As I wander the surrounding lands of Lake Atitlan, it’s noticeable to see they have embraced tourism in ways other countries in Latin America haven’t. As expected, they have taken advantage of tourism and commercialized everything.
I was not surprised to learn they even had coffee, botanical, and cotton tours. So, during my time in San Juan, I decided to explore more about the indigenous weaving culture and the way they process cotton for their textiles.
As we walk in, we are warmly welcomed and greeted in Spanish and soon engaged in, what seems to be a scripted explanation of the process of treating cotton.
It all starts with the collection of cotton balls that are later gently torn apart and processed by spinning it to turn it into thread. It’s mesmerizing to see how the are micro connected threats of the cotton balls tense together to form a threat. During the demonstration I expected the thread to break, but surprisingly it wouldn’t happen. At this stage, the weaver can asses the durability and strength of the thread based on the tension.
Dyeing it is equally as mesmerizing. They extract pigments from plants, fruits, grains, and even insects, always taking pride on their natural dyeing, and often mystical, techniques. For example, one shade of blue can only be achieved by harvesting the plant during a full moon to provide a vibrant Indigo color. If harvested at any other time, the blue looks faded and dull. Growing natural-colored cotton takes dedication, passion, and land, but it’s something they take pride on. They have also developed methods that guarantee long-lasting vibrant colors and kept them from washing off.
Once they have the colors they need, they use different techniques to weave it. One of the most popular includes using a back-strap loom, the traditional weaving style amongst the Mayan people. The patterns and designs vary depending on the region, town, and village and hold deep cultural significance and sacred meaning.
Every woman in the community is expected to know how to weave and process cotton, a practice not seen among men. Although they mainly use cotton for clothing, thicker threads are used for rugs and blankets. Always showing vibrant colors and interesting patterns that have taken their woven textiles to be recognized as some of the finest in the world.