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Backstrap Weaving – Ancient Craft Still Practiced by the Mayan Women of Guatemala

Backstrap weaving is an ancient art practiced for centuries in many parts of the world – Peru, Guatemala, China, Japan, Bolivia, Mexico and Native Americans. Today it is still used on a daily basis in many parts of Guatemala to weave fabrics to make clothing and other household cloth needs. Many of the women also weave a variety of items to help earn a living by selling to tourists.

The looms are simple, typically 6 sticks, usually handmade by the weaver. A backstrap loom is easily portable because it can simply be rolled up and laid aside when not in use. The back rod is tied to a tree or post while weaving and the other end has a strap that encircles the waist and the weaver can move back or forward to produce the needed tension.   The weaver usually sits on the ground but as the person ages that is more difficult and they may use a small stool.

In Guatemala the women have typically used cotton yarn for their weavings and used natural plants from their area to dye the yarn various colors. They still tint yarn by hand but also buy cotton yarn that has already been chemically dyed. The natural tints are softer colors than chemical dyes. These natural tints come from plants and bark such as:

  • sacatinta -a blue color
  • coconut shell -brown
  • carrots -orange
  • achote -soft orange/peach
  • hibiscus flower -rosy pink
  • chilca -soft yellow
  • bark of the avocado tree -beige

The backstrap loom also known as the belt loom can make different widths of fabric depending of the width of the rods. Guatemalan artisan weavers can weave as narrow as a belt or as large as 24 -26  inch width and perhaps more. If a cloth needs to be wider, the two pieces are joined together with heavy embroidery stitches. An example of this would be the corte (the skirt) of the Mayan women, which if hand-woven would have the pieces joined with embroidery stitches.

A great book about weaving with the backstrap was written by Barbara Taber and Marilyn Anderson in 1975 – “Backstrap Weaving, step by step techniques on one of the oldest and most versatile looms”.  Another book with some information is “The Weaving Primer,  A Complete Guide to Inkle, Backstrap, and Frame Looms” by Nina Holland, 1978. 

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