CREATING THE COTTON THREAD
Trama's weavers 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 in the country. Cotton is a very demanding plant, needing 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 to increase the cotton’s strength and grow it faster.
Most of us know how bad pesticides are for the earth, but it’s important to understand that it's 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 is another feature of 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.
After this, the cotton is 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's 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.
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, the yarn is boiled 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 the dye is derived from. The red colour is made with the cochineal of the cactus plant. The cochineal is dried for several days to create a powder strong enough to achieve the red colour when mixed with water. Maya women also use the cochineal to make their own red lipstick. The chilca plant is also used to make green, and the copal tree is used for grey.
Other objects used to dye the thread include beetroot, avocado, guava, carrots, insects, basil and cinnamon. Interestingly, the plant or insect can sometimes produce an unexpected colour. Who would have thought that avocado dye equals pink yarn?
Once the colour is ready, the weaver forms a ball of yarn through a process called ‘Debanadera’. Next, they 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 create just one piece.
The backstrap loom, or Telar de Cintura, consists of the strap which wraps around the weaver's back (giving the loom its name), a series of bars which hold the yarn in place, and a rope attached to a tree or post to provide tension. The loom is portable, and many women prefer to weave outside, where the sun brings out the textiles' colours.
The backstrap loom is an 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. The back-and-forth motion of the hips during weaving are compared to similar movements during childbirth, and in many Mayan communities, expectant mothers are encouraged to finish their weavings before the baby is born to ensure that it is born without problems.