The Language of Weaving: The Back Strap Loom in Guatemala

IMG_3057Nearly every human civilization has created some form of textiles. Of those, textiles are a means specific to their needs, resources, and spirituality.

Regardless of the time and place, if a mechanism for weaving was created it must follow a few rules to allow for the physics of weaving to occur.  You can think of it like an algebraic equation, regardless of the variables x must always equal x.

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For the past 7 weeks I have been studying Spanish so I’m at the point of extended polite conversation but I can’t say much more than “yes, there are beaches in New York City but they are not as beautiful as the beaches in Central America.”  Regardless of my limited vocabulary I have been able to learn how to use the back strap loom through my new friend, Lidia.

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Lidia is from a pueblo in Guatemala called San Antonio Aguas Calientes (there used to be hot water springs nearby, she tells me).  San Antonio is a small town nestled between some of the local volcanoes, it is here that many people say some of the best Mayan weavers live.  The talent and the living tradition is certainly there however there are many villages throughout Guatemala whose weaving techniques and traditional cloths are equally as beautiful.

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As is consistent with the Mayan tradition Lidia was taught to weave by her mother just as her mother’s mother taught her.  The cloth she is teaching me to make would probably be a simple table runner today but the techniques are consistent with the processes used to create a huipil (the traditional Mayan blouse).

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I am formally trained on the western style floor loom (here it is called telar de pie or loom of the foot) and because I am a weaver I went into my first class having an understanding of what sorts of things must happen in order to create a woven fabric.

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One of the defining features of a loom is that it must create tension on the warp thread, these are the threads typically strung on or in the loom that form the base structure of the fabric.  With the back strap loom the tension is created with the weaver’s body.  As result the process is far more physically engaging than I had initially imagined.

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One must use their body, moving forward and backward, to tighten and loosen the tension.  I did my best to express this in spanish to Lidia, I told her that I felt like my body was a part of the loom and the fabric.  She agreed and said that this is the reason why the huipil is so special to the Mayan people.  Their bodies are physically and intimately engaged in every moment of its creation.

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3 Comments

  1. Fascinating. No matter the country or culture, we all share a ‘common thread’ through art.

  2. Roland

    This is fascinating. I normally weave on a rigid heddle loom so I have a few questions about backstrap weaving…how is soft, drapable cloth suitable for clothing produced on this loom? I would love to use it but I feel the loom would produce stiff and heavy cloth. How is it done?

    • Amanda

      That is a great question Roland! Also, I love your comparison between rigid heddle looms and back strap – they are similar in the sense that each is only capable of creating plain/tabby weave (Saori looms can be put in that boat as well).

      In regards to clothing and the type of fabric that is created on the back strap loom, you are correct the fabric is a dense weave. The fabric ultimately drapes well as result of the fineness of the warp and weft threads. Also, keep in mind that an individual may only have 1 or 2 huipils that are worn everyday and passed down for generations. Just as a beautiful old linen table cloth is incredibly soft with age. I do think that the fabric commonly produced in the south west region where I was living is ideal for the climate: temperate with little humidity but lots of rain in the winter and wind in the summer.

      It is also my understanding that in Coban, Guatemala the fabric produced on the back strap loom is much finer, more like gauze then the densely woven warp faced fabrics you see in the post! I only stumbled upon a few samples of Coban-ese (?) weaving but I was told the weavers actually starch their warp threads so to strengthen the fine fibers.

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