Endangered and Exquisite Fabric


Documenting the Art of Maya Weavers

Saving the Weavers: Small Assistance for Maya Women in Highland Guatemala tells the story of the widows and orphans who survived the thirty-six year old civil war from 1960 to 1996, and features ten extraordinary people who dedicated their lives to set up assistance programs and finding markets for Maya Weavers. HAND/EYE interviewed filmmaker Kathleen Vitale to learn more about Endangered Threads Documentaries, the challenges they’ve encountered in filming the documentaries, the evolution of Maya weaving due to globalization, a weak economy, and much more.

HAND/EYE: What’s your personal experience in textile arts?

Kathleen Vitale: My mother was a collector and expert in hand-woven textiles from India, the Philippines and Latin America. I grew up listening to my mom wax eloquent about the warps and wefts of exquisite cloth. My husband [Paul] and I also collected, but on a much smaller scale. After my mom died at age 92 in 2001, we gave more than 700 pieces from our combined collections to the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

H/E: How was Endangered Threads Documentaries started?

KV: Endangered Threads Documentaries really started when we gave my textile collection to the Hearst Museum. We were touring the museum’s storage facility, where we came upon a group of Native Americans silently studying a spectacular old basket decorated with feathers and shells. How sad, I thought, that they could not see photos of the artist or a documentary on how such wonderful objects had been made. In discussing my mom’s 1965 Maya textile collection with experts, anthropologist Margot Blum Schevill challenged us to use our skills in working with indigenous people and our fluency in Spanish to produce a documentary on Maya weaving in Guatemala.

Endangered Threads Documentaries is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit. Our first documentary, Splendor in the Highlands: Maya Weavers of Guatemala, introduced twenty-two Maya weavers and their weaving styles. Splendor was really made to assure that we could safely film in indigenous communities. We used it to raise funds for the documentary we had first envisioned, A Century of Color: Maya Weaving & Textiles, which based in part on Margot’s research with the 1902 Gustavus A. Eisen Collection at the Hearst Museum, and links 100 years of Maya weaving to present day dress. Our third documentary, Manuela & Esperanza: The Art of Maya Weaving, follows two back-strap weavers–one in Chichicastenango and the other in San Antonio Aguas Calientes—as they produce huipils (Maya blouses or tunics) from thread purchase to the final stitches. Our latest documentary, Saving the Weavers: Small Assistance Programs for Maya Women in Highland Guatemala, was released this summer, and highlights the role of ten extraordinary people in working with widows and orphans following the devastating 36-year Civil War (1970-96).

H/E: What attracts you to weaving?

KV: Every weaving has a story to tell: Who made it? Why did she make it? How did she select the colors, the designs? What did she intend it to mean? Many back-strap weavers are illiterate, and only speak one of more than 20 Maya languages. They spend long hours tending their children, cooking over a hearth, and weaving. Weaving is a form of communication that can only be deciphered through patience and mutual understanding. Many of the weavers have lived through horrific times of violence, hunger and fear. Some were forced to hide in the forests or flee from place to place for years. That any of their cultural heritages survive today is miraculous. Some are survivors of unspeakable horror, yet they weave incredibly beautiful textiles. Weaving, for them, is both a means to cultural identity and an entrance into the modern economy. They are survivors. They are hard working, creative, and even inspirational. They are artists who use an ancient devise made up of a pile of sticks to produce splendid textiles for modern use.

H/E: And the WOW factor of Maya weaving?

KV: I am bowled over by the breadth and depth of the weaving skills many Maya back-strap weavers possess. While it is true that weavers can now purchase printed patterns in the market for pennies, I know many who can weave a style by simply studying it. To paraphrase weaving expert Deborah Chandler in Saving the Weavers, in the States weavers have access to thousands of colors and types of yarn, but generally do only a few styles of weaving. In Guatemala, the Maya have access to a much more limited variety of materials, but can weave dozens of different styles And, they use only primitive tools and the knowledge passed down from mother to daughter for the past thousand years. I am mesmerized by their hands—old, young, gnarled and elegant. I always start filming with their hands, and only move to their faces when they are comfortable with me and the camera.

H/E: Is Maya Weaving changing? Is it losing any of its originality as it fuses with Western tastes?

KV: Maya weaving is constantly changing and adapting to economic and cultural conditions and new materials. The real risk to Maya back-strap weaving is the influx of tons of used clothing from the States. Paca Americana, as it is called, is available in every indigenous market in Guatemala. Weaving is labor-intensive and the yarn is costly. As the Maya face the challenge of paying school fees and modern medicine costs, scarce resources often go for cheap jeans and tee shirts rather than thread. In addition, television and glossy publications tug at the young to join the newest fashions of the dominant culture. The daughters and granddaughters of several master weavers I know well now dress in the used clothing of American teens.

H/E: What were the challenges in filming Saving the Weavers?

KV: Two challenges stand out: safety and funding. Filming in remote villages where people have been abused and even murdered by outside forces means that you have to be vigilant. We like including local Peace Corps volunteers whenever possible; we use local translators; and we use drivers and guides who know the areas. We never take out a camera without specific permission, and only after enlisting help from the weavers in documenting the Maya textile tradition. We revisit them often and bring them photos, copies of videos, and offerings of food or school supplies for the children.

As for funding, we depend on individual donors, sale of our documentaries, and grants. We keep costs down by using volunteers and interns; encourage participation from friends, like Emmy-award winning composer Christopher Hedge of The Magic Shop, and voice-over artist Lina del Roble; and donate our own travel costs, as well as filming, editing and business skills.

H/E: Given the current situation with the global economy, how are the different groups that you featured in Saving the Weavers doing?

KV: Saving the Weavers was released only a couple of months ago. It has reportedly been shown to at least one large group of indigenous weavers with great interest.We produce the documentaries with selectable English or Spanish narrations. Many of the weavers, however, do not understand Spanish. (Our documentaries have been used in the highlands in educational programs aimed at teaching Maya children about their own culture.) It’s a tough time for all involved in finding markets for indigenous products. Recessions hit the poorest the hardest. Hopefully Saving the Weavers will increase discussion on how best to nurture weaving, while keeping the spotlight firmly planted on the survival of the Maya as human beings. We have so much to learn from them.

H/E: What’s next for ETD?

KV: We are working on several documentaries, the most challenging is about a fine, white, plain weave with small white brocaded designs, still woven by a few weavers in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala (where it is called pikb’il) and in Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas Mexico (where it is called petete). Our teams have interviewed and filmed weavers of this ancient weaving style on three separate trips. Former Museo Ixchel curator Barbara Knoke was the anthropologist on our Alta Verapaz research trip this last January. We are also working with professor Gabrielle Vail, Ph.D., from the New College in Florida on the collection of data on pikb’il and petete weaving. For ETD, a documentary is always our end goal, and funding our biggest challenge.

Another work in progress is on agave fiber processing and crafts. The plant is called maguey in Guatemala, and cabuya in Ecuador. We’ve done filming in both countries and have a documentary in rough draft form. We also have filmed fleca production, the fancy knotting on ikat “Cuenca” shawls, produced in southern Ecuador.

H/E: Will you continue to work with artisans in Latin America or do you have plans to cover indigenous art in other parts of the world?

KV: The world is a fascinating place, but between Guatemala and Ecuador there are so many wonderful possibilities for documentaries that our slate is more than full. That said, however, never say never…

ETD documentaries are sold through The Smithsonian Institution and various museum stores, artisan and yarn catalogues, and online at www.endangeredthreads.org.