Talking Sticks


What is weaving?


What is weaving?! For that matter, what is this backstrap loom you keep mentioning!? I know, it's hard to imagine a crude technology existing during this age of technological advancements. If you haven't been to Guatemala, it's even harder to visualize a Mayan woman and what it means to say she's a weaver. I myself, had never encounter a technique so viscerally complex. This is a photo story aimed to clarify the complicated tradition of weaving. Weaving is a beautiful art form that is very much a part of day-to-day life for many women in our world. This is the story of the ancient art of Mayan weaving.


In the highlands of Guatemala there are thousands of Indigenous Mayan women who produce some of the worlds finest textiles. These women use a simple collection of sticks known as a backstrap loom to weave their fabrics. 

At the dawn of morning 61 year-old Juana begins to stretch her cotton along a piece of wood  with knobs in it, what's called a warping board. This process prepares her thread to the desired length she wishes to create her textile. Her arms repeatedly circle around the ancient knobs of wood as she patiently counts her strands of thread.


The layout of the loom is the first step in weaving. The Mayans believed that the earth had four corners and woven textiles also have four corners. Let me give you more context as to why this is significant. Woven textiles have long been associated with the spiritual or sacred realm. Both literally and symbolically, a female weaver brings cloth to life. A woven textile is believed to be a portal between the heavens and earth. This pathway is created by the weaver during the magical production process. And because of this, women are seen as giving life to textiles in the same way they would their own children; "as a child receives nutrients through its mother's umbilical cord, so too does the weaving receive its sustenance through the yarn woven through the looms heart" (Tuthill, p.3)


"Woven textiles have long been associated with the spiritual realm"


Once the length and width of the fabric is prepared on the warp board, Anna (we changed from Juana) transfers the thread onto her loom of sticks. The top stick is connected by rope to a nearby tree. Once loom posts are set in place and ready for weaving they are labeled as having a head, heart, and feet, associating the cloth with a human individual. 


This primitive and non-mechanized collection of sticks is known as a backstrap loom. The loom has been used for 3,000 years, dating back to 800 B.C.E. Many of these techniques and designs are still being used today. For the most part, the loom consists of sticks, rope, and a strap that is worn around the weaver's waist.


In weaving any fabric textiles are divided into two categories, the warp and the weft. Warp threads are the strongest because they run vertically. These are the threads shown in the photo above. The warp threads are considered the body of the fabric. Notice how there are sticks holding an opening into the middle of the warp threads, this is important as I'll explain next. 


The weft threads are the white threads in the artists hands. This threads are put through the warp. Remember I said to notice the opening in the warp thread, this is where she is about to push through the weft thread in her hand. The weft thread is considered the heart of the loom because it is woven through the middle and eventually it is what builds the fabric. 

In order to begin weaving the warp and weft thread together, the weaver positions herself kneeling on the floor with a belt wrapped around her waist. The force of her lean creates the tension she needs to begin passing the weft thread laterally through the weave. 


The backstrap loom requires strength and intelligence. The width of the textile is constrained by what the particular woman can manage. Figures are woven into the cloth at the same time the cloth is forcefully thrust into shape. Mayan women count their threads using a picking stick, and begin to build elaborate designs from memory.


Weaving is an integral part of a Mayan woman's daily life and is an important responsibility she passes on from generation to generation. With the influx in tourism women have also gained more independence through weaving-based incomes. 

When the cloth is completed, nothing remains of the loom except a pile of sticks.

amanda daum