Learning to backstrap weave in San Juan La Laguna

I was introduced to backstrap weaving when I studied abroad in Lima, Peru. I was there for only two months, but you really can't avoid it. Indigenous men and women, hunched over their portable looms, were set up everywhere - from city squares to shopping malls.

When I passed these artists I couldn’t help but stop and stare. I tried to make sense of their movements - raising the warp, shifting the yarns, and inserting the weft. I had some weaving experience, but the looms I had used were huge, non-portable contraptions that cost thousands of dollars. I was fascinated by this seemingly simple loom that created such durable and beautiful fabrics with simply yarn and a few sticks.

Determined, I made it a goal to learn the craft for myself. I bought some yarn and collected sticks. If I didn’t already stand out with my pale skin and bright red hair, I most definitely turned some heads collecting small branches from the busy roadside and walking with handfuls of them back to my house!

After much trepidation and little success, I realized there was much more to this ancient art than could be recreated with sticks and string in my bedroom. It wasn't until I traveled to Guatemala in June 2017 that I was finally able to learn how much I didn't know about the process of backstrap weaving.

As any Guatemalan textile enthusiast would tell you, the best concentration of textile artisans are in the small towns that surround Lake Atitlan. The trip from Antigua to the lake is a three hour drive, which at times, is terrifying - picture an overcrowded van speeding along cliff-side roads and sharp switchbacks!

Everyone heading to the lake first arrives to the main town of Panajachel, or “Pana”, for short. From Pana, you can catch a small taxi boat to each smaller town surrounding the lake. With one goal in mind, I arrived to Pana weary, but excited to finally learn the craft that had fascinated me for years. I gathered my bags and quickly headed for the iconic blue taxi boats that shuttle residents and visitors from one small lakeside town to the next.

I was headed for San Juan to visit a small company named Batz Textiles. Batz Textiles is run by Ana, a local woman who learned the art of weaving, dyeing, and sewing from her family. When I arrived, I excitedly stepped into a small shop which held the most beautiful Guatemalan textiles I had seen on my two week trip.

I met Ana and she graciously gave me a tour of her shop. It was absolute heaven for someone like myself! First we headed to a back room where their fabrics are sewn into bags and other products. It was filled with beautiful fabrics, threads, yarns, and sewing machines. Unlike traditional Guatemalan style, Batz creates fabrics whose colors are much more muted, natural, and modern.

We moved through the shop and stepped out back to a small covered patio where most of the weaving takes place. It is simple, but has everything they need. I glanced a few feet up the hill, to a small covered patio with a sink and a few electric burners.This is where the yarn is dyed and prepared.

Walking through a small path on the property, surrounded by coffee plants, I could see the small town and vast lake below. Celebrations for the town’s saint day were taking place in the narrow streets and music from the church echoed as far as I could hear.

I listened while Ana and her sister prepared the dye bath, speaking in Tz’utujil, an indigenous Mayan language. Tz’utujil is spoken in the Sololá department of Guatemala that surrounds the lake.The sisters used logwood chips, also called campeche or palo de tinto, a wood that produces a dye color ranging from purple to black, depending on the method.

The process begins with washed and softened yarn, which is then placed into the boiling purple liquid. Everything that requires drying is placed on a line outside the dye room. That’s where our yarn was placed when it was finished.

We moved onto the next step with a pre-dyed yarn to save time. I choose four colors from the basket and handed them to Ana. She only speaks Spanish and Tz’utujil, so our communication was very basic. I learned from her movements as well as her words.

We wound the yarn from a skein into a ball so it would be easier to work with. We used a special yarn winding tool called a swift. Ana let me do this as she sat and watched me.

I normally feel very confident when working with yarn, but I suddenly felt like a beginner as I tried to learn her skill. After, I followed Ana back up the hill with the warping board where the dye pots sat. I set it down and she sat behind it, placing the basket of yarns next to her on the cement floor.

The warping board is like a wooden bench with posts attached to the seat in very specific places. Creating the warp is an important part of any weaving process; however, it’s even more so in backstrap weaving. Unlike a foot loom or other modern looms, the warp in backstrap weaving is the top yarn, or the yarn that is visible in the finished product.

Ana showed me how to loop the yarn spool through the posts on the warp board so we could create a pattern. After helping me get started, Ana left me to finish the warp myself so she could tend to her shop. It took me nearly two hours to finish this task and my back was aching by the time I was finished.

Next, Ana showed me how to remove the warp yarns from the warping board and set up the loom. She tied the warp yarns together in specific places so our work wouldn’t be lost. Despite her expertise, watching the yarns slide off their carefully placed position on the post and rest in a tangled pile was unnerving.

I watched in amazement as Ana took the warp and transformed it into a functional backstrap loom with just a few wooden rods and some rope. It was utterly fascinating to see the very primal version of a process that is now fully mechanized. Every expensive industrial loom contains elements that, here, are replaced by sticks and string. What intrigued me most, was the standardization of the fabric width to avoid fluctuation or warping of the edges - it’s a perfect system!

Ana wove a few rows to show me how it was done and then handed the project over to me. We were seated low to the ground on a small wooden stool. The loom was attached to a metal pole a few feet in front of us. The bottom-most stick was connected to a sling that wrapped around my bottom, which I *sort of* sat on.

I adjusted myself, reeling in the length of the loom by wrapping the string that was attached to the sling around the bottom-most stick to make sure the loom was taut. Then used my body to increase or decrease the tension of the warp yarns to make it easier for me to insert the weft. The weaving process was actually rather simple, opening the warp and inserting the weft, then pushing the weft down into place and repeating over and over again.

I repeated this process for a few hours. At this point, I had been at Batz for 5 hours and had only woven a few inches. My back was aching; however, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of my situation. I was in a tiny village in Guatemala, learning an ancient art form passed down generations to Ana. I was honored, but the experience opened my eyes to a widespread problem in our textile industry.

I spent 9 hours over the course of two days working on my weaving. When I was finished, I had completed 12” of fabric. A clutch bag in Ana’s shop made from that amount of fabric was selling for $5.00 US dollars. Now aware of how time consuming the process was, I grew frustrated knowing that if that had been my fabric, my time and the artisan’s time, would have been worth $0.55 per hour.

A couple sticks and carefully threaded yarn wove a disheartening picture of how undervalued this art form, and many similar art forms really are. In a society that honors quickly cycling trends and cheap clothing, it’s more important than ever to support small artisans. Our team at Line + Tow is committed to sharing the importance of honoring these traditions.

Eyes and heart wide open, I climbed back into a blue water taxi for my journey home. I had accomplished much more than my failed attempts to backstrap weave in my Peruvian bedroom. Ana not only introduced me to the beautiful, sustainable craft, but had also opened my eyes to the importance of refocusing our value of textiles and purchasing them for what they are truly worth.

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