A trail of dust swirls in our wake as we drive up a winding dirt road, regularly slowing to a snail’s pace as we approach potholes the size of enormous tortillas. This brain-rattling voyage finds me in the company of Melissa Wiams, social entrepreneur and founder of Y’abal Handicrafts, along with a friend from my NYC days who now lives and works in Guatemala. The three of us are en route to the Pacutama and Chuicutama communities, which sit in the Guatemalan highlands, roughly an hour outside of Quetzaltenango (commonly referred to as Xela).
Wiams began her work with this group in 2005, after their lives on the coast were ravaged by Hurricane Stan, forcing them into the highlands to rebuild their communities in one of the coldest regions in Guatemala. While able to live off of the land on the fertile coast, the soil in the highlands is less than ideal for farming, and new methods of survival were required. With this, a weaving collective was formed in order to produce products using the ancient backstrap loom process — a traditional component of Mayan life used for centuries in pursuit of storytelling, cultural identity and family tradition.
Low fog washes over the metal roofs of the communal laundry area as we pull off of the main road. The women raise their heads to wave in our direction as we kick through the dust to the top of the hill. I curse my choice in footwear as my feet disappear into a casing of dirt, bonded together by the earlier remnants from the floor of a leather tannery that we visited prior to arriving in the highlands (note: avoid Mexican open-toed sandals for such occasions).
The two communities sit side-by-side, with rows of single-story cinderblock homes puffing smoke and divided by a simple dirt road that is capped by a shared church and medical centre. Electrical cables crisscross the smoky sky, while the tiny faces of inquisitive children peek out from doorframes, glancing in our direction over shy smiles.
We are greeted by Santa, one of the heads of the board for the weaving collective as we’re ushered into her home. While the initial group started with 10 weavers, the number has now grown to 30 women, with representatives being chosen for the board from each community.
Three more members of the cooperative join us, dressed in traditional woven skirts and colourful huipils, their long hair gathered in shiny black ponytails. The group reviews the current weaving order along with completed pieces, while surrounded by a large loom and sacks of dried corn.
The rapport that Wiams has with the community is apparent, given the comfortable conversation and frequent laughter as the business dealings draw to a close and the women smooth their skirts for an impromptu photo session with some of the Y’abal products. These offerings range from hand-woven scarves and stuffed toys, along with bags and accessories that are sold in a shop in Quetzaltenango, and also online to domestic and international consumers. Wiams collaborates with three local tailors to create her designs, and fabric is ordered from the communities in quantities of 30 so that each woman has a weaving project with every order.
The women purchase naturally dyed thread directly from the markets in order to create the custom fabric pieces, for which they are paid in full at the time of completion. This model serves to provide an ethical wage so that they can support their families and preserve the cultural tradition of backstrap weaving, without having to go through the ubiquitous middlemen who often purchase pieces at a low price to sell in the markets, keeping the bulk of the profit to line their own pockets. Wiams also provides effective business training around the importance of consistency and meeting deadlines, accounting, money management, as well as interest-free micro-loans so that the families can rent farmland in order to grow their own food supply.
Soon the dense afternoon fog lays over us like a woolen blanket, adding a filmy air of mystery to our group photo session. A small boy named Freddy tightens the laces on his grey shoes and peers into the screen of my camera, clicking through photos as our group packs up to head back to the city.
For those who are interested in volunteering with a Guatemalan weaving collective, or who would like to learn how to use a backstrap loom, there is an association called Trama Textiles in Quetzaltenango that provides both of these opportunities. The group exists as a 100% worker-owned weaving association that collaborates with 17 cooperatives in the highlands, and was born as a means of support for those who lost their families and homes to the violence of the civil war in Guatemala.
For consumers of the products of these types of collectives, these pieces provide supreme quality that is not found in their mass-produced machine-made counterparts. This collaborative approach to fair trade ensures that a living wage is supported through ethical production practices, while helping to sustain community traditions. It’s the stories of these women and their families that incite human connection, and with this connection, a sustainable business model moves through the present and future generations of weaving artists, like a wisp of fog in the Guatemalan highlands.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland