By: Miguel González

Chocoy, b’atz, ch’e, q’b’al, p’ot in the K’iche’ language (or the separator, threads, sticks, warping, and Hüipil) are Mayan words that describe, in part, the backstrap loom and the Hüipil. These two emblematic symbols of Guatemalan weaving are the highest expression of Mayan cosmogony.

Women weavers can be seen among trees, crops, flowers, birdsong, and in modest houses with smoky chimneys scattered in the hills of Chichicastenango, Quiché, one of Guatemala's most ethnically rich departments. For centuries, Mayan women have dedicated themselves to weaving, perhaps as an evocation of Ixchel, goddess of weaving, according to pre-Columbian manuscripts; however, behind those laborious fingers are women concerned with feeding, caring for, and educating their children Therefore, they subsist on their art.

"I am a weaving artist and I feel proud to work to dress my people, to have economic income for my home, and to show the world our handicrafts, mainly the Hüipiles. We have a lot of support from Industrias Xela," says Yolanda Calguá, who, together with her family, divides her work between handicrafts, farming, and household chores.

Backstrap loom essential parts:

Warp rollers - Tensioning ropes - Pitch sticks or spacers - Wooden sword - Leather belt or mecapal - Yarn stick or bobbin - Stick, Lizo, chocoy, or thread separator - Bone or wooden needle - Complements - Winder - Warper

The material to weave a Hüipil involves three processes: winding yarns for the warp, weft, and brocade.

Step 1: Before preparing materials and the loom, it is necessary to define the design of the Hüipil to calculate the number of threads and colors.

Step 2: Then, with a winder and a warping machine, the weaver interweaves the thread and determines the length of the warp, based on the Hüipil measurement; she also prepares the weft thread and the colored threads for the brocade.

Step 3: After this, the artisan places the mecapal around her waist to tighten the warp, which has previously been tied to a tree or a post. After placing the sticks, the reed, and the sword, the loom is ready to begin weaving these authentic works of art.

Heart of the loom

The reed or thin stick (chocoy, in the K'iche' language) is the key piece in this loom. The heart of the weaving is the chocoy, say the artisans, because this magic stick, from which reinforced threads hang, is in charge of dividing the warp threads to weave the weft and the brocade. The chocoy and the sticks maintain the balance of the warp, so as not to lose the crossing and so that the weaving comes out firm and with the exact measurements.

To weave the brocade, the artisans use a bone needle or their fingers to count the threads, a process also called pepenado.

The tree of life and the sun

Diversity of drawings related to the local flora and fauna are woven in a Hüipil, but the most significant designs are the "tree of life,” the "two-headed bird" and the quetzal. These are figures that for the ethnic communities represent the earth, rain, fire, air, life, and the cosmos. A tree with its branches and roots "is like a woman and her children," a symbol of creation and humanity, say the weavers.

The sun deserves a special mention, which has a reserved place in the neck of the Hüipiles. The weavers embroider sun rays on the circumference that forms this opening of the garment. In this context, the authors say that the weavings and designs are not simple drawings, but signs that represent the identity and origin of the universe. "In our minds, we have 'stored' the designs we have learned throughout our lives, although now there are manuals," explains Yolanda.

The quality of the Hüipil will depend on the materials, the experience, and creativity of the weaver; in the case of the Calguá family, she assures that they use fine materials, threads of firm colors, easy to work with and do not fade.

The secret of the three canvases

The Chichicastenango Hüipil consists of three lienzos or canvases: the central part where the neck goes and two lateral ones for the sleeves. "Two months or a little more is the time it takes to weave a Hüipil," says weaver Tomasa Canil Ventura. The central canvas consists of 450 threads and the sleeve parts of 400 threads, but the number varies according to the size of the Hüipil.

"We artisans have a secret. First, we weave the central canvas because it requires more work time; when we finish this piece we feel motivated and happy because we have come halfway, and then we work on the border or sleeve canvases," says skilled weaver Jésica Calgúa.

When the three pieces are finished, the weaver joins them with the randa or snake, which is a hand-embroidered and needle-embroidered ribbon that functions as a seat cover. The final part is the embroidery of the neck in the shape of the sun, in which the artisans also use a hand-embroidered ribbon. The Hüipil is finished after two months or more of work.

Since they were little girls

By tradition, women artisans almost always start weaving as children, such as the case of Yolanda and Yésica, who at the age of 10 already knew how to weave a complete Hüipil. "Thanks to my grandmother's and my mother's advice, I feel fulfilled as a craftswoman and I can survive on my own with this trade. You must study and weave, our parents told us," Yolanda says.

"As women, we must open up in the industries and not get married at an early age, so we don't frustrate our future," says Yésica.

Inspired by nature and the cosmos

The artisans imitate the colors and shapes of tree leaves, a fruit, a flower, a bean, birds, a dog's footprint, or the cosmos. Yolanda shares her skills and trains young women and men in the art of weaving. "We are just passing through this world and we can't take our knowledge with us to the beyond, we must share it," says Yolanda.

Immersed in the colors, designs, and thread count, the artisans of the backstrap loom (also known as the stick loom) weave textile history into Hüipiles, belts, ribbons, and other handicrafts that express the identity of a multicultural nation.