White Gauze of Coban

Olga Reiche and the Izbalanke womens' weaving cooperative

Since 1989, Olga Reiche, a native Guatemalan, has been visiting the town of Coban, Alta Verapaz, located in northeast Guatemala. Olga vividly recalls memories spent with her Ketchi grandmother who is part of the Izbalanke womens' weaving cooperative—an indigenous community known for their extremely finely woven, white gauze huipiles. She explains, “I love seeing all of the local women wearing their white huipiles. I have always admired these hand loomed garments, I guess it’s just in my blood.” Olga is not only a trusted friend to this community, but a mentor, interpreter, designer, promoter, sponsor and organizer. She has been dedicated to helping find international markets for this exquisite craft.

In September 2012, I was fortunate to meet with Olga in her beautiful studio situated in the heart of charming Antigua. During my visit, I was immediately drawn to the delicacy of the white gauze fabrics, which were hanging on a ladder in the corner of one of the main weaving rooms. The white on white textiles were captivating as I was so used to seeing Guatemala’s typical vibrant colors and patterns. The intricacy within this work is staggering as you notice the finely woven motifs, including ducks, corn, plants, spiders, dolls, mountains, rivers, roads, and more. They use a different traditional technique known as the shadow or picbil weave. The artisans are inspired by the natural landscape that surrounds them. 

The Izbalanke womens' weaving cooperative is currently made up of 29 women, all members of the Kekchi ethnic group. To increase the textiles’ attraction to new buyers and markets, Olga has been experimenting with the introduction of natural dyes, including the use of brown cotton and indigo. “I am the only link that this cooperative has with the lucrative foreign markets. I am trying to help maintain production opportunities so that this specialty technique does not disappear."

"Gauze huipil weaving is extremely unique to the Kekchi women and this ‘picbil’ technique (which means 'pick up' threads) is entirely woven on the back strap loom. Maize or tortilla starch is used to make the warp threads tense and strong, referencing the ancient connection between their craft and the corn that is an essential part of their diet. Interestingly, the weaving tools on the back strap loom all have names that are related to the human body. It’s as if when they weave, they are bringing a textile to life. As they walk by a loom or a weaving in process, they pick up their skirt as a display of respect for the art itself.” She adds, “The finely woven white fabrics are then turned into garments or gowns. During pre-Colombian and ancient Mayan times, they were only worn by the upper royal class as a distinguishing statement. These textiles play a significant role within the culture's social identities.”  

Although it has been challenging to locate the appropriate international markets, Olga has found great success in attending the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market (SFIFAM). Every year she notices, “The products just fly off of the shelves and the women always end up buying the huipiles right off of me! The indigo blue and coffee brown on white have been extremely successful. I am always trying to look for other new foreign markets such as the SFIFAM as it provides not only income but an incentive for the women to preserve the 'picbil' technique which is so incredibly gorgeous and unique.” 

In addition to working with the Izbalanke womens' weaving cooperative, Olga co-founded Artes Textiles y Populares in Antigua. It serves as an educational center that hosts different cultures and nationalities in learning, experimenting, and sharing ideas around textile and popular arts. She also loves to spend her time designing and weaving with recycled materials such as plastic bags, rubber, cassette tapes, used T-shirts, and wool from used sweaters. Olga is a living master and has a heart of gold. She loves what she does and concludes by stating, "When I’m designing, I try to help the artisan in order to make sure they have a good sense of quality, responsibility and fulfillment.” 

For more information, please visit: http://www.customtextiledesign.com.

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