Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It's Just As Tiring as Climbing: Weaving on a Backstrap Loom

In Guatemala, textiles are everywhere. Especially in the highlands, where I've spent nearly all my time, the majority of women still dress in traje (traditional clothing). Men generally dress in western clothing.  It's definitely common to see a woman dressed like a photo in National Geographic walking around with a guy wearing Levis, a tee-shirt, and a baseball cap.  I guess it's because there has been more pressure on men to assimilate into western culture in order to work, whereas the Guatemalan woman's domain has remained at home.
women in traje selling flowers on the stairs of san tomas church in chichicastenango
Anyway, each place has its own style of corte (skirt) and huipile (blouse). Many (most?) of these pieces are still woven and decorated by hand, and they're beautiful, intricate, and colorful. It's mesmerizing, especially for me, because I enjoy dabbling in fiber arts and have a wardrobe of mostly earth-tone, solid color, boring clothing (no blingy flourescent pink or sequins).

I love traveling because I love learning/ experiencing/ appreciating things that I can't really learn/ experience/ appreciate at home. One of the things I wanted to do in Guatemala was learn how women make these beautiful textiles. I hooked up with Trama Textiles, a cooperative of women tejedores (weavers) in Xela for a 10-hour crash course in using a backstrap loom for weaving.

It took about three hours of prep work before I could even start weaving, then about six hours to weave a simple six-foot scarf. And let me tell you, I am so glad that I have well-developed shoulder and back muscles from climbing big rocks, because my arms were tired by the end!

Here's how the entire process of weaving a scarf, from start to finish.  If the text and pictures don't make any sense, just skip to the video at the end!

Step 1: Select your colors, one main color (green) and two contrasting colors (white and gold).

Step 2: Put the skeins of thread onto two rotating arms (known as a devanadera) and wind two threads together into a ball (devanar, to wind).

Step 3: Make your design. In my case, I had 180 threads to divide into a pattern of stripes.

Step 4: Wind the threads around a warp board (urdidor). Looking down at the urdidor, start at the upper right, cross down the inside, wrap around the bottom, and cross up the outside to the upper left. From the upper left, cross down the inside, wrap around the bottom, and cross up the outside. This is warping, or urdir.

The number of threads of each color in your design corresponds to the number of wraps you make. You'll end up with a stack of threads crossed over each other at the top pegs of the urdidor, like this:

Step 5: Set up (armar) the loom (telar de cintura). Apparently this takes a while, and can be a bit difficult, so my teacher did it for me while I went to lunch.

The top loops of the thread are wrapped around two dowels. There is another dowel, called a pulito, that holds up half of the threads. Beneath the pulito there's another dowel called a laviadura, whose threads hold up the other half of the threads.

Step 6: Strap yourself into the loom by putting the belt (cintura, though I think there's another name for it) around your waist and wrapping its threads around the bottom of the loom.

Step 7: Weave! ¡Teja! Weaving is divided into two processes, proceso uno and proceso dos.

Proceso uno:
Lift the laviadura, raising one half of the threads.

Insert the torpidor, an oblong piece of wood, under this half of the threads.

Pack down the threads already woven.

Rotate the torpidor, raising this half of the threads.

Pass the trama, a baton with thread wrapped around it, under this half of the threads. The thread on the baton becomes the weave threads (in contrast to the warp threads, which go lengthwise along the scarf).

Remove the torpidor.

Proceso dos
Slide together the laviadura and the pulito. This raises up the other half of the threads! Neat!

Insert the torpidor under the other half of the threads.

With the torpidor, pack down the thread that you just placed with the trama in proceso uno.

Rotate the torpidor to lift the other half of the threads.

Pass the trama under the other half of the threads.

Remove the torpidor. Start from the beginning of proceso uno again, using the laviadura to lift the first half of the threads!

If that didn't make any sense, here's what the sequence looks like when you put it all together:

Step 8: When you reach the end of the warp threads, cut the piece from the dowels and tie the lose ends in decorative knots.

All done!

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