Guatemalan Backstrap Weaving: An Enduring Cultural Tradition
A truly age-old craft, the backstrap loom has been used in Guatemala for over two thousand years, pre-dating the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. It is a traditionally Mayan art form, one that has remained relatively unchanged since ancient times. Representations of women using backstrap looms can be found in many pieces of ancient Mayan art, and it is also present in Mayan mythology and folklore. According to Quiche tradition, the art of weaving comes from the moon goddess Ixchel, and she is often represented as the Cosmic Weaver, seated in a backstrap loom.
Even now, backstrap weaving is a still part of the daily lives of Mayan women. The ancient craft is used to weave fabric for clothes and other household textiles, and most importantly, it is used to create the traditional dress of Mayan women, known as a huilpil. This garment is closely tied to cultural identity—each woman weaves her own huilpil in the same fashion as her mother, grandmother and the many generations of women who came before her, taking up to months to weave her unique fabric. Each Mayan community has a specific, identifiable weaving pattern and color palette; making this art form a direct reflection of community pride, while granting Guatemalan women the opportunity to express their individual worldview.
Young women begin to learn the craft of weaving at the age of seven, but an important cultural rite of passage occurs when a young girl is just three weeks old. The child's midwife bathes her in a Mayan sweat lodge, known as a temascal. The baby's mother gives the midwife miniature versions of what will be the girl's weaving instruments, and as the midwife bathes the child, she passes each instrument into the girl's hands, praying for the girl to become a gifted and talented weaver, like the generations of women who proceeded her.
Not only are the fabrics created on the loom a unique expression of identity and culture—the tools themselves are made individually by hand or passed between generations. The loom, also known as a belt loom or telar de cinteron, is simple and often made by each weaver, a collection of sticks, rods and threads that is easily portable—it rolls up compactly when not in use. To weave, the back rod is tied to a tree, post or other support, while the other end has a belt that encircles the weaver, wrapping around her back. These belts are often hand-woven also. The weaver sits on the ground, rocking forward and backward to create the needed tension in the warp as she weaves.
The warp is divided in half by the shed roll, typically made of bamboo or sugar cane. Pebbles are inserted into the hollow tube of the bamboo or sugar cane, making a kind of rainstick rattle as the weaver leans forwards and backwards, adjusting the tension of the loom as she works. Another important element of the loom is the heddle rod, which is often made of a stick with three or more prongs on one end and from which the bark has been removed. This heddle rod is very important to the weaver as it further separates the warp, making it easier to weave swiftly. However, the most treasured part of a blackstrap loom is the beater, which is used to compress the woven weft threads. It is made of a heavy wood that has been carved into a kind of wedge shape—it is thicker at the top and then thins to a fine, almost knife-like edge that is used to pack the weft threads into a tight, close design. The beater is prized by each weaver and is often passed from mother to daughter through generations.
The threads themselves are also created in a way that has changed little throughout the centuries. Since antiquity, these women have woven with cotton wool, traditionally dyed using natural plant pigments, creating a variety of bright and subtle shades. These dyes are made from various organic materials, such as carrots for orange, hibiscus flower for a rosy pink, quilete for green, and guayabe for a deep gold.
In the modern world, this age-old craft has also taken on an important economic significance. The fine fabrics made with meticulous care by these artisans have become highly prized, sparking a rise in financial independence for the talented women weavers. In 1983, Rigoberta Menchù, a Nobel Peace Laureate and indigenous rights leader, spoke of the importance of backstrap weaving for the women of Guatemala, observing that "it's women who preserve the art of weaving; we are the weavers. Our knowledge concerning weaving ourselves is very advanced. That's why many people everywhere consider the Guatemalan women to be an artist. And weaving is an art." As a cottage industry, backstrap weaving allows Guatemalan women to turn their cultural heritage into a life-sustaining practice—and the world profits too. The amazing artworks created by these incredibly talented women are unlike any other fabric to be found anywhere else on the globe—an art form refined by time, practice and care.