With regard to clothing, I doubt that there is any place more colorful in the world than Guatemala.
The indigenous dress (traje) of the Maya is brightly colored and includes every conceivable color of the rainbow – purple, green, orange, blue, magenta, yellow, sky blue, pink, maroon, forest green, lavender, red, burnt orange, light green, cherry red, violet, etc. The clothing designs (particularly for the women) use a combination of colors, words, abstract shapes, as well as plant, animal, and human figures … all woven or stitched into the clothing by hand. The art which is their clothing reveals their values and beliefs, and each design is unique to a particular area of the country. There are a least 150 different traje designs, and the same basic design is passed on from mother to daughter when the latter is taught how to use the backstrap loom to make clothing. And while there are basic design customs, each weaver is free to creatively customize their clothing to their liking … thus the range of different designs is endless. All this clothing is made on a backstrap loom, and it is believed that the same type of loom has been used to make clothing and other products in Guatemala for over 4,000 years.
The backstrap loom fascinates me for a lot of different reasons. First of all, it is so basic and yet is used to make extremely complex creations. The loom is simply 2 blocks of wood with strings running from block to block. The weaver attaches one end of the loom to a post, tree, or some other fixed object, and the other end is fastened around the back at the waist. Then while sitting on the ground (usually on their legs), the weaver leans back to pull the strings taut. At that point they simply weave the various colored strings in and through the strings that are pulled taut … and a month or 2 months or sometimes as much as 6 months later, they complete that one project (blouse, skirt, blanket, etc.). This brings up another reason why the backstrap loom is so fascinating to me – it takes such incredible patience and hard work just to make one item. A woman will spend months making the blouse (hupil) of their respective area, which is quite sturdy and can be worn virtually every day for months or even years. But if you are one of the unfortunate Mayan women who cannot or will not weave, it will cost you a small fortune to buy a blouse made in the design and colors of your community. I heard of one person who spent 3,000 quetzales (nearly $400 U.S. dollars) to buy a blouse, which by my estimate could be as much as 4 months wage. Finally, I am fascinated by the backstrap loom because it seems enormously difficult (or even impossible) for a non-Mayan to learn how to weave with the same skill as a Mayan woman. And backstrap weaving IS something done by the women only, I reckon that any Mayan man who tried to learn to weave would be severely ostracized in the community due to the prevailing machismo and/or cultural expectations. I almost feel challenged to learn how to weave, I could possibly be the first male in human history to learn how to backstrap weave … except that I do not have 30 years to spare in order to learn how.
Who knows … it could be that weaving was first done by men, and then later the women took over and perfected the art. One of our close friends Warren is an extremely gifted knitter, he has been knitting for many years. And it just so happens that recently there was a feature article on him and his knitting in the Salt Lake Tribune, and in that article he explained that long ago knitting was actually a man’s thing. But ultimately women caught up and passed the men in knitting prowess, and pretty much left the men in the dust (except Warren, of course).
My wife Sheri is also an accomplished knitter, and I probably should be embarrassed to admit that I have often wondered, “How can anyone find enjoyment in knitting?” Sheri rarely makes mistakes anymore, but I have seen her knit complete sections, only to pull it all out again because it was not just right – that would drive me crazy! But there she goes, happily knitting away … together with all her knitting friends, happily knitting away and chatting in circle.
Back to the backstrap loom. A few days ago Sheri went with a Spanish translator to the home of a Mayan woman who has been weaving for over 35 years. Sheri spent the morning learning how to weave … and she loved it! As a result, she went back two days later for another 6 hours of weaving, and the Mayan woman watched over her shoulder the entire time ready to help and advise as needed. This is an art that has a steep learning curve. Mayans start weaving when they are very young, and it takes years under the tutelage of older women in the community before one becomes an accomplished weaver. To give you an idea of how painstaking the process is, at least at first … in 6-7 hours of weaving, Sheri was able to complete a section that was about 12 inches wide and 6 inches long. But to the Mayan community, weaving is not a burden – on the contrary, they experience hope and joy and community in their weaving. It is said that Mayan women believe that they are carrying on the work of God through weaving, and that their weavings are emblematic of the rich tapestry of God’s creation.