes more accessible and the influences of the western world more visible in rural Guatemala fewer Maya girls are interested in the art of backstrap weaving.

The creation of Guatemalan textiles is a tangible art form. It represents both the continuity and change of Mayan culture, community and identity. There’s something special about Guatemala, the colors, the warmth that radiates, the experience, the people –  stay with you long after you’ve left. 

Weavers deserve respect for their complex creations and for teaching younger generations the value of their ancestral knowledge. Acknowledging the work put into each piece is the best way to honor the talented creators of Guatemalan textiles.

Guatemalan textiles and Maya weavers

Guatemalan Textiles video

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Angelica Reyes-Johnsen