CREATING THE COTTON THREAD
The weavers of Trama Textiles use organic, locally produced, naturally dyed cotton thread. Guatemala is not well known for its cotton exportation, as it is only 56 / 169 in the mondial rank. However, the culture of this plant is one of the oldest and most traditional in the country. Cotton is a very demanding plant, as it needs a large amount of water and consistent warm temperatures.
Growing the plant organically is the first step in guaranteeing sustainable production. However, many farmers are using pesticides, primarily to increase the cotton’s strength and grow it faster. Most of us know how bad pesticides are for the earth, but it’s also important to understand that it is also bad for the farmers’ salaries. Pesticides are very expensive, and once introduced, farmers depend on continuous and ever-increasing usage to produce the same yield. When farmers in Guatemala refuse these agents, they are promoting an independent and conscientious cotton culture.
The next step is harvest, which the workers can perform manually or with the use of machines. While the machines are quicker and less labour intensive, they are also very expensive and often damage the fibre. This makes another important point on the conscientious collection of raw materials: machines generate lots of waste and consume large quantities of water. This is because machines extract both cotton and branches, making it harder to separate the fibre from the dirt and then requiring more water to clean it.
- Once picked, the natural cotton balls (which are white, khaki or coffee in colour) are pulled apart so that the seeds can be removed. The cotton is then stretched and pounded into a rectangle in preparation for spinning it into thread.
- The cotton is then hand-spun on a spool. The women use one hand to spin the spool while the other holds the cotton high until long strands begin to form. It is necessary to spin the cotton several times to achieve a very fine cotton thread.
The last step of thread production is the dyeing process. The dye is made with natural and earth friendly colourants. San Juan la Laguna is one of the few villages left around Guatemala that dyes its yarn naturally. The natural yarn process is fascinating. It is incredible that such vibrant colours can be achieved in a completely natural way.
- A natural fixator made from banana leaves is used to ensure the finished yarn does not bleed as synthetic dye often does. The cotton is first dipped in the banana water then into the pot containing the boiling water and desired dye. Depending on the hue desired, you boil the yarn for 2 – 3 hours.
- The final step is dipping the now naturally dyed yarn in the banana water again to fix the colour. The result is a vibrant colour that does not bleed or stain and is completely environmentally friendly.
Both muted and vivid dye colours can be achieved depending on the boiling time and the plants they are derived from. The red colour is made with the cochineal of the cactus plant. They dry the cochineal for several days prior to make it into a powder and achieve the red colour by putting it into the water. They can also use the cochineal to make their own red lipstick. They also use the chilca plant to make green colour, and the copal tree for the grey colour. With many local plants, they can do a wide range of natural colours.
Some other objects used to dye the thread include beetroot, avocado, guava, carrots, various insects, basil and cinnamon. What is interesting is that often the plant or insect gives an unexpected colour. Who would have thought that avocado dye equals pink yarn?
Once the colour is done, the weaver forms a ball thanks to a process called ‘Debanadera’. Next, they must wrap the thread between each piece of wood of a wooden table called an ‘Urdidor’. It is only after all of these processes that the women can begin to weave with the ancestral backstrap loom technique. Depending on the complexity of the design, it can take days, weeks or months to do just one piece.
The backstrap loom, or Telar de Cintura, consists of the strap worn by the weaver which wraps around their back (giving the loom its name), a series of bars which hold the yarn in place and a rope attached usually to a tree or post to provide tension. The loom is portable, and many women prefer to weave outside, where it is believed that the sun brings out the vividness of the colours in their weavings. The backstrap loom is a very essential element of any Mayan household, not only because it produces the cloth that keeps the family warm, but because it connects them with the past and provides an outlet for artistic impulses.
Backstrap loom weaving is also often related to fertility and childbirth. In many Mayan communities, women will sometimes advise expectant mothers to finish their weavings before the baby is born so it is not born with problems. For instance, the back-and-forth motion of the hips during weaving are compared to the similar movements during birth. Another example can be found in Santiago Atitlán, where during a birth, “the midwife may pass the sticks of the backstrap loom over the mother’s belly in order to rotate the baby’s head toward the birth canal,” much like how weavers “rotate a textile after they have finished setting up the loom.”