The Backstrap Loom
of Jacaltenango, Guatemala

The "Y" shaped tie cord (M) has a two inch loop on each of its two short ends. The long end of the cord averages fifty three inches in length, while each of the shorter ends average fourteen inches. The lease cord (J); is tied into the shed while the warp is still on the warping frame where the shed bar will be positioned. The lease cord maintains the order of the warp threads and remains until the hair sash has been completely woven. When the shed roll slips out of position (this sometimes happens when the loom is not under tension), the lease thread is lifted to form an opening, then the shed roll is slipped into place. The shed roll (I) divides the warp in half. In Jacaltenango it is always constructed of a hollow cane or bamboo. It often has pebbles or seeds inside the core to make noise as the woven hair sash is beaten. The cane's natural joint forms one end of the container and the other end is plugged with paper after the seeds or pebbles have been inserted. The shed roll averages three quarters of an inch in diameter and is the same length as the end rods and like them, turns brown and shiny with age and use. The heddle rod (H) consists of a debarked stick, approximately eight inches long, that has three or more prongs on one end. The heddle thread is spirally wrapped around the stick. The heddles are actually closer together than they appear in the illustration. The heddle rod is also highly regarded by the weaver; she will not part with it. When commissioning pieces still on the loom, I had to provide a set of four end rods, a beater, and a heddle stick because of the attachment that weavers have for these loom parts. The beater (G) is made of a heavy wood and is usually around eleven inches long by one and a quarter inches wide. The thick rounded top edge tapers to a sharp knife-like edge on the bottom. The beater is perhaps the most precious part of the loom to a weaver. They are sometimes handed down from mother to daughter. The warp (F) may be either single or double for the hair sashes. The floral and the striped geometric hair sashes are usually woven with a single warp. The other geometric hair sashes are woven with a paired warp. The weft bobbin (E) is approximately seven inches long. The weft is spirally wrapped around the stick back and forth. The supplementary wefts (D) are extra. If they were to be removed, the integrity of the woven cloth would remain intact. The cloth end rods (B and C) and the warp end rods (K and L) need only be long enough to sustain the warp and to comfortably allow the loom to be stretched between a support and the weaver (usually the width of the warp plus approximately four inches on each side). All four of the rods average ten inches in length and a half inch in width. The end rods of the loom are precious to each weaver. They are esteemed and coveted when they are old and brown. An average size for backstrap (A) is two inches by eighteen inches with two fifteen inch loops.

For a closer look, you might enjoy Maya Hair Sashes Backstrap Woven in Jacaltenango / Cintas mayas tejidas con el telar de cintura en Jacaltenango, Guatemala, a bilingual book that features the Jakaltek backstrap loom, backstrap weaving, and the beautiful hair sashes of the Jakaltek women, from both anthropological and artistic perspectives. The 176 page paperback book includes 38 illustrations, 116 black and white photographs, and 15 color photographs. (ISBN 0-9721253-1-0). Maya Hair Sashes . . . is available from Amazon.com.

Maya Hair Sashes . . . Book Review:
Journal of Latin American Anthropology, November 2005

. . . The precise documentation of the tools and techniques of the weaving process of the hair sash in Carol Ventura’s bilingual work is a propos here since it deals with the preservation of knowledge of the tradition. For Ventura, the artist and art historian, 1986 was the culmination of four and one-half years of working with the Jakaltek weavers in Guatemala. Her view of the learning process at that time, which included learning by observation and use of the toy loom, accords with Greenfield. Ventura returned in 1996 and in 2002. Although in 1986 weaving was an important activity that established group identity and social cohesiveness, by 2002 weaving was rapidly disappearing. The weaving cooperative had become a general store and there was less foreign demand for hair sashes and wall hangings. The hair sash designs had evolved from simple geometric patterns to elaborate designs appropriated from German silk ribbons. It was the only item of local dress still woven in 2002 in Jacaltenango. This and the fact that Jakaltek textiles are still a commodity will, in Ventura's opinion, keep weaving alive in the near future. The picture given by Ventura of the changes between 1986 and 2002 is very much in keeping with those mentioned in the previous two books. Communication and contact via a road system and technology; the telephone, television, and the Internet – provide contact with the broader world. More schools and a university branch have widened horizons. A cash economy and the remittances sent by emigrants have enabled economic life will beyond subsistence levels, much as the commoditization of textiles has empowered women. . . Virginia Davis

Choice, November 2004, 42.3: 473
 
   
   Contemporary Mayan material culture has received cursory attention from scholars outside of its relevance to ancient Mesoamerica studies. Textile production and trade have been intrinsic to the life of Mayan peoples since before the Common Era, but much about their history remains unknowable. Ventura (Tennessee Technological Univ.), a compassionate historian and skilled weaver, documents in detail the history, method, style, and patterns in the backstrap-woven hair sashes worn and sold by Jakaltek women living in a remote area of modern Guatemala. Sections on Mesoamerican religion and mythology and pre-Columbian symbolism of weaving, in conjunction with a useful bibliography in English and Spanish, makes this a key resource for historians, anthropologists, and practitioners. Ventura contributes the first comprehensive account of the backstrap looming method and the conservation and transformation of traditional patterns and their meanings, including templates and step-by-step instructions for weavers. All documented areas are supported by carefully composed photographs of Jakaltek people and places, especially women working at their looms, and legible close-ups of many specific sashes. Unfortunately, very few illustrations are in color; color is significant to several designs that, in some cases, have revealed for generations the social status of individual Jakaltek women. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through professionals. M. R. Vendryes, York College, CUNY

Handwoven, May/June 2004: 20-21
       Carol Ventura, also the author of books on tapestry crochet under the name Carol Norton, learned to weave Jakaltek hair sashes while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala in the late 1970's. She learned to speak Spanish and the local language, Popti', and spent several years working with the Jakaltek weavers of Jacaltenango. Her doctoral dissertation on hair sashes was published in 1989. The first edition of this book was published in 1996 by Yax Te' Press.
       The Jakalteks have lived in the highlands of northwest Guatemala since pre-Columbian times. The women maintain their traditional clothing style. The hair sash is the only item that is still locally woven. It is an important trade item and is exported worldwide.
       While the designs on the sashes may appear to be embroidered, they are actually created as the fabric is woven. Jakalteks use a double-faced supplementary-weft brocade technique to create a variety of geometric and pictorial motifs on a warp-faced fabric.
       This is more than a book documenting hair sashes. The technical information includes a valuable analysis and comparison of forty-five hair sashes collected between 1927 and 1989. In addition, a wealth of historical background is presented in a very readable style. One chapter summarizes the development of weaving in the area, beginning with the first evidence of pre-Columbian textiles. The fibers and the tools used to create the hair sash, as well as the double-sided brocading technique used by the weavers, are all well documented. Black-and-white photos show the steps involved in using the warping frame and the loom - there is even a photo showing a blind man making a ply-split backstrap from 2-ply sisal. Another chapter documents the physical and spiritual importance of weaving and clothing to the Jakalteks that includes sections on pre-Columbian cosmology, weaving deities, and the symbolism of huipiles, hair sashes, colors, and motifs.
       Many interesting footnotes supplement the text, along with charming photographs of women warping and weaving. The four pages of color photographs show over fifty sashes, and the instructions will enable readers to reproduce the designs. Anyone interested in weaving should enjoy this book, especially those who want to know more about Guatemalan Textiles. Linda Hendrickson

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Links:
Backstrap Weaving in Jacaltenango, Guatemala
Backstrap Weaving School in Santa Maria del Rio, Mexico
Backstrap Woven Shawls of Esperanza Valencia Morra of Morelia, Mexico    
Toba Sashes of Argentina with Pickup Motif
Foot-Loom Weaving in Central Mexico
Gobelin Tapestry Weaving in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico 
Songket Weaving in Bali, Indonesia
Tapestry Crochet  
Carol Ventura's Home Page  

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Web page, photographs, and text by Carol Ventura.