Mary Beth Writes

I wrote this 12 years ago.  It's long and even I get confused as to what I wrote when one gets about half way through this  - and I was there!   But some of you will be interested to read how those "ethnic weavings" from Guatemala begin.  Next time you buy something hand woven, for less than $20, you will understand that price is not right.

.....

Feb 20, 2007 - Until this past trip to Guatemala I lived in a world where "weaving" was a metaphor. Hah. This is how to warp a loom:

 1. Go to the markets where threads are sold. They are not available every day or every place. You must know on what day to show up where. Generally, this will require two or three hours out of your day, riding the chicken bus from your tiny village down to a larger town. Or a boat ride across Lake Atitlan. You will probably carry your toddler in a repozo (the long cloth that binds the baby to your side and back, and in which she will probably take a nap as you gracefully haul this 20-pound child next to your torso). You will have another child by the hand, some quetzals (coins) tucked in a plastic bag which you carry tucked under your woven belt. Purses are lovely, and you know how to weave and sew them, but you are too encumbered to be carrying anything extra.

 2. At market you buy twisted hanks of thread.  This thread was most likely manufactured in Europe. Some threads are woven from locally grown cotton, then dyed from locally available plants. These items are gorgeous but way too expensive for common folks.

 3. At home, when you are free again from family responsibility, you pull the threads from your market bag. Each hank was, back in Germany, compactly twisted into a coil about the size of a 6-inch sub sandwich. You pull the coil apart into a loose loop of thread that looks like a coil of rope you'd use to tie up your fishing boat to a dock. Only this is not 20 feet of rope. This is hundreds and hundreds of yards of thread.

 4. You carefully set this coil down over a common-in-Guatemala device that no North American would recognize. It looks, vaguely, like the skeleton of a lamp shade. It's weathered wood because it was never varnished, plus it's stored outside.  (Houses are too small to store equipment). This thread-holding frame is set on a free-spinning stem. This home-made machine keeps the thread untangled and about 2 1/2 feet off the ground.

 5. Next you drag over another homemade machine that exists for the purpose of getting the thread off the lamp shade and onto spools.  The driver of this machine is the steel frame of an old bicycle wheel. A steel cranking handle is connected, via a small gear, to the wheel. Also attached to the wheel is a spoke that turns as the wheel is turned. Everything else is simply a wood frame to hold these essential pieces together - the wheel, the gear, the turning handle, and the spool-holding rod.

 6. Put the thread-holding lampshade next to the bike wheel device. Grab the end of the hank of thread. By hand, start to wind the thread onto the spool. Turning the crank, which turns the bike wheel, which spins the spool. You guide the thread from one machine to the other through your hand. Since you will be doing this for hours, you will probably use a piece of cloth to protect your fingers from getting cut from the miles of thread that pass through your light and steady grip.

 7. The spools are made of hollow bamboo, about 6-9" long. Or maybe, if you have it around, 1" PVC pipes. There are professional spools available, but if you were the kind of person who could buy such things, you wouldn't be so poor you'd be weaving for income.

 8. To weave cloth about 14"-18" inches in width, you will need about 1500-2500 threads, depending on the tightness and density of your weaving. 

 9. Another open, horizontally oriented frame, about the size of a toddler bed, is pulled out into the courtyard where you are working.  Holes have been drilled into sideboards of this frame. There's no bottom to it. Long, skinny rods, generally smooth sticks, are stuck into a hole on one side of the frame, go straight across the open space to the matching hole on the other side. The weavers put two spools of thread on each stick. There's room on the frame for about 36 spools of thread.

 10. The weaver pulls up the loose end of the thread from each spool, until she has those 36 threads in her hand.

 11. She is now going to begin to wrap them around the next homemade machine, which is as big as a bed, though once again, it is only a 4-sided frame. It's oriented vertically, set down on a center pole. This pole spins freely between a section of 2x4 which rests on the ground into which a depression just the size of the end of the pole has been carved out. The top end of the pole is tied to the rafters of the roof over the courtyard area. In this way, the 6' wide, 6' tall frame can spin on the center pole. The weaver will eventually spin it the way women spin the (much smaller) jewelry racks at Target.

 12. The weaver takes the bundle of threads that are in her clasp, ties them in a single knot, then splits the bundle into two even bunches. She firmly loops this over 6" wooden prongs which stick out from the top edge. Now she's ready to go. She spins the frame with one hand, keeping the threads even and smooth in the other.

The noise of this process is incredibly soothing and charming. You hear all the spools clacking as they turn on their spinners. The weaver wraps the threads around the frame, from top to bottom, in an even zig-zag pattern. At the bottom she ties the threads to another set of prongs.

 13. I'm guesstimating wildly here. Each hank of multi-colored threads will wrap about 8 complete times around the 6' x 6' frame. I guess this means the final length of the material will be about 25-35 yards. 

 14. Here's the kicker. The spools run out all the time. An assistant who is watching the threads, tell the weaver to stop. The assistant then grabs a new spool of thread the same hue as the old. She quickly dumps the spent spool off the rod, slides the new one on, then hand-ties the new thread to the old thread in a small, tight, neat knot.

15. In an hour, or two, or three, or more, they will be done.

 PERKY NOTE:

During the afternoon I watched this process, Santa (it means saint) and her 20-year old daughter Maria Christina, were preparing to warp a loom with 52-thread hanks.  Yet the spool holding whiz-a-majig machine only holds, as I said, 36 spools.

They gerry-rigged a spool holder out of a plastic milk crate. Long skinny sticks were slid through both sides of the open-weave crate, then the spools were put onto these sticks.  But the sticks would jiggle a lot, fall out of their holes, then the spools would slip off and the whole process had to stop until Maria Christina could get all the parts propped back up.

Well, I was there, wasn't I? I spent a couple hours bent over an orange plastic crate, watching 14 spools of purple thread jounce and spin. I got to be the one who would tell Santa and Maria Christina when a spool was about to run out. I held onto the ends of some of the sticks while Santa pulled threads around and around the spinning frame.

At the end of the job, I said something along the lines that I was sure Guatemala would have come to a standstill if I hadn't been there to supervise the purple threads. Santa, Maria Christina, Vicenta, and Marta -- all master weavers -- laughed pretty hard.

16. Now the weaver carefully unwraps the long, long, long hanks of threads off the frame. She carefully slides these hanks of 52-multi-colored thread-hanks into a clean plastic tub.

17. Carry the three homemade machines back by the woodpile. Put empty spools into one bag for the next time you unwind the hanks of thread from the market. Put the still-filled spools of thread in a different bin so you can use them as you weave.

 18. You have been working with at least one or two other women all afternoon. You haven't even gotten to a loom yet.

 19. Carry the bin of the tub of thread up the hill, along a dirt path, down another path to the house where the loom to be warped is located.

 19. Three or four women will put the thread onto the loom. This is, Oh My Stars in Heaven, a tedious-tedious job.

 20. There is already woven cloth on the loom. Someone has pulled it along far enough so that there will be about a foot of unwoven space between the old pattern and the new one.

 21. Basically, this is what happens next. Two women get INSIDE the loom. They kneel, crouch, and fit themselves inside this small space.

 22. Two women stand on the outside of the loom. They slide the hanks up out of the plastic tub, across a comb that separates the threads into about 20-25 even sections, each one with its own hank of 52 threads.

 23. The women hand-tie the new threads to old threads already on the loom.

 24. Yes. This is 1500 to 2500 hand-tied knots. It will take hours and hours. They will go home and go to bed and get up the next morning and finish it.

 25. While they tie, they talk to each other. Their daughters play tag in the courtyard. The sun set over the mountains in the distance. Sons come home from school and play soccer. Husbands come home from the milpas, greet the women, go wash up, talk to the kids.

 .....          

You can smell corn tortillas being warmed up on stove tops across the valley. Dogs bark, babies cry, the women's talk winds down as they climb out of the loom, say goodbye to each other, walk back to their home along the dusty paths.

 Weaving is not a metaphor. Weaving is muscles moving, eyes watching, brain studying. It is legs crouching, arms reaching, fingers tying.  It is children laughing, women's voices blending together. It is the clatter of spools, the muffled clunk of looms. It is the twitter of birds in the bushes that grow along the edge of the courtyard. It is that joking Guatemalan sun that heats you up good and hot until you simply must take off your jacket. Right then it hides behind scrappy clouds just long enough to make you cold. You put your jacket back on, it pops back out. Every woman in the courtyard smiles at your jacket-dancing. This is the way the sun fools you up in the altiplano.

This is weaving. Every inch of you is awake. You are pulling and pushing, straining and relaxing, smiling and enduring until the sun sets, weaving is done for this day, the dark poncho of night tucks around you.

 

Comments

Leonard's picture

Guatemala is facing an election, although neither candidate seems up to the challenge of poverty and drug violence in that country. I love the United States, but I cannot ignore what the CIA did to crush their democracy in 1954 and more recently turn it into a highway for narcotics traffic. Their only hope has been meager aid from the US Government and cash sent by Guatemalans working in the US. Now the President wants to end both of those. If you value the art of these weavers, call or write your representatives and tell them to ease the pressure on Central American countries!

The results of the election are a nightmare for Guatemala. The new president is ultra right wing. Very few people voted because both choices were awful.

Love the weaving information. Wow. It would be so awesome to weave with them.

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