Have you ever had the pleasure of watching how a native Guatemalan textile is made?

Not only is it a work of art, but its meaning and what goes behind these pieces makes each woven article a vessel of stories and meaning.

Historically, they once served only as a means of categorizing geographically distinct indigenous groups by the Spanish colonizers. It grew to become the chosen manner of dressing and symbol of status. Check out this map of the distinct patterns for hüipiles (loose, woven shirts for women) worn around Guatemala.

Now these woven garments are aiding with development in several indigenous communities of Guatemala.

 

I found out about this Cooperative when I travelled into Guatemala’s beautiful highlands. I stumbled into it only after I took a three hour car ride from Guatemala City to Panajachel, Sololá; got on a 40 minute boat ride to the small town of San Juan Atitlán and walked up a very steep little road, arriving to a small house with a colorful hand painted wooden sign that said “Cooperative of Weaving Women”.

Inside this house, rearranged into a display, were hüipiles, skirts, bags, shawls and all sorts of textile articles available. The nice indigenous woman explained how the cooperative worked and how it was benefiting the 20 something women that worked in it.

She explained that in order to be an organic, artisan business, they would first focus on the cotton and the dye. Each woman must have her own cotton plant. She tends to it, grows it and process it into thread. Everything made without pesticides or chemicals.

For each of the colors they use, they have a natural source. Burgundy can be obtained by boiling fruits, vegetables, bark, plants, anything natural. For example, to obtain the color burgundy, the cotton threads are boiled in hibiscus flowers; to get red, a small insect that group in certain types of plants, the cochinilla is collected, dried, crushed and boiled (talk about resourceful!).

Collecting the dyes needed to weave one piece takes months. Other cooperatives around the country work with them to trade ingredients that are not found in San Juan Atitlán. This way, cooperatives around Guatemala benefit from each other and aid in their co-development.

Textile display

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After boiling the cotton threads with their natural dye, these must be put to dry. After this lengthy process ends, the weaving starts. These pieces are either sold in their own store, distributed amongst retailers, used to create other pieces or sold online. Dozens of similar cooperatives work this way and have started to create, not only a fashion trends, but economic reactivation inside their rural hometowns.

Stores such as Hiptipico, Maria’s Bag and Uxibal have dedicated their efforts to empower these women through their work and their own abilities, aiding these women in their entrepreneurial journey. This cycle has allowed these women to obtain microcredits, invest, create and sell. Consequently, the families of these women have a chance to escape poverty and invest in what matters: health and education for their families.

Jessica Alba recently visited Guatemala do some research about women weavers and micro-credits:

 

Stephen Fry visited the country as well and filmed this bit about these awesome women and fashion bags: