Guatemala is the birthplace of the Mayan civilisation, the presence of which is still made very visible today. Towns and cities all across the country are rich with the vibrant colours of Mayan clothing and textiles. These alluring textiles made up of ancient symbols and colour patterns that represent Mayan culture attract fleets of tourists from across the world. In recent years, these fabrics have been redesigned into bags, wallets and more contemporary forms of clothing that are sold to tourists and foreigners. This practice has become an important means of income for many Mayan communities. However, it is important to understand where the fabrics we buy have come from. This is especially important when we are buying from vulnerable populations such as Mayas, who have been continually marginalised throughout history with recent challenges stemming from The Guatemalan Civil War.
Although we may assume that purchasing locally crafted products will benefit the manufacturers financially and provide a platform for the continuation of their culture, this is not always the case with regard to fabric sourcing in Guatemala. Often it is quite the reverse. The ways fabrics are sourced in Guatemala can be very economically damaging for weavers in the long term and also risks the devaluation of their culture. As consumers we have an important duty to avoid engaging with damaging means of textile sourcing and to support more sustainable solutions that uphold Mayan dignity.
Traditionally, the fabrics weaved by women in Guatemala do not only function as clothing for Maya people, but also signify the status and origin of a woman. The most important example of this is the huipil, a traditional top worn by Maya women. Wearing a huipil is important for representing who that woman is and connects her with her Mayan ancestors who also wore them as far back as 3500 years ago. These are frequently worn for cultural events and gatherings throughout the year.As well as having a cultural value of ancient significance, the general production value of these textiles for the Mayan population is high. This is a result of the lengthy and complex process that goes into crafting a huipil. The weaver begins by making one sleeve, then the middle section and then the second sleeve. Finally all three sections are bound together. The process to make one huipil can sometimes take up to 6 months of daily weaving. Both the cultural value and the production value should be represented in the price it is sold for. Many weavers would hope to sell their huipil’s for no less than Q200 (USD27). Sadly, this is often far off the mark of what they are offered.
Groups of people often descend on villages in Guatemala to seek out fabrics such as huipils that can be sold on to tourists. The Mayan people living in these villages are usually offered no more than between Q1-Q5 for their huipils and other textiles. These fabrics are then reworked into bags and wallets by the buyers that are made to appeal to the western world. Those engaging in this practice have promoted it as the recycling of old and used fabrics that Mayas no longer have any use for. However, it is not always this straight forward.
Often the fabrics are not sold purely because there is no use left for them. On the contrary, some of these huipils that are sold are brand new and still important to the owner. Usually, this transaction occurs because the seller is desperate and needs quick money for immediate things such as food or medicine for their children. It is due to these challenging situations that mean women feel forced to sell their fabrics. Therefore, the sale of fabrics in rural villages can often be characterised by the economic state of the seller rather than their lack of need for the fabric.
Although the owners of traditional fabrics do receive money to relieve themselves of these immediate needs, the little money they are offered is only on a one time basis. This is not a sustainable solution to the situations many Mayas find themselves in and can actually cause more damage than reparation in the long term. By selling weavings at this low of a price, they have lost out on the opportunity to sell directly to an individual buyer at a much fairer price. This practice is essentially exploiting Mayan women who are so desperate for quick cash that they are willing to sell culturally and personally important textiles for very little.
In addition to damaging the individuals that are forced to sell their fabrics, this frequent practice is ultimately devaluing Mayan culture as a whole. The cultural value of each fabric characterised by the colour and patterns within the weavings is rapidly being lost. The rate in which each fabric is sold and remodelled into something for foreign tourists within the country is out running the rate in which Mayas are able to weave and replace those garments and textiles. The result is that many Maya women are losing their traditional clothing and are being forced to wear culturally insignificant clothing, thus making them less able to connect with their culture. Understanding more sustainable solutions to fabric sourcing is crucial for ensuring that this situation does not exacerbate any further.
By sourcing fabrics directly from weavers across 17 different regions, Trama Textiles cuts out the middle man in fabric sourcing where this damaging practice often occurs. As a result, Trama Textiles are able to pay a full and fair wage to over 400 artisanal weavers in Guatemala. As well as paying a fair price for fabrics, Trama Textiles also offers consistency in the sense that the sales are not on a one time basis. Rather, many of the weavers that work for Trama Textiles have been doing so for up to 30 years. This offers a sustainable alternative to many other forms of fabric sourcing. Furthermore, the fabrics that weavers of Trama Textiles sell are not recycled but entirely new and produced specifically for Trama Textiles. Therefore, this allows Maya people to preserve their culture through the continuation of weaving without having to sell their own traditional clothing.
As consumers we have a duty to understand where our products are coming from and to tailor the ways in which we buy on this basis. If we continue to buy fabrics from unsustainable sources, then we will continue to witness the financial hardship of Maya people and the devaluation of Mayan culture. However, we can take action by ensuring that our fabrics have been sourced through sustainable means. This can be made possible by engaging with organisations such as Trama Textiles who buy directly from weavers at a full and fair price and not on simply a one time basis. If we undertake an evaluation of our fabric sourcing behaviour, then the devaluation of Mayan culture can be prevented.