Handmade textiles from Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia & Vietnam.

Chasing the mayan Star

The rhythmic beat of the loom, like drumming in the workshop, vibrates in the chest. Clouds drift past the misty peaks of volcanoes as lava erupts from their crowns. Cobble stones rattle under the feat and the ground shakes with a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. All visceral greetings from the stunningly beautiful country of Guatemala as we get back on the textile sourcing trail after a two and half year hiatus. The pandemic kept us grounded for a while, but we’re now bursting with energy and excitement to reconnect with our weaving partners in Paxtoca and to kick things off with a new weaving community in San Marcos to revive our classic and rare Mayan Star motif. 

Our collaboration with Manuel, Francisco, Agripina, and Pedro has been running strong for eleven years now and we were greeted with hugs, hot chocolate and sweet bread upon arrival. We got to meet Manuel and Luisa’s (our project leader and his wife) two boys for the first time and catch up through good food, laughter and a casual stroll through their village of Paxtoca. 

We’re not just here to reconnect, work on new fabric designs and revive the Mayan Star, we’re also here to start the first round of interviews for a book and documentary series we’re spearheading and plan to launch in a couple years. The team gave mind-blowing interviews during our time here, commenting on the future of craft and culture, the challenges of working with NGOs versus direct-trade and more. Stay tuned for that. For now, we’d like to introduce you to our new team in San Marcos who, from our research, are now the only ones weaving the Mayan Star motif at scale. 

As some of our ETK Collective members might remember, we switched weaving communities three times to try and keep the Mayan Star alive. It is an incredibly time intensive and detail-oriented weaving style known as Pepinado and Lidia, Alida and Blanca were the community leaders who kept it going all this time. Sadly, we lost contact with Blanca and Alida during the pandemic and the community in Comalapa are no longer weaving the Mayan Star.

Because we simply can’t give up on this magical motif, our sourcing manager Averie and her network, set out to find another community that does similar weaving techniques to carry it forward. We were in luck, Meet Alirio and his family in San Marcos! They’ve been weaving for three generations and are very excited to self-teach each other this new technique and expressed pride in continuing it.

When we asked about their feelings with weaving new styles such as the Mayan Star, as opposed to their most traditional designs, head weaver and father to this incredible family, Felipe, said that “weaving for us is like playing music for many years. You can’t just play the same songs year after year. You have to try new things to keep it exciting. To learn, and to grow.” WOW, how beautiful! Felipe has been weaving for 60 years, so we’re going to take his expert word on that!

Opinions and adventures with important women

Let's take a minute to talk about Averie and our journey with the Mayan Star together… Averie has been Ethnotek’s sourcing manager in Guatemala since 2016 and she’s such an incredible, funny, enthusiastic and wise soul. She’s Guatemalan, born in Denver Colorado, studied sustainable fashion and is a total boss! She runs Casa Flor, where she and her business partner Rachel collaborate with indigenous weavers throughout Guatemala. Many who they met during their NGO work in 2014-2018. She has such a deep rapport with the multitude of weaving communities here and we’re so proud she’s on our team!

During our drive from Antigua to Xela (Quetzaltenango), we stopped off at our yarn supplier El Rendidor Mish in Salcaja, where Averie bantered and bartered with her usual peeps while picking up a few bundles of yarn she wanted to do color-matching checks on in person before we ventured onward. 

With our new stash of thread in tow, adding to our already maxed-out car load of fabric samples and Ethnotek bags, we pressed on to Xela where we met Flory. Flory is an indigenious Mayan from the Kaqchikel ethnic group that has been working with Aveire for 8-years and she’s joining us to be administrative lead for a project we’re collaborating on with TipMe, whereby Ethnotek customers will have the ability to tip/send money directly to the artisans who made their bags. It’s quite a technical challenge, but we’re up to the task! More on that soon. 

Flory wears brightly colored traje tipica (handmade traditional dress) of her own design and has a very sunny personality. I’m meeting her for the first time and though she is a bit shy and has an innocence to our early interactions, she carries an undeniable strength and grace about her. I feel shy as well and coil within myself out of care to respect and not offend. We both share a stiffness at first that definitely melts as the trip goes on and we become more comfortable and playful. With Averie’s support and hilarity of course!

We now have a two hour drive from Xela to San Marcos with Averie and Flory in the back seat and myself in the front with our driver Heriberto.

Though it’s hard to understand most of the conversation in Spanish bubbling over in the back seat, it’s totally clear that Averie cracks Flory up! Especially when Averie self-deprecatingly calls herself a gringa. The laughter between the two is such a joy to be in the presence of as I take in the expansive green vistas out the window while we zip through the highlands outside Xela. 

As silliness gives way to comfortable silence and collective self introspection, I recognize this as an opportunity. So I asked Averie if it was okay to ask her and Flory some questions about the textile trade in Guatemala and their opinions on it. The two happily obliged and the long conversation led to some interesting insights. I definitely got car sick taking notes while driving, but it was worth it! 

I broadly asked Flory’s opinion about the positive and negative impact of foreigners collaborating with Mayan weaving communities in Guatemala.

She started by saying that it’s mostly the foreign communities that took notice and action to help her people. 

I asked her if the government has provided any support and she quickly replied with restrained disdain saying no, the government doesn’t care or help. 

  • As a side bar, it’s important to point out that not that long ago, the Mayan massacres occurred. Not the Spanish colonization (which is a chapter of its own), but recently, in the 1980’s, when a lot of us were just growing up or entering adulthood. Awash in pop culture and our own lives, were you aware of this happening at the same time? Because I wasn’t. It wasn’t taught in school and most likely received minimal coverage in the media if any. 

Moving on…

Flory goes on to explain that one of the many positive sides of working with foreign businesses is that it brings a wider global market place to their work that is slow to grow on their own. It also informs them of color trends that inspires them to adopt to increase orders and attract other foreign customers.

The preservation of their craft worries her...

Flory asked the back-strap weavers she currently works with in various communities if they’re interested in learning new technologies such as web design, accounting etc., to take the sale of their textiles online, but there’s no interest. She went on to explain on their behalf that life for these women revolves around weaving, it defines who they are. It’s culturally engrained. 

The younger generations however are keen to learn new skills in tech and are quite excited about these opportunities, just need training. Most of them are half into learning the craft while working in other industries or studying. Flory thinks that if their youth could learn how to run an eCommerce store and do basic accounting and digital marketing it’d be key to elevating the family enterprise. Keeping the older weavers employed and teaching the craft to the younger generation, while they also take the business online to expand export potential. 

I asked if self-managed internal growth through elderly craft wisdom combined with young eCommerce tech savviness would be enough to reach the type of scale to provide sustainable income to make it a full time thing for everyone and she said no, it’d need to be combined with supplying foreign brands as well. 

Most awareness for weaving in Guatemala comes from foreign interest and the primary model historically is for artisans to work with NGO’s. They said that the work through NGO’s and direct-trade like with Ethnotek is similar, but NGO’s also provide social programs and charity.

It sounds like most NGO’s in Guatemala are foreign owned and run and while they start out well-intentioned, with great social programs, often fall apart over time. They often have their own agenda, are influenced by their donors abroad and try to do too many things at the same time, which can lead to mediocrity across all programs.  

A couple NGOs were mentioned (which we won’t name) that promised many things to the artisans, such as donations and supplies. The artisans planned their lives and work around these promises, and the NGO she mentioned never delivered. We've also witnessed that some founders of the NGOs spend more time advertising how good they are as opposed to taking leadership from the actual people they aim to help. Sounds like a classic case of white savior complex.

The distracted nature of NGO’s can lead to quality control issues with textiles and very little profit for those involved. 

Though NGOs can have a dark side if improperly managed, Flory and Averie both agree that they are good, but need to focus on one thing and one thing only. Averie gave an example, that if an NGO focused solely on women's health, she and Flory would send all their weavers to that NGO. They both also agreed that direct trade is a more sustainable method of support and continuation of craft than charity. 

This was encouraging validation for the Ethnotek sourcing model and gave us lots of new ideas of how we can deepen our future involvement in the region.

The best things happen in silence

We’re used to looms being highly active, audible and with lots of socialization between workers with our core line of textiles. The Mayan Star is different, in fact, totally opposite.

The technique demands pure focus and very few strikes of the beater and hand tree (the big crossbar at the front of the loom near the weaver). The textile is woven on the back surface, essentially the weaver is working without seeing what the finished surface of the textile will look like. 

They hand trim sections of yarn and feed them through a precise number of warp threads to establish the motif, line by line. Being in the workshop while this process is unfolding is a very quiet and relaxing experience. It opens the senses to the sounds outside the workshop. In Alirio’s family space that means the sounds of roosters, sheep, turkeys, cows, dogs and cats. That paired with the sound of the breeze whispering it’s way through tall stalks of maize creates a zen like symphany that seems to perfectly encapsulate the spirit of their craft.

Rosa, whose favorite color is red, "because it’s warm and strong just like me” she says, regaled us with stories about her four kids and how she’s teaching her eldest daughter of 12 years old the craft of hand-weaving. This is an important detail to note. Women behind the foot pedaled loom is rarely seen due to the physical demand it tolls as well as the cultural norms. She and her sister Etelvina are bucking this norm, which we are for obvious reasons, proud to back!

This is just the beginning of our path to chasing the Mayan Star and it brings us chills knowing that this ancient motif is in good hands. We plan to launch the next collection in the spring of 2023. And if all goes well, every season thereafter...

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