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BACKSTRAP WEAVING IN JACALTENANGO

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In Mesoamerica, weaving was a woman's domain until the introduction of the treadle loom by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Most Maya women continue to weave on the pre-Columbian backstrap loom between chores. Although backstrap weaving is not as fast as treadle loom weaving, the loom parts are inexpensive and the loom is portable. The warp on a backstrap loom is stretched between a support and the weaver's body. The width of the woven fabric is usually not more than thirty inches wide, the reach of the weaver. The cloth is usually woven to the exact size that is needed and can be woven with selvedges on all four sides.

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The strap passes behind the weaver's back and is attached to both ends of the cloth rod. A cord, which is attached to both ends of the upper warp rod, is tied to a support. The loom is portable, but very tiring to operate since the weaver must constantly adjust and maintain the tension of the warp.

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The warp, which is attached to two loom bars, must be strong to maintain the tension. A heddle rod is tied to every other warp. When the heddle rod is lifted, a shed opening is formed, allowing the weft thread to pass through the opening. To make a shed, the beater is removed and then the weaver leans forward a bit and lifts the heddle bar with one hand as she pushes down with the beater on all of the warps with the other hand. When the shed is open, the beater is inserted to keep the shed open and then the weft is passed through. 

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The weaver then leans back causing tension which makes the warp yarns pop up between the heddles, forming the other shed opening as they rest on the shed roll. A beater forces down the weft, then another weft is passed through the new shed opening. The amount of force that beats down the weft determines whether the hair sash will be closely or loosely woven. The weaver leans forward as she raises the heddle bar and the actions are repeated. A plain weave results by repeating this procedure.

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Jakalteks use a double faced supplementary weft technique to create a variety of motifs.  Both the front and reverse side of the hair sashes are almost identical since the supplementary wefts are wrapped around the same number of warps on the front and back of the ground weave. Weavers use their index fingers and thumb of one hand to separate the warps and the corresponding fingers of the other hand to repeatedly insert the supplementary weft from front to back or back to front across the row. The supplementary wefts are not essential to the structure of the fabric, if fact, if they were to be removed, a plain woven cloth would remain
 

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Jakaltek Maya hair sashes, 1927 - 1986


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

Textile Links:
Backstrap Weaving School at Santa Maria del Rio, Mexico
Backstrap Woven Shawls of Esperanza Valencia Morra of Morelia, Mexico
Foot-Loom Weaving in Central Mexico
Ikat Shawls of Uriangato and Moroleon, Mexico
Gobelin Tapestry Weaving in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico 
Toba Sashes of Argentina with Pickup Motif
Tapestry Crochet
Cane baskets of Mexico
Batik in Cameroon, Africa
Beadworking in Cameroon, Africa
Handicraft Center in Cameroon
Handweavers Guild of America   
Traditions Mexico Fiber Arts Tours
Batik of Java and Bali, Indonesia
Ikat Weaving in Bali, Indonesia 

Links to Textile Stores:
Fair Trade Quilts & Crafts  
Happy Mango Imports  
Terra Experience  
Maya Hands  
Maya Traditions  
Maya Works  
Mission Guatemala  
Moonflower Enterprises  
Samajel B'atz'  
Trama Textiles 
 

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Web page, photographs, and text by Carol Ventura.