The Industrial Revolution’s Latest Conquest

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Beautiful huipil, isn’t it? It’s the current style, one of them. In some parts of Guatemala monochromatics are the moda, so this would likely be worn with a multi-green skirt if the woman is from one of those areas. (In some places that fashion has already passed.)

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In the past, a huipil like this was woven on a backstrap loom, utilizing a hand-picked brocade technique, and would likely take a couple of months to weave. In some places it still is and does.

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One panel for a huipil that is far more complex than the green one. To finish this one could easily take four months. (Easily in time, not effort.)

 

 

 

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But whereas the industrial revolution arrived on North American shores some 200 years ago, for traditional clothing it is only just getting to Guatemala. That green huipil is not an example of handwoven brocade, but an industrially produced embroidery that looks like cross-stitch. Look at the inside, with its many white threads and a vellum backing for support. This huipil was embroidered on the machine below, which can produce thirty every 24 hours. This one is in Totonicapan, but there are many around the country now.

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Woven by hand, that green huipil would cost Q. 600 – 800, more than a week’s wages for someone who has a job. Made on this machine it sells for less than Q. 200.

While most people are viewing this through a lens of cultural destruction, it can also be seen as parallel to Walmart. People who can afford not to shop there rant and rave against it all the time, but the people who need (or just want) those lower prices are legion,  enough to make Walmart the biggest walk-in retailer in the world. Those of us who can afford the luxury of huipils that take months to weave can cry all we want, and we do and will. But there are women who cannot afford to wear traditional clothing, their poverty cutting them off from that part of their cultural expression. They had quit wearing them, and it was breaking their hearts. Now, thanks to the same machines that clothe all of us, they can once again look like they belong, feel at home.

And it is not only a matter of poverty. Some women like the newness, the tremendous variety available, the lighter weight (it gets hotter here every year, no joke), and being able to have several huipils in their closets to choose from. Do I need to point out that the young girl weaving the huipil above is not wearing traditional dress?

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Huipils from San Juan Cotzal in the market in Chichicastenango, at least some there because their former owners want money to weave a new one in new colors. 

This is not the end of traditional Mayan weaving, but it is having a huge impact. So for those of us who want weavers to continue to weave, what do we do? Support them, that’s what. We cannot stop “progress”, the machines are here and are not going away. But we can do everything possible to give value to handwoven, hand embroidered, traditional textiles, in Guatemala and everywhere else. When you get to the market, don’t bargain the price down as far as you can. Some bargaining is expected and planned for, so yes, do some. But however high the initial asking price is, you can be sure it is a small fraction of what a first-world weaver would be asking for equivalent work (if she could even do equivalent work). As much as the price, focus on having a conversation about the pieces you are looking at. Ask where they came from, who wove them, how long it took, how they got the materials, when it was in style (it changes a lot faster than most people think – the huipils above were in fashion five years ago, are out now), what the symbols mean, how it gets worn, and everything else you can think of. Show that it matters, because it does. And don’t stop after the first answer, which is invariably, “My mother wove it.” A 30-second level of interest deserves a 30-second answer. Educate yourself in advance, and more when you arrive.

scarves, handwoven and not

This is an assortment of scarves that are all too common now. Of those above, maybe half are handwoven, half are commercial imports, not labelled as such. Do you know which is which? A couple of clues: the fancy fringes are hand-knotted at the end of handwoven scarves; those were probably all done on foot looms. The yellow and green with trees etc. – ikat/jaspe, probably woven on backstrap looms. All the rest, of which you will see countless in the markets here now, are commercial – the pink, black/white, and orange/blue grey, and the far right rust/flowers.

If this matters to you, learn all you can – not only about the politics, but about the textiles themselves. Then find ways to express your concern, to let the artisans doing the work and living the life know that someone on the outside cares. Get as creative about it as you want them to be. As for me, I intend to do all I can to help with that education process, writing whatever I think will help anyone to understand. And I welcome questions, so feel free to ask. (I won’t always know the answers, but will do what I can to find out.)

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13 thoughts on “The Industrial Revolution’s Latest Conquest

  1. Well done. Interesting and balanced. Maybe you should write a book about what to look for in Guatemalan fabric goods.

    Dennis Lone (Nap happens.)

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  2. Deb – Amidst many interesting things in your essay, your point about choice is well taken.
    One problem with the Industrial Revolution is the loss of manual skills which is worldwide. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t know the joy of making something with their own brain and own hands. We need to inspire and teach all kids so they have that sense of pride and accomplishment. And if women in Guatemala aren’t rewarded for weaving, there won’t be anyone to teach the kids.

    But balancing that is choice. Those of us who don’t live in traditional societies can romanticize a simpler time and simpler lifestyle, but that simpler life has always meant fewer choices ( think gender roles or class divisions). There is truly a freedom in simple living but it can be a prison if it’s not chosen. You make an excellent point that these changes may allow Mayan women to preserve parts of an ancient culture while wearing something that fits their current needs.
    Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking essay.

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  3. Thank you Carol for this interesting article. I met Deborah Chandler at the WARP conference in Asheville, NC a few years ago, and enjoy using a number of small articles from her ‘Mayan Hands’ weavers. Margaret

    PS—I’m still involved a bit with dyeing using plant materials—oxalis, black walnut, cochineal, and some mushrooms. Not as diversified as what we did at the Huntington Gardens for so many years!

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  4. The article on huipils is excellent, informative, and lets us all know how we can individually support the weaving heritage in Guatemala and the other parts of world where traditions are rapidly disappearing.

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  5. The industrial revolution took over the weaving of bed covers in the US a long time ago. Previously women spun and dyed wool yarns by hand. There were itenerant German-American weavers in Pennsylvania who were hired by the women to weave their hand made yarn into blue and white or red and white bedcovers. Now people in PA, where I come from, use industrially made bed covers, and they don’t even look like the early hand made ones. There are so many stories like these.

    Quite a few generations later, I learned to spin yarn by hand. But I do it for relaxation, enjoyment, and self expression. Time moves on. Things always change. Even saving the hand made processes and designs of the past will change as the market becomes focused on the global upper classes, people like me who travel abroad and buy “traditional textiles” to bring home and use to decorate my home or wear for special occasions.

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  6. Fascinating article, and very philosophical about the new machine made huipils. Thank you! A much more positive take than what I articulated the first time I heard about and saw them in the market! It makes sense, that the machine made options can be a great choice for women who can’t afford a handwoven huipil, and given the poverty in Guatemala, they must provide a wonderful opportunity to many traditional women. To be able to wear traje, without having to pay the high prices may enable more women to stick with traditional clothing if they want to. Lets hope that some weavers continue to create the beautiful backstrap loom huipils, keep those weaving techniques alive, and continue to innovate as they have for so long. Thanks again for the great article! MLO’C

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    1. Excellent article , giving us both sides of the question. All info very much appreciated. We want to keep these weaving skills alive, Thank you

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  7. Thank you Deborah, it all needs to be said, and you said it so well. I want to repost on my page, I hope I’ll be able to do that.

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