Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. New York, NY, September 23–26, 1998 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1999).


Copyright © 1998 by the author(s)



Maya weavers of Guatemala are well known for their beautiful backs trap and treadle-loomed cloth, which they create for clothing and related garments and for sale, both within and outside Guatemala. Backstrap weaving, mainly a woman's occupation done in the home, has an ancient history over two millennia, although there are few extant examples of the weavings of the ancient Maya due to climatic conditions (Figure 1). The process, however, was documented in ceramic art, and the tradition of handwoven clothing can be seen in monumental stone carvings, murals, and also in ceramic art. Today weavers purchase the yarn called mish already spun and dyed in nearby shops. A backstrap loom is only sticks and a batten, hence it is often called a stick loom. Embroidery yarn, which is used in supplementary weft brocading often mistaken for embroidery, comes from many parts of the world. I have samples in my collection from France, England, Hungary, Germany, Japan, China, and elsewhere. These are purchased in regional markets such as Chichicastenango and Antigua. Men generally produce yardage on treadle looms for women's skirts and other items for sale.

Following up on field work done in 1994 that focused on four weaving cooperatives in Guatemala, my current research looks at two successful textile projects. Colibri, a shop in Antigua, and Maya Traditions, with headquarters in San Francisco, that are not laden with the bureaucratic cooperative structure that became cumbersome, corrupt, and eventually in some cases completely broke down. Within these currently successful groups, decision-making is a communal act responsive to group dynamics and increasing self esteem. Two non-indigenous women, both North Americans, started these groups and continue to advise them and market their products. Learning to modify traditional design layouts, shapes, colors, and products, weavers are creating commodities that can be sold within Guatemala and in the world markets abroad. As a result, these women are adding to their family incomes, as well as gaining linguistic and leadership skills not available to them in the past. In order to discuss the ongoing and successful projects, I want to provide some background about cooperatives in the 1980s and early 1990s. In addition I will discuss some of the notions of commodification or commoditization (neither word is in Webster's Third New International Dictionary) that were buzz words in anthropological research on world markets and textile production as put forth by June Nash and others in Crafts in the World Market (1993) and Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider and others in Cloth and Human Experience (1989). Brenda Rosenbaum and Liliana Goldin have also addressed the remaking of Maya artisan production in Guatemala with conclusions similar to mine (1997).