Guatemala is famous around the world for its textiles- almost all of which are woven by hand. The bright colors and intricate patterns that characterize Mayan culture and traditional dress actually tell stories, preserving the history of different indigenous groups (principally differentiable today by geographical region and Mayan language family).
My community, the Florence of the Americas, is part of the Kaqchikel-speaking region of Guatemala’s western highlands.
A really awesome jacket that I rock around town.
Comalapan women traditionally wear a huipil (sometimes spelled güipil), which is a woven blouse which is characterized by red stripes from the neck, down the shoulders, to the end of the short sleeves.
Many of Guatemala’s 332 municipalities with Mayan ancestry have their unique woven patterns and colors. While the clothing itself preserves history and tells stories, the colors and some design elements were imposed by the Spaniards during their conquest of Central America. Anthropologists assert that historical use of the traje is evidenced in pre-colonial Spanish culture and was transplanted to Guatemala after its conquest . While originally implemented as a tool of subjugation and control, the traje has become a staple of dress for women that is a strong and lasting element of contemporary Mayan culture.
Lienne, my sister enjoying Mayan woven textiles during her last visit.
Here my friend Rosana Cortez weaves on a traditional back-strap loom (as opposed to the more modern foot loom). Back-strap weaving is the most commonly used method in Guatemala today.
Rosana, designer, always has the most beautiful patterns.
Her business consists of developing patterns that she sells to weavers on pieces of paper which can be in-turn copied on their looms. In her store she sells necessary supplies such as thread and even buys back finished products for resale. I admire Rosana’s entrepreneurial spirit and long-term vision.
It’s an activity that requires concentration- so I tried not to make her laugh.
But in the end, we still lost our place.
As with any old-fashioned way of doing things, there is a more modern, “efficient” way of weaving. My friend Walter Simón runs a textile “factory” here in town where thread is spun onto large foot looms and woven at high-speed into textiles which are then sold to large-scale embroidery factories in the western highlands. The intricate designs and patterns that take months to weave by hand can be embellished at a rate of 200 units per day per worker in Quetzaltenango (Guatemala’s second largest city and a “capital” of sorts for the Western Mayan highlands). These finished products are then sold back east to indigenous buyers eager to use their time towards pursuits rather than hand-weaving a single item of clothing.
Spools of thread ready to be spun.
Preparing thread to be spun onto a loom.
A loom spooled with thread for weaving.
Weaving textiles from spun thread.
Finished textiles ready for sale to a factory.
While some may scoff at the loss of traditional methods, outsiders and Guatemalans alike should celebrate the availability of technology to preserve traditional patterns and style of dress by not putting everyone in t-shirts and jeans. Back-strap woven textiles have a very special quality and seem to have an inexplicable vibrance. But machine-made clothes save time and energy, allowing people in a developing society to have more time for other productive pursuits.
 Estrada Menéndez, Rita Mireya. “Ethnohistoric Origins of Indigenous Trajes of Guatemala, 1542-1680.” University of San Carlos, School of History, Anthropology Department. 1998.
Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.