The Threads of Human Connection - A Textile Trip in Guatemala

The Threads of Human Connection - A Textile Trip in Guatemala


It's February 8th, 2023 and my 8 year old son, Leland, and I embark on our 3rd textile trip together to Latin America. This time we are visting Guatemala - a culture still rich with Mayan tradition. 

Since my divorce a little over two years ago, I've been slowly re-finding myself - my morals, my soul, and the things that truly make me happy. I have always had a strong connection to the earth and been aware of my own spiritual presence in the world, but the last few weeks in particular, I've found myself really diving into the depths of my own spiritual energy and my purpose in this lifetime. 

As my feet landed upon the earth in a new place, I was ready for a textile experience, but I didn't know how truly connected I would feel to the spirituality of Mayan beliefs, as well as the variety of people we spent time with over the course of 10 days. 

In a small town called Santiago Atitlan, there is a group nestled along the lake who carry forward Mayan traditions, blended with colonial influence.Their project focuses on restoring pre-colonial traditions. Here, only women weave on the backstrap loom. Although a man is physically capable of weaving on this loom, they believe that only a woman should. Not because of masculinity or patriarchy limiting a woman to this laborious form of weaving cloth. No. It is because the woman is the vessel for creation of life. One end of the loom is attached at the woman's hips, around to the cloth that she weaves, up the length and the other end attached to a tree. Specifically a tree. This creates a direct connection to Mother Earth and therefore the cosmos. Together they form life. 

As I listened to the presenter share this in Spanish, and then again as it was translated by our main host to English, I felt my body surrender to a wave of overwhelming emotion. These big realizations I had made over the last few weeks on my own were being presented in front of me. Not only was I feeling validated in my discovery of purpose, but I also was experiencing profound feelings of connection to those who lived thousands of years before me. 

This was near the beginning of our trip, and it paved the way for opening up to beauty on a level deeper than I could have imagined. 


B A C K S T R A P   W E A V I N G (Telar de cintura)

with Doña Lidia y sus hermanas, Zoila and Blandina 

 Clothing has traditionally and is still to this day used to express one's self in many forms - culture, color preference, style/trend, spiritual or religious beliefs, class, etc. Unfortunately in today's modern world, our clothing no longer represents and displays skill or family heritage; however, there are many small towns nestled in Guatemala that still wear their traditional clothing every day. The handwoven and often hand embroidered fabrics showcase images of nature like birds, mountains, and flowers.

We sat down around the courtyard of Doña Lidia's home to listen to her impressive story and watch the process of creating fabric on a backstrap loom. We then choose our looms and colors, settled in and began weaving. "Open shed, pass the tramador through, change, and beat 1, 2, 3. Repeat." In two hours, we each wove approximately 3 inches of fabric - a feeling of accomplishment and also a realization of how much time it takes for them to make their clothes. And we weren't even doing the complex, decorative brocade weaving yet! 

weaving in guatemala with dona lidia

Lunch time! We helped make home made tortillas and then sat down for a traditional Pepian meal which resembles a mole or curry - packed with spices, vegetables, meat, rice, avocado, and tortillas. Deliciosa! 

traditional guatemalan lunch pepian

As we continued to weave after lunch, we were introduced to the techniques of beginner brocade - one of the ways they add motifs to their fabric. Brocade involves a supplementary weft that floats along the face of the fabric creating a pattern - there is 1 face, 2 face and double-faced brocade. Different regions use different techniques depending upon the tradition of that town. We learned 1-face (the simplest of brocade techniques).

 brocade weaving in guatemala with dona lidia

J A S P E    W E A V I N G    

Jaspé, also known as ikat, is a complex form of weaving that greatly intrigues me. The design work is very mathematical, and is calculated and done at the dyeing phase.

Threads are aligned on a warping stand, and are then tied very tightly with very specific numbers and organization of ties in order to create certain patterns. The warp threads are then dyed, leaving behind the base color of the thread when the ties are removed. This is a form of resist dyeing. The threads will become either warp or weft, and depending upon which it'll be and the size of the fabric to be created determines how the ties will be made. When woven, the pattern emerges.

In the community of Santiago Atitlan, the jaspé pattern is in the warp threads for the backstrap loom and the weft threads for the floor loom. We visited the 13 Batz Collective for live demonstrations of this process, as well hearing the story behind their tradition. 

jaspe (ikat) weaving in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala - 13batz


S P I N N I N G    C O T T O N

with Doña Marta y su hija Dominga

spinning cotton in guatemala - lake atitlan

We made our way across the beautiful and vast Lake Atitlán to stay at a quaint hotel nestled in the hillside on the edge of the lake. Here waiting for us was Dona Marta, her daughter Dominga with handmade, clay bowls filled with cotton bolls and beautifully made wooden, support spindles (malacates).

We sat on the upper deck of the hotel looking over the lake and began clumsily twirling our spindles. They make it look so easy... it took a minute to figure out the angle, and pressure in order to get the spindle to twirl for more than a few rotations. And then some more time to get a feel so the short staple fibers of the cotton would spin smoothly without pulling apart or ending up with big clumps.

spinning cotton in guatemala at lake atitlan

By the end of our workshop, I found the flow of simultaneously flicking my spindle, letting it dance in the bowl and between the groove of my forefinger and thumb, and letting the twist glide up the strand of the cotton into the new section I had thinned and smoothed out. Some participants had spun wool on a drop spindle, so this process wasn't entirely new, but still was challenging. Other participants had never spun before and found themselves deeply focusing on learning each step. In the end, we all had our spindles filled at different levels and different thicknesses.

In Guatemala, wool is not the common fiber to work with. Most artisans work with cotton. One of our trip participants had brought along her drop spindle with some wool and after the workshop, showed the maestras this process - which is similar but easier! Dominga picked it up right away and was quickly satisfied with her new skill, while her mother watched also clearly satisifed and intrigued by this other fiber and other type of spindle! It was a moment of connection through fiber and thread. 

 spinning yarn in guatemala

N A T U R A L    D Y E I N G  

Indigo & Cochineal Dyeing with Doña Francisca 

Walking the streets of San Juan La Laguna is a whole experience in and of itself where one can get lost wandering among all the beauitful and colorful street art. We made our way to the casa of Dona Francisca where we learned about her process of indigo dyeing. She has developed her own vat recipes over the years and it can't be quantified in the way Westerner's prefer to learn. An indigo vat is a living being, which takes precision beyond measurements, kind of like cooking. It takes tuning into the life force that is being created. Sure, you can measure out x amount of pigment, to y amount of ingredients, but without the energetic component, working with natural indigo can lead to an unsuccessful vat.

She invites the partipants to help in the process of making the vat. Despacio. Suave. These words are softly demanded as things are mixed. Slowly. Gentle. It is not an art or task to perform with haste. Her movements and energy almost felt meditative. After everything mixed and settled, we were invited to bring our items to the vat to dye. Despacio. Suave. We played with dyeing solid, gradient, and simple shibori patterns - all feeling very satisfied and blue by the end! 

indigo dyeing dona francesca in san juan la laguna atitlan guatemala

The following day we put on our comfy shoes and went for a stroll slightly out of town to a small production, cochineal farm. Cochineal is more commonly grown in Mexico, and many natural dyers source their dye materials from there; however, an effort started to create their own sources. They shared the many challenges in growing their cochineal and showed us the varying stages of the process! 

Historically, the color red has represented the highest of power and used to identify class. Dyeing with cochineal combined with various pH modifiers can produce varying shades of red, pink, purple and blood orange. Cochineal is a "pest" that infects the nopal (prickly pear) cactus. They breed on the cactus and when the babies hatch, they will soon also attach themselves to the cactus and carry on the circle of life. It is the females who produce the red dye and are "harvested" after they have completed their reproduction cycle. This little pest holds a very impactful story in our history and is worth learning more about

Back to Doña Francisca's house to see the cochineal color come to life! A much simpler and less precise process than indigo, but with equally satisfying results in the form of another color! 

 cochineal dyeing with dona francesca in san juan la laguna lake atitlan guatemala

Color is a huge part of human history. It all began with natural dyes and for thousands of years it communicated class, status and idendified regions or specific towns of orgins/residence. As color became more available through synthetic dyes, it shifted to a purpose of self expression which is how we identify with color today. San Juan La Laguna is a town rich with color!

group photo of natural dyeing with dona francesca in guatemala


with Doña Claribel 

Guatemala is well known not just for their beautiful weavings, but also the deigns that are embroidered on their weavings. In Sumpango, Doña Claribel fed us an incredible home cooked meal followed up by an embroidery workshop in her studio space. We learned about the main symbols they use on their huipils and what they represent and got a chance to practice a handful of patterns and stitches on a tote bag that was stitched to look like a huipil! 


C A S A    D E    A R T E S

After several days of being immersed in individual family homes learning about their particular history, stories, symbols, and craft, it was time to head to a museum to hear the overarching stories and how tradition shifted as the land and people were influenced by the Spanish. We held and inspected multiple different pieces, and Leland got to be a lovely model to showcase some of the wearables!


T H E   G R O U P

As I begin to summarize this trip, I can't not mention the group who attended with me. Each person was filled with passion, skill, kindness, generosity, curiosity and respect. They each took turns taking Leland under their wing and showing him something new. They supported his inspired artwork and laughed at his goofiness. I got a glimpse of what it felt like to be a part of a village of women (reminiscent of the feeling with the group during our Oaxaca workshop in April of 2022). I feel eternally grateful for the time spent with them. 

  textile group in guatemala

E X T R A S   ~   H I K I N G   &   S T R E E T    B E A U T Y

 There is so much I want to pack into this journaling of my experience, but I recogize it's getting lengthy! So, I'm going to share some photos and quick summaries! 

Throughout the trip, we found ourselves headed to the terrace of our hotel while in Antigua. It overlooked the entire town as well as a 360 view of the mountains and volcanos (including an active one) around us! Fuego sat out in the distance about 10 miles from where we stood, and each night we went up just after sunset to watch it erupt. We also would mingle with the other people staying at the hotel - a lovely watercolor artist, Amy Bogard, and her friends; a solo traveler, Xiaoen, who lost his job and decided he'd travel the world for as long as he could; a man who played the guitar. We spent the last couple of nights singing, dancing, and making shadow figures with these folks. It was such a heartfilling experience I never want to forget.

beauty of guatemala

streets of antigua guatemala


The street art in San Juan La Laguna needs no words... Enjoy!

 street art in san juan la laguna guatemala

Of course, the trip didn't end there. On the plane our flight attendant saw me knitting and he was escastic! He disappeared and came back eager to show me the cable sweater he was working on! It was so beautiful! This trip brought deep feelings of connections to the earth, but even more connection to the people in this world who also have such a strong passion for textiles - fabric, texture, color and process. 


I can't wait to return for another trip in February 2024!

Join us for our next trip to Guatemala!




relaxing at lake atitlan guatemala


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