Weaving in the Mayan Tradition

During our trip to Lago Atitlán, I had the opportunity to learn how to weave on a backstrap loom. My instructor, Rosa, was from the Asociación de Mujeres Tejedoras con Tinte Natural Lema’. The women in Lema’ are Tz’utujiles, a Native American Mayan ethnic group. While I was able to communicate in Spanish, most of the women spoke with each other in their native Tz’utujil language.

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The association’s mission is as follows:

We are Tz‘utujiles women. By making these handmade textiles with natural dyes and colors, we are keeping our ancestral Mayan culture and tradition. This association provides work, especially for women, hoping to increase the quality of our living in our village, San Juan la Laguna.

The corner storefront is filled with beautiful handmade textiles. The Mayan motifs and patterns could be found on table runners, scarves, small bags, huipiles, and belts.

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There were sturdy handwoven baskets in simple yet beautiful designs.

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I thought these would make great cosmetic bags.

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I regret not buying this belt. It is incredibly detailed and covered in strawberries.

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In one section of the store, they had samples of the natural cotton used to make yarn.

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Also on display were the plants from which they created natural dyes.

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All of the dyes were made from plants native to the area.

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I signed up for the class one evening and was able to select the colors for the scarf I was going to weave. I selected this deep red made from the crushed seeds of the achiote tree.

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The next morning, the threads had been set up on the loom and several inches had been started. My instructor, Rosa, then strapped the loom onto me until we got the right tension. Then began the rhythmic process of weaving. Lift the green section of threads with the beater – here, a flat piece of wood sanded through use – and throw the shuttle with the yellow thread through the opening. The beater is then turned so it lays flat and pushed down over the threads to line them up tightly. I was mesmerized by how the colors shifted after pulling down on the shed and heddle rods – the two horizontal sticks (second and third from the top). From time to time, I wasn’t able to catch all the threads when I threw the shuttle. Rosa’s capable hands would step in and correct my mistake and show me what I had done. I wove, slowly, for a couple of hours. I finally got into a rhythm and could tell for myself when I had missed a thread. Rosa stepped out for a while but her daughter kept watch over me.

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When Rosa came back, she helped me finish the scarf. It took her 20 minutes to complete the number of inches it had taken me two hours to weave! And here is my scarf – woven on a backstrap loom in the Mayan tradition.

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If you ever venture to Guatemala, Lago Atitlán is a must-stop. Spend a few days going from village to village as each has its own special character. When you go to San Juan La Laguna, stop by Lemá and say hello to Rosa for me. You can find Lemá on Facebook or Instagram or contact them via email at asociacionlema01@gmail.com or phone at (502) 586 68446.

When our trip was over, we took a small motorboat across the lake to another village where our driver would pick us up. That trip across the lake was magical.

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As I rode across the lake,

With the wind blowing back my loose hair,

I closed my eyes and turned my face to the skies.

As the hot sun warmed my face,

I imagined I was an indigenous Mayan woman

Crossing the lake to trade in the neighboring village.

It was as if my own ancestors emerged from my being.

Fermented by the Mayan sun,

My face reflected on the waters of Atitlán

And captured the hopes of the women who came before me.

And I smiled.

I was home.

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Botanical Dyes and Motifs in the Textiles of Lago Atitlán

This past April, my husband and I enjoyed a long weekend along the banks of Lago Atitlán in Guatemala. Getting there from Guatemala City was a 5-hour, bumpy and circuitous ride up the mountains. When we arrived, it was almost dark, and the fog obscured a full view, but what I could see was beautiful. The lake seemed to go on forever.

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Lago Atitlán was once called “the most beautiful lake in the world” by German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Lago Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America at 1,049 feet (320 meters) deep and is approximately 12 kilometers long. It is surrounded by villages whose inhabitants are Tz’utujil, an ethnic group of the Maya civilization.

The vegetation is lush and abundant with fruit trees and flowering greenery. Coffee beans grow along the mountainsides and locals work at harvesting them for exporting.

They say that this mountain top resembles the face of a Maya ancestor.

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The villages each have their own personalities. We stayed at San Pedro La Laguna which draws backpackers from all over the world. The streets along the banks of the river are dotted with bars and hostels catering to youthful travelers. We stayed in a one-bedroom apartment in the home of an English teacher, a short walk from restaurants and coffee bars but far enough away from the noise. My goal was to visit San Juan La Laguna, a neighboring village known for its cooperatives of women weavers. For 10 quetzales, we took a dusty 10-minute tuk-tuk ride to get there. Our first stop was at the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico. According to their brochure:

We are a multigenerational collective of 48 women weavers from San Juan La Laguna. We work together to support each other and our families through the sales of our traditionally crafted textiles since 1971.

We met Cristina, a member of the cooperative, who explained the spinning and dying process. The textiles are woven out of locally grown white and brown cotton.

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The cotton is picked, cleaned and hand spun with a support spindle and bowl, as demonstrated by Cristina.

Cristina then explained each of the natural dyes used to add color. All of the dyes are extracted from flora that grows around Lago Atitlán.

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To obtain shades of red, they crush the seeds from the pods of the achiote tree (scientific name: Bixa orellana). The pulverized seeds are heated in water to produce rich reds.

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I was surprised to learn that the avocado seed produces a dye. The seed is dried and left until it begins to disintegrate. It is then ground and boiled to release a green dye.

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The buds and seed pods of the pericon plant (scientific name: Hypericum perforatum) produce green and yellow colors. The plant is native to Mexico and Guatemala and grows wild in previously cultivated land or near milpas.

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The bark of the ilamo (a type of birch tree) produces red and yellow dyes, from the outer and inner bark, respectively.

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Flor de Muerto (or Mexican Marigold) is used for yellow dyes.

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Sacatinta (scientific name: Justicia tinctorea) produces dyes of various shades, hence its common name (“saca” from the verb “sacar” meaning to remove or take out; “tinta” for dye). According to Cristina, you can get as many as five hues from one pot of sacatinta.

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We watched as the skein of cotton yarn began to turn a deep purple upon oxygenation.

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To remember our visit, we selected this textile dyed with indigo. It is meant to be a wrap although we plan to use it as a decorative element at the end of a bed.

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Cristina explained the motifs on the textile. The milpa (or maize field) is an ancient agricultural method of the Maya. Areas of land are cultivated to grow corn and other crops. After a couple of years of harvest, the ground is left fallow to regenerate itself. Typically, women use the back strap loom to weave while men use a larger foot-pedal loom. The figure of a woman, or ixoq in the Tz’utujil language, is a recurring motif.

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The árbol de ilamo, used so frequently for its dyes, is represented.

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The next motif represents a freshwater crab found in Lago Atitlán, followed by a fish.

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The last motif in this textile is of Tikal, a pre-Columbian city from the Maya civilization.

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To learn more, we brought home this book about the botanical dyes of the region. It is organized in three major sections covering natural dyes from trees, fruits and plants. Each section contains recipes for creating the natural dyes and examples of the colors that each produces.

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You can find the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico on Facebook (@ColoresBotanico).

The Best Birthday

Last year, in the middle of my graduate program, I needed a break. Luckily for me, Houston Fiber Fest was taking place over my birthday weekend. Perfect.

After the initial sensory overload of walking into a large space full of yarn, I started exploring. I was drawn to the sheen and colors of the yarns at one particular booth and was delighted to learn that they used only natural dyes. Wool Tree Yarn is a line of naturally dyed yarn made by fiber artist Casey Galloway and sold exclusively through Lucky Ewe Yarn in New Braunfels, Texas. They had an interesting logo – a small lamb growing out of a plant – and explained its significance.

Wool Tree Yarn Logo

The Wool Tree logo is based on a lithograph from medieval Europe. During the late medieval period, cotton became an imported fiber in northern Europe. Without any knowledge of how it was derived, other than that it was a plant; noting its similarities to wool, people in the region could only imagine that cotton must be produced by plant-borne sheep. John Mandeville, writing in 1350, stated that “There grew a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the ends of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungry.” This image is retained in the name for cotton in many European languages, such as German Baumwolle, which translates as “tree wool” (Baum means “tree”; Wolle means “wool”).

I loved this super bulky wool cord at the Independence Farmstead Fibers booth. They had samples of gorgeous tapestries made from it. The fiber mill is located just outside Brenham, Texas. According to their website:

Our fibers are traceable – each labeled with a known “Pasture of Origin”- providing a strong sense of place for the handcraft artist.

There were countless booths tempting me with their beauties.

A booth from True Vineyard Ministries out of San Marcos, Texas, caught my attention with its colorful fabric yarns. True Vineyard Ministries provides “holistic support to Africa’s poorest through job creation, community building, and spiritual counsel.” Through the Handspun Hope initiative, women hand spin and dye yarn from the wool of local Merino sheep. While they had soft balls of Merino yarn, I could not resist these balls made from cotton fabric. Those colors!

And here are my purchases. The ball of 100% Cotton fabric in the upper left corner is from Handspun Hope (~30 yards). The regal purple skein is called Bevy of Swans by Alisha Goes Around, 435 yards of 50% silk, 50% Superwash Merino in a fingering weight. The blue/orange skein on the far left is a fingering weight 75% Superwash Merino, 25% Nylon from Kyla’s Lab (463 yards). The two center skeins in soft carmine hues from the cochineal insect are by Wool Tree Yarn (70% Superwash Merino, 30% Silk, 438 yards each). The skein across the bottom is a single ply 70% Superwash Merino, 30% Silk from Barn Owl Yarns. I bought it for the color – Monkey Business (400 yards).

Waves of yarn.

Close ups.

It was a great birthday getaway.

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(Source: HoustonFiberFest.com)

Tracking my Stash

For a long time, I used an app to keep track of my needles, my yarn, and works in progress. But twice now, the apps I’ve used – and paid for – stopped being supported. Any time I tried to add a new yarn or needle, the apps would crash. I needed an alternative and preferred a digital solution that I could access anytime, anywhere.

Many knitters and crocheters use Ravelry – I too have an account – but I found their desktop interface too convoluted and their app even more so. I searched for other knitting apps in the App Store but mostly found online counters and not the comprehensive digital tool I was looking for. Then, it hit me. I’ve been using Evernote for some time now. I use it to track information that I need to have handy but may not need every day, such as my mom’s prescription list. I use it to jot down blog ideas, which is what it was intended for – to take quick notes, write drafts, capture thoughts. If I see or read something that interests me that I want to explore further, I can take a screen capture, upload a photo, or copy a link into a note and add my own commentary. I can then go back through my notes and decide which ideas I want to pursue. So, it occurred to me that I could use Evernote to track my yarn stash and needle inventory. It has all the basic fields I need and much more functionality than any knitting app. There is the added benefit that Evernote is available in a desktop version for when I want a large screen and has phone and iPad apps. Even better, all my notes are automatically synchronized across all platforms.

In Evernote, you can take and track notes on anything. You can create notebooks to keep all your related notes together if you like. I created a “stack” for notes having to do with my blog. I have eight notebooks in my stack. This organization works for me, but you don’t have to make notebooks or stacks if you don’t want to.

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In my Yarn Stash notebook, I uploaded a photo of every gorgeous yarn in my possession.

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I entered basic data about each yarn – name, brand, weight, fiber type, yardage, color, and where it was purchased. This is all the same information I entered into the Vogue Knitting app which I lost when the app kept crashing. It did require a one-time manual effort to type up all my notes, but now that they’re entered, I can copy or export my data anytime. I couldn’t do that with the app. Here’s what a full-page note looks like.

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You can also add tags that allow you to filter your notes. You define the tags that make the most sense for your notes. For example, I used a filter to find all the self-striping yarn in my stash. Apparently, I have six kinds of self-striping yarn.

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You can run a regular “Search” for any words in your notes without having to create a tag. A search for “Bulky” found 15 notes.

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I didn’t stop there. I entered notes on my Fiber Stash as well. Now I can search for specific fibers, like merino, yak and alpaca, or search by color.

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I also created a Fabric Stash …

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… and started a listing of all the Yarn Shops I’ve visited.

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And, since I did not want to risk losing all my information on needle sizes and kinds (dpn, circular, straight), I entered them into an Excel spreadsheet and uploaded it into a note. Now, if I don’t have the size needles I need and purchase a new set, I simply update the Excel spreadsheet and all my information is automatically synchronized on my Evernote apps and on the desktop version.

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Now I have all the information I need about my needles, yarn, fibers and fabrics. Evernote is a free app which gives you 60MB of data per month. I have Evernote Premium ($69.99/year) because I thought I would need more space when I started my MBA program. You may not need the extra space.

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FO Friday: Born Trippy Scarf

Mostly to release tension during my MBA program, I started knitting a scarf. It took a long time because I only worked on it in short spurts. But the motion of the needles and the fusion of the colors gave me something to focus on besides case studies on Starbucks and Amazon.

I found this amazing free pattern called Born Trippy on the Hedgehog Fibres site. I liked that the samples used all sorts of funky color combinations and it had cool uneven edges. I started with a lovely skein I had gotten at Homespun Boutique during one of my MBA residencies in Ithaca. This is Serenity Silk Single, a fingering weight yarn from Zen Yarn Garden: 430 yards, 75% Superwash Merino / 15% Cashmere / 10% Silk in Fr. Vanilla Blurple (bottom ball).

Then I went through my stash and looked for complementary and contrasting colors. This is what I came up with:

  • Leftover yarn from Copenhagen (the shimmery solid blue and gray): Duo Silk/Merino from Design Club DK, 65% Merino Wool / 35% Silk.
  • A partial skein of Fine Sock yarn (the minty blue-green): Spud & Chloe, 80% Superwash Wool / 20% Silk in Color 7806 / Calypso.
  • Another purchase from Homespun Boutique (yellow/green variegated): Ty-Dy Socks from KNIT ONE, Crochet Too, 436 yards, 80% Superwash Wool / 20% Nylon.

Here’s a close-up of the Ty-Dy ball.

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As I made progress on the scarf, I introduced the variegated yellows and greens, the solid blue and gray, and the minty blue-green. It all flowed nicely and those uneven ends were easy to make.

It’s important to block this piece so that the ends are nice and sharp.

Here is the FO (finished object) with its refreshing colors in the sun.

Someone wanted to hang out with me while I took the photos.

I am very pleased with the fusion of the colors.

The combination of wool, cashmere and silk give the scarf a lovely drape.

This is a great pattern to use when you have a single skein and leftover yarns in the same weight. You can repurpose those bits and pieces and make something beautiful.