By Emily Brown
In the summer heat in the mountains of Guatemala, women of various ages sit on soda crates or on their knees, strands of brightly colored thread stretching away from their bodies as they weave more thread through the vibrant lines.
The women work at Trama Textiles in Quetzaltenango, part of the Mayan Women’s Weaving Cooperative. Fashion Design major Ashleen Castillo ’19 chose to immerse herself in the art for her junior-year internship. She traveled to Guatemala at the recommendation of a friend who had also volunteered at Trama.
“Since I was looking for a different experience, it was the perfect opportunity to submerge in the culture, learn the process and get to know the business model of the cooperative,” she said. The 100-percent women-owned-and-run cooperative was interested in bringing products to a more high-fashion market. Castillo was there to help the women expand their brand, learn to weave, and design her own handbags based on what she had learned.
LEARNING TO WEAVE
The women at Trama Textiles use the backstrap weaving technique, named for the loom that is used. The loom is assembled from wooden poles, a rope, and a band or leather strap. The strap goes around the bodies of the women, and the other end is anchored, creating tension on the threads between the poles. Weavers must keep count of how many stitches are in each row, and how many colors of each stitch are in each row. The process is intensely laborious, but produces complex variations in texture and color.
Castillo watched and participated in every stage of creating and weaving the fabrics. It starts with growing the cotton, which is harvested and hand-dyed with pigments made from plants such as curcuma and achiote.
The extracted dyes are cooked and boiled, and then the cotton thread is dipped in. The women boil plantains in the water, which binds the dye to the thread. When it dries, the color doesn’t wash out. Any change in the environment can affect the outcome.
“If the moon is full, the color is different in the dye,” Castillo said. “It is beautiful how nature can work with us.”
Once the thread dries, the weaving can begin. A traditional blouse, called a huipil, can take anywhere from one to six months to make.
HOW IT BEGAN
The cooperative started in 1988 in the wake of devastating civil war, as a way for survivors – most of them women – to financially support their families.
“A lot of these women’s sons, husbands, uncles and friends were killed in front of them,” Castillo said. “When they told me about this, there was still so much pain in their body language. From a really bad situation, they created such a promising and beautiful project.”
Trama works directly with 400 women from 17 cooperatives across five regions in Guatemala, and sales go to support these regions. The women are paid up front to ensure fair compensation for their labor.
One of the artisans Castillo met was 92-year-old Sebastiana, who’s been weaving since she was fifteen.
“She’s blind now, but she knows the weaving so well, she said to me ‘I cannot look but I know it in my memory,’” Castillo said.
Castillo was entranced by the language of the fabrics.
“Even the colors are significant to specific communities – you know how to identify them based on what they are wearing,” she said, noting the weavers use birds, frogs, fish and flowers in their designs to differentiate the cloth. “In this part of the world, we should embrace that. Because we are so contaminated by fast fashion, we lose a sense of identity.” A scarf on the Trama website includes the description “the central pattern represents the peaks of the Guatemalan volcanoes with plumes of smoke rising skyward.” Castillo said fast fashion can destroy these types of businesses, and she believes designers and consumers should be responsible in how clothing is made and purchased.
The weavers gave Castillo fabric scraps, which she used to design prototypes of handbags. She wants to develop a collection that the women would produce and be brought to an international market.
“To embrace their culture in a modern way – that is my goal,” she said. Castillo wants to create a product that can represent them as weavers, but also looks modern.
“It was the best experience of my life so far,” she said. “I learned how fashion speaks.”