The Apple never falls far from the tree. While I waited to board my flight to Guatemala a few weeks ago, I watched as a small child a few steps ahead in line tugged at his mother’s shirt, demanding that she pass over her phone so he could play a round of Candy Crush. She was using it to sift through her emails, so she dug an iPad from her purse instead and handed it over, then returned her attention to her palm. They hardly made eye contact, both pairs of eyes glazed as donuts to mirror the sheen of their screens.
What legacies are today’s kids learning by way of our chosen forms of engagement and distraction? When I was little, my own mother packed MadLibs and coloring books to entertain me on trips. There were always crayons buried between and underneath the car seats, jumbled with the cracker crumbs and pennies. What else is lost and left behind like those bits under the cushions, when tangible, creative play is surrendered for the light, fast, and tidy gleam of a shiny display?
As they stared down, I looked around me at all the drowsy bodies weighted with luggage. Swirls of Spanish conversations suggested that many of my fellow passengers were headed home, but I was bound for an adventure – a one-week trip with Thread Caravan, which brings small groups of travelers together with artisans around the globe. Participants explore the traditional crafts of different cultures via the firsthand tutelage of native makers, gaining a uniquely intimate look at foreign heritage and handiwork while also supporting the livelihoods of the local communities.
Guatemala is known for its textiles, so I’d be spending the week studying backstrap weaving. With a group of a few other American women, paired with Guatemalan mentors, I’d be making my own scarf with my own two hands and the tools that the country’s craftswomen have been using for centuries. (Most start learning the process at the age of six or seven.)
Once I landed in Guatemala City and assembled with the other participants in colonial Antigua – all of us tripping on the cobblestones and the language barrier – we drove down to Panajachel, a port town on Lake Atitlán, and lurched across the lake’s choppy surface in a small motorboat, shooting shard-like splashes in all directions. When we arrived at the tiny village of San Juan La Laguna with damp shoulders and jostled spines, the women from a local weaving co-op called Asociacion Lema met us at the dock and walked us up the rocky hill and through the quiet streets, towards the home where they’d be hosting that afternoon’s workshop. We passed tiendas painted in popsicle colors, stacked crates of rinsed glass soda bottles waiting to be refilled with sweet bubbles, men laying fresh cement and women slapping soft masa dough from palm to palm to griddle at open windows, all
watching us amble by. Dogs barked down at us from rooftops on corners where kids kicked soccer balls in the road.
Rosalinda – the five-year-old daughter of one of the artisans – had come along to welcome us, too. An ebulliently friendly and immediately lovable little girl, she skipped and jumped from one of us to the next in her hand-embroidered blouse and skirt, grabbing our hands, racing us down every block, erupting into giggles for no reason at all.
When we got to the home, lunch was waiting on the porch: stewed chicken, steamed vegetables, soft white rice, and blue corn tortillas on rainbow-striped dishes. Rosalinda used her tiny fingers to feed us saucy potatoes from our plates. She played hide-and- seek behind our skirts. She reached for our phones and cameras, curious, wanting to try taking photos like we were, and we let her, showing her how to squint into the viewfinders and push the proper buttons. She bumbled around the yard, thumbing random shots – close-up portraits, mostly, of her mother, standing tall above her with hands on hips; the freckled cheeks and eyelashes of one of my fellow participants; someone’s nose, and another person’s ear. In pure body language – touch, movement, expression, spontaneity – she invited us into her play.
Later, the women showed us how they typically dye their thread using all-natural ingredients diffused in boiled water. We helped chop chamomile, which made a vibrant yellow. Brown campeche bark turned to a deep, dark blue in its pot, while ground achiote seeds created a rich red. They explained how salt and vinegar serve as fixatives, along with copper and aluminum tannins, which also make the tints slightly brighter or paler, respectively. An estimated 17 colors can be concocted with these leaves and bugs and vegetables – a maroon pink from crushed beetles called cochineal, for example, and a blushing orange from carrots.
When I was in elementary school, I remembered then, my best friend and I used to spend recess scrawling random colored marker patterns on sheets of paper towels, then running them underneath the classroom sink, letting them bleed to tie-dye designs. They crisped when hung to dry. The purpose wasn’t so much the product as the process. It always felt something like magic, just the way that the basic materials mingled together into something new and unpredictable.
Yet, 17 colors are nothing, of course, compared to the countless that can be made from chemical dyes, which are also quicker, more economical, and generally more convenient. Their tints are far more concentrated, and they don’t demand slicing and dicing. But the women of Asociacion Lema are set on preserving their historic methods. Their thoughtful work suggested the inherent value in doing things the slow and messy way, trusting the resources provided by nature, and maintaining inherited legacies.
Rosalinda was there that day because she’s the child most interested in weaving, compared to the artisans’ other kids, so they make sure that she’s involved – that she’s present – as often as possible. They waved goodbye to us that evening with hands splotched crimson and aqua, and Rosalinda hugged us around our calves.
On the second day, we bumped down dirt roads in the back of a pick-up truck to a small village called Chuacruz, where we were greeted by a larger co-op called Waqxaqi’kan. One by one, the women introduced themselves; while most spoke Spanish, some only spoke their indigenous Mayan language called Kaqchikel, so we communicated in rough translations from Kaqchikel to Spanish to English and back. This was clunky, but it sufficed.
We learned that Waqxaqi’kan was established by widows who lost their husbands to civil war in 1982. (One of these founding members kneeled on goatskin on the tiled floor and showed us the first step of turning raw Ixcaco cotton to thread: pounding it with two whittled sticks. Compared to other types of cotton, the wild Ixcaco variety has shorter fibers that require this technique to create the proper binding and consistency. We each took turns while the elder nodded and egged us on, and the drumming motion felt meditative with its gentle force, slowly shaping the rough fluff to workable substance).
When their husbands died, the women needed a way to sustain themselves and their families. Weaving was what they knew best – a skill they learned from their mothers, who learned from their grandmothers, who learned from their great-grandmothers – and so they formed a collective to promote their hand-spun textiles collaboratively.
(In the second step of the thread-making process, the fiber had to be wound into a thin filament around a spool. The cherished elder who demonstrated this made it look easy, like whirling a top. We tried, but we were never able to keep the thing spiraling for more than a second, and we were all startled and humbled by the simple task’s difficulty. Again and again, we fumbled; we laughed; she demonstrated; we fumbled; we laughed; she demonstrated, picking up where we left off.)
Now, 35 years since its beginning, Waqxaqi’kan numbers more than 15 members who make everything from scarves to table runners to coin purses that they sell at shops and markets. Many of them do the weaving in their homes while the dinner simmers, while the baby nurses, while the boys and girls play outside in the dirt. They’ve hit setbacks before, like the time that one member quit the co-op and took one of its major clients in tow, or the time that piles of their one-of-a-kind products were stolen. But the timeworn tradition has also carried them forward by providing financial stability and even attracting educational scholarships for their kids.
(In the final step, the thread was looped around a warp board in a zigzagging pattern. This became easier as you got the hang of it, so you didn’t have to think through the motions so much. After the basic outline of the textile was configured on the board, it was gingerly removed and reassembled on a backstrap loom, ready for weaving.)
Four artisans came to our lakeside villa on the next two mornings to help us weave our scarves. We sat on the patio, facing a hazy view of Volcán San Pedro, and exchanged small talk about our work, our travels, our creative interests, our siblings. Somehow, again, we managed to communicate with each other, repeatedly dipping under or dancing over the language barrier, connecting through the cracks. So much of our shared human language is not verbal, not cognitive, not the kind of thing you can comprehend except through the motions of the body – the twitch of a cheek in a genuine giggle, the gentle mold of a guiding hand, the looking and linking of eyes, the lift of eyebrows in question and the pucker in attempts to understand.
We strapped the looms around our backs and spent hours learning to get the process in the right order – rod goes through here, stick is pulled there, rod goes back through here, other stick is pushed there. “Like this?” we’d ask, as something caught in the wrong place. “No, no, este,” they would say gently. “Aqui.” This one. Here.
To make one basic striped scarf was slow and demanding. Even though we were sitting down on the ground, it felt physically grueling – just the heft of the contraption, the magnitude of the repetitions, the sheer concentration required to keep the hundreds of threads properly aligned and untangled. But even when we grew frustrated or confused or impatient, our mentors remained calmly resolute, catching every stitch we missed, showing us again and again which direction was next.
The weavers help us get our textiles started.
The only way to learn was by doing it by hand, and what’s done by hand is necessarily labor-intensive. That’s what makes craftwork beautiful. It is why these cultural traditions matter – because they have been done so many times over, despite being difficult, and because they have been passed down from palm to palm, from generation to generation. They have to be preserved with patience, practice, and gentle respect so that they don’t fall apart, and that has to be shared so that we don’t fall apart under the weight of the histories they signify.
The things we make and touch, we rip and press, we pull and dye and wrinkle and draw – they are often both heavy and delicate. And if they are cumbersome, perhaps that’s how they assert their need for our attention. They remind us that we are corporeal beings, made to make messes and mistakes, to laugh and chatter through those fumbles, to find commonalities deeper than language and logic. By sustaining timeworn customs, we stay present to one another and to the world.
After the Thread Caravan trip ended, I stayed a few extra days in Guatemala, wandering and admiring stores’ and street vendors’ woven wares with newly appreciative eyes.
Halfway through lunch at a restaurant in Antigua on my last day, the waitress asked where I was from. My meager Spanish had apparently improved enough over the course of my visit to convince her I was Guatemalan. When I explained that I was traveling from New York, she told me she had never seen the city, but she’d been through the airport on a layover once.
“I couldn’t believe those iPads they have set up at all the tables in every terminal!” she exclaimed in Spanish. “Everyone looked like a robot.” She mimicked the wide-eyed, dumb-lipped look of someone ogling a screen. I laughed, and said, “Si, si, yo se!” Yes, yes, I know. I know.