Mayan Backstrap Weaving
And Natural Dye Workshop. . .
Based in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most beautiful and enjoyable colonial towns, there could not be a more lovely or culturally rich place to spend a peaceful week learning these textile arts and exploring the Mayan highlands
The Mayan highlands of Chiapas are one of the most intact traditional areas of Mexico. Many of the current traditions in dress and ritual can be traced back to the Classic Era of the ancient Maya, more than 1,500 years ago. This is one of the few places left in Mexico where most of the clothing worn by the indigenous women, and even men, is woven the old way; at home on a backstrap loom. There are dozens of weaving villages spread throughout the highlands, each with its own style and identity in weaving. The weaving traditions are solid, rich and deep and as one travels through the highland villages it is not at all uncommon to see women spinning wool with a drop spindle while herding sheep, weaving in the patio, fulling cloth and, always, wearing their traditional dress.
This is an intensive, hands-on workshop focused on backstrap weaving with brocade and natural dyeing. We will spend a total of five days/20 hours working with Mayan weaver, Lucia Giron Mendez, who will teach us the Tenejapan style of wool brocade. We will learn everything from the setting up of looms to terminology (why do we need a “machete” to weave?) and details of the Tenejapan diamond design. We will also be joined daily by Mayan textile expert, Chip Morris, who will tell us the stories behind the weaving traditions in Tenejapa and other villages as well as interpret the different symbols woven into the women’s blouses.
Our dyeing lessons will be equally comprehensive with five days/ 10 hours of hands-on learning. We will work with the “strong dyes”: Mexico’s legendary red, cochineal, the fabulous blues of indigo, yellow-oranges of pericon (a relative of marigold) and the earth-toned tannins. These solid, colorfast, fade resistant dyes will provide us with our palette to create other tones as we learn the principles of working with these colors on wool. We’ll also experiment with silk, cotton and other fibers such as henequen and linen. Our teacher is Maddalena Forcella, a native of Italy who has lived in Mexico for almost two decades. Holding a degree in textile design with a focus on indigenous Mexico, Maddalena has worked extensively with the highland Mayan women and other indigenous groups in their process of relearning many of the ancient dyeing methods that were lost with the advent of synthetic dyes. She creates a perfect bridge for us between a traditional world and a contemporary vocabulary of understanding for these dyeing methods.
In addition to our focused time at the looms and dye vats, we’ll head out with anthropologist, author and superb guide, Chip Morris, to visit weavers in surrounding villages. To travel in the highlands with Chip is like having everything ever written or said about the Mayan culture at your fingertips (except not nearly so dry as text), for Chip’s well of knowledge is just about bottomless. He will introduce us to weavers, take us into the Mayan churches and explain what we are seeing there and introduce us to highland culture like no one else could.
This is truly an ideal place to immerse oneself into traditional textile arts. The setting couldn’t be better, for the Chiapan highlands, with their clear air, bright white clouds and green, pine clad hills are gorgeous. San Cristobal, filled with red tiled roofs, narrow streets, colonial churches, parks, markets, tasty restaurants, cafes and shops is a place that one could get very used to spending time in. And that we will do given that a lovely hotel in San Cristobal will be our base for the extent of this workshop.
Guides for this adventure will be Chip Morris and Kirsten Szykitka. They will be assisted by Presenters Lucia Giron Mendez and Maddalena Forcella.
(B, L, D) = breakfast, lunch, dinner included.
Day 1, Saturday (D). Arrivals and individual transfers to San Cristobal from Tuxtla Gutierrez. We will have our first meeting and dinner at 7:00 PM at Hotel Paraiso. Get acquainted, talk about trip, enjoy dinner and possibly meet Chip Morris. Evening in San Cristobal.
Day 2, Sunday (B,L,D). After breakfast we will join Chip for a day trip to the villages of Chamula and Zinacantan. Both are traditional Mayan villages where weaving and embroidery predominate. We will also visit the churches in both communities, which act as the hubs of village life. If there is time in the afternoon Chip will give a short walking tour of San Cristobal to help you get oriented. Evening in San Cristobal.
Day 3, Monday (B,L,D). Today we dive into our workshops, beginning with dyeing at the home workshop of Maddalena Forcella where we will work from 9:30 until 11:30. We will then meet with Chip at the Sna Jolobil Cooperative for a look at around. Sna Jolobil is one of the longest lasting and most successful artisan cooperatives in Latin America, now in its third decade and encompassing more than 800 weavers from 20 communities. Long ago Chip was one of the co-founders of this amazing organization. After lunch we meet with our weaving instructor, Lucia Giron, in the gardens of Chip’s house. From 2 to 6 we’ll be working on setting up our looms and learning the ins and outs of backstrap weaving. In the evening we gather again for a visit to Na Bolom, which was the home of the renowned Swiss and Danish anthropologist/archeologist team of Trudy and Franz Blom. Chip will show us around this wonderful, musty museum rich in books, photos and the sense of another era and we will have dinner at the Na Bolom long table. Evening in San Cristobal.
Day 4-6, Tuesday-Thursday (B). For the next three days we’ll have breakfast together then head to Maddalena’s for dye work from 9:30-11:30. We break for lunch and exploring until 2 pm and then gather again for weaving from 2-6 PM at Chip’s house. Evening in San Cristobal de Las Casas.
Day 7, Friday (B, L). This morning we head to the hills for a visit to the Mayan communities of San Andres Larrainzar and Magdalenas. In San Andres we’ll visit with a weaver and perhaps run into a natural dyer in the village. In Magdalenas we’ll visit with a Mayan gentleman who makes the finest net bags in the highlands. He will show us how it is done. Evening in San Cristobal de Las Casas.
Day 8, Saturday (B, D). Today is our final day of workshops and we will finalize with Maddalena from 9:00-11:30 and with Lucia from 2-6. Afterwards we wash the dye out of our fingers, dust the wool off our pants and dress up for our final dinner together. Evening in San Cristobal de Las Casas.Day 9, Sunday (B). After breakfast it is time to pack our bags and move on, back to our own neck of the woods. Those traveling home today will want to transfer to Tuxtla Gutierrez, about 1.5 hours from San Cristobal, where flights can be booked to Mexico City.