Textiles, often referred to as “the book the colonizers couldn’t burn”, come from the Maya weaving tradition that reaches back well before colonization. This matriarchal tradition, passed from mothers to daughters, has been compared to a silent resistance movement by women who were able to shield a major part of their cultural heritage by confining stories and symbols to the intricate weavings on their backstrap looms*. This art, and other facets of life related to fertility and the women’s role in Maya culture, was understood to be governed by the Maya goddess Ixchel (pronounced Ish-el) and has been traced back to as early as 1000 BC. Backstrap looms themselves are silent survivors of colonization. The looms are made of several sticks and their sizes and positions determine the length of the textile. The tension of the warp (the “vertical” threads of the weave), is created by strapping one stick to a tree, or beam, and another around the lower back, thus the name “backstrap”.
Then, the “weft” threads are passed horizontally back and forth up the length of the warp. Throughout the process, especially when making their traditional blouses, or “huipiles”, women often add designs to the weave which is called a brocade. These designs, the specific technique used to add them and the chosen color palette, vary by region. Therefore, a huipil from Chichicastenango (pictured on right), where Utz Threads’ partner artisans are located, will look so different from a huipil made near Solola, Guatemala (pictured on left). Since there are over 20 Maya languages still in use in Guatemala today, and Huipiles and traditional dress are specific to as small an area as a town and also vary by Maya language, this causes for a lot of variation! This also means a ton of color and designs.
Before the introduction of new materials by the Spanish (such as wool and silk) and the industrial revolution’s semi-automated treadle loom or “foot loom”, weaving was an activity performed solely by women and would have begun with the arduous process of hand-spinning cotton, common in Guatemala. Nowadays, industrial dyes and processed threads have given rise to new color possibilities and Guatemalan women tend to gravitate towards strong color combinations.
This vibrant mark of a culture in many other ways no longer in practice by many Maya (who have since become Evangelical or Catholic) is what attracts so many tourists nowadays to this small resilient country. However, weaving in the 21st century now has to compete with a capitalist reality, where speed and quantity often determine a product’s potential in the marketplace. Clearly, this is a market reality that can be hard to adapt to this practice which is inherently time-consuming, detail-oriented and highly personal. This is why fair trade and slow fashion movements could make all the difference for this ageless art, as it confronts this newest wave of modernization. Now, brands can help shoppers vote through their purchases not only for the survival of this ancestral technique, but also for indigenous women’s self-determination through business development.
In Guatemala, poverty disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples: the poverty rate is 20% higher amongst the indigenous population (79% versus 59%). This leads to lower rates of school completion, higher rates of malnutrition and a cycle of discrimination and exclusion at a societal level. The theory of change we advocate at Utz Threads is that by being a bridge to a larger market (which creates jobs and livable wages) for indigenous women, together we’re creating long term solutions for the health and livelihood of the whole family unit. Women have consistently been shown to be good “community” investors, since they typically use their income to send their children to school or feed them more nutritious meals. This then leads to positive change at a community level over time.
When you shop at Utz Threads, you’re consciously choosing success for these women, this technique and a self-sustaining way of life for indigenous Quiché women in Guatemala. Let’s continue to make intentional decisions with our dollars!