Weaving with a Backstrap Loom

Weaving textiles on a backstrap loom is ancient practice in Mesoamerica (and all over the world!). The loom itself is quite simple, basically a collection of different sized and shaped sticks. It is also highly portable–you just need someplace to anchor it. Preparing the thread, setting up the loom, designing a textile, and executing the weaving are not so simple however. In order to try and give an idea of how much work and creative design go into this process I want to share some pictures and a video of a couple of my friends, Ixil-Mayas from Ilom, Chajul, setting up their looms and weaving.

But first the basics. Here is an interesting simplified schematic drawing of the basic parts to a backstrap loom (the image and description I found at this helpful site):

Backstrap loom

A = A cord or rope is used to tie the loom to a tree or post. B = End bars are used to hold the warp (vertical threads) to the upper and lower ends of the loom. C and D = Shed rods maintain the crossing of the warp’s threads. E = The heddle rod lifts alternate threads of the warp. F = The batten helps to separate alternate threads of the warp to allow the bobbin (G) to pass through them. The batten can also be used to tighten the weft (horizontal threads) as they are woven. G = The bobbin, containing the thread of the weft, passes from side to side between the warp. H = This belt is worn around the weaver’s back and connects her to the loom. The weaver controls the tension on the warp by leaning backward or forward.

The backstrap loom is extremely versatile. The entire thing can just be rolled up into a tube-shape when not in use and would only weigh a couple of pounds. And as mentioned above it can be set up anywhere there is a decent anchor and enough space to spread out the entire weaving. A unibquitous sight in Guatemala are women sitting inside the family convenience store making progress on their latest creation in between customers. With a backstrap loom you can weave something as small as a headband or something about a meter wide and two meters long. Often women unite two separate pieces to produce a larger textile. The simplicity, functionality, and versatility of a backstrap loom belies the trickiest part: setting up the loom, designing and then actually weaving a textile.

Antonia starting on a new blouse.

Antonia starting on a new blouse.

Women get started early learning by example and trial and error, often weaving at the side of their older sisters or mothers who can help out when things get complicated.

And complicated they can get. Throughout the process of setting up the loom and weaving it is extremely easy for the threads to break, get out of alignment, for rows to be skipped etc. All are disastrous for the final textile and are usually pretty hard to undo once done. Care and attention to detail is extremely important.

The following is a slideshow of Rosa walking us through the process of setting up a loom and beginning a new weaving:

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And finally, here is a video of another Rosa weaving to give an idea of how much work goes into just one row of a blouse. I filmed this in her house in Ilom, Chajul, Guatemala.

I hope this has been helpful to appreciate and understand how much work and creativity goes into the design and execution of backstrap loom weaving!

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The Sacred Tzolk’in/Cholq’ij/B’isb’al Txajul Calendar and Mayan Nawales

Standard glyphic representations of the sacred 20 day names of the cholq'ij.

Standard glyphic representations of the sacred 20 day names of the cholq’ij.

Evident in thousands of the sculpted monuments and ceramics, the several ancient books that survive, and even in the planning of many ancient Maya cities is the highly developed nature of Maya astronomical observation. The keen night eye of our ancient abuelos directly led to the development of several calendars, including a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day lunar calendar. This lunar calendar is often referred to outside of Guatemala as the “tzolk’in” (sounds like “soul-keen”) which may be a neologism invented by non-Mayas from the Yucatec-Maya language. Inside Guatemala it is more often called the Cholq’ij (“chole-keeh”) which in Kaqchikel-Maya means something like “the organization of days”. In my language, Q’anjob’al-Maya, we have several words but the one my grandmother always used when explaining it to me when I was a little girl was B’isb’al Txajul (“bees-ball Cha-hool”) which literally means “the sacred count”.

Which gets to my main point, the 260-day lunar calendar is not a thing frozen in the ancient past. It has an unbroken history of use in many Maya communities, whom have maintained the calendar count and the meaning of the 20 days in the face of brutal repression for centuries. Even today with the massive growth of Pentecostal religious movements the use of the sacred calendar is widespread and important throughout indigenous communities in Guatemala. The calendar, and the specialists who have studied the way the calendar works and what it means, are consulted about a wide range of activities: what day would be best to plant the corn, to go on a trip, pray for someone’s health etc. Before getting more into this, we should briefly discuss how the calendar works.

A representation of the 13 interlocking numeric months with the 20 sacred days of the cholq'ij.

A representation of the 13 interlocking numeric months with the 20 sacred days of the cholq’ij.

The 260-day calendar is composed of 20 different days that occur in 13 months, 20 x 13 = 260. The months simply come in an endlessly repeating cycle of 1-13. The 20 days are all named and arranged in a specific order. They also repeat but always in the same order with only the numeric coefficient changing until the 260 day cycle is complete. For example, today, July 29, 2013 is 3 Ajpu’. Tomorrow is 4 Imox, and Wednesday will be 5 Iq’. Each of the 20 days is associated with particular energies and qualities, both positive and negative. According to our ancestors and our spiritual guides who study the calendar, certain days are better or worse for certain activities depending on the unique characteristics of the particular day. Similar to western astrology, of great personal significance is the day on which you were born (you can calculate this here). The day name the day you were born is your Nawal which is the spirit or energy that predominates in your character. Each Nawal is associated with different personality traits, occupational propensities, colors, places, animals etc.

I have put together this document with explains some of the different characteristics or aspects of the 20 days of the sacred calendar. A number of the products I have for sale include Nawal glyphs, including small and medium bags, silver and stone earrings, and necklaces.

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