I promised another side of Guatemala, one of the most multi-faceted places I’ve yet to visit, a country so visually extraordinary that there were few moments when somebody on our trip wasn’t snapping photos. Since only the men in my family seem to have the photography gene, my photos pale in comparison. Yet even I couldn’t waste this opportunity.
Of course almost anyone reading this knows I’m a quilter. Fabric is my drug of choice. I can get lost in a quilt shop with three aisles, finding my way out hours later dehydrated and dizzy but blissful. Especially if I have a bag under each arm. And so for me, a country in which women weave and sew their own clothing, using designs and motifs that proclaim their individual heritage? For that part of the trip, I felt as if I were in heaven.
I expected to find fabric and weavings in Chichicastenango, famous for it’s huge outdoor market, and not surprisingly, I did. But the show began much earlier. On the streets of Antigua, in the villages of the highlands, at the airport in Guatemala City. Everywhere I looked I saw color and pattern and history. This was an extraordinary visual opportunity and I drank in every drop, particularly the gorgeous traditional huipiles.
The huipil (wee-peel) is a tunic-like garment, made from cloth woven on backstrap looms and often embroidered, too, worn over a skirt. The skirts are created from handwoven cloth, as well, wrapped and cinched at the waist with a belt. If a huipil isn’t worn, a handmade and embroidered blouse is. The result is a treat to the eye. The women wearing them are, as well.
Although huipiles were available at almost every craft shop and market, as well as from street vendors, some of the most stunning were displayed at Casa de Artes in Antigua, where the delightful owner gave us an informal tour of both the shop and her beautiful courtyard, and allowed me to take and post this photo.
Sadly the art of weaving suffered during the country’s civil war when the Army smashed thousands of looms to stamp out this unique expression of Mayan culture. Women were afraid to create their traditional designs for fear they would be connected to the villages of their origin, many of which had been destroyed. Luckily for the world, many of the designs and the weavers survived, and are still in evidence everywhere today.
Although I loved the vendors, whose cheerful bargaining became an opportunity to practice my growing Spanish vocabulary, I was on the lookout for real fabric stores where Mayan women shopped. I found this one in a town bordering lake Atitlan, and shopped in another in Chichicastenango. Fabric was by far my favorite souvenir, and now I have no excuse not to make the Endless Chain quilt with real Guatemalan fabric, as Elisa does in the novel. Watch for it on these pages.
Mayan villagers live close to the source of their food, and market day is a feast for the senses. Next time, a Guatemalan alternative to Krogers and Safeway.