The Language of Weaving: The Back Strap Loom in Guatemala
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.