Backstrap Evolution

Complex backstrap textiles show astounding skill. But the process can inflict pain. Synergo Arts collaborates to address the problem.

Complex Guatemalan textiles made on a backstrap loom astound collectors, and are culturally vital to their makers.  But the cumulative trauma to the bodies of women weavers inflicts pain as it slows down productivity and creativity.  These indigenous artisans are empowering themselves by adopting a new ergonomic bench that helps preserve important aspects of their culture.
The bench is a project of Synergo Arts, a nonprofit whose purpose is to enable artisans around the world to use ergonomics to maximize health, income, performance, productivity, creativity, and craft quality.  Ergonomics has to do with designing systems, tools, work methods, and environments to support human capabilities.  The weaving bench project is a good example of ergonomics in action.  It combines the introduction of a piece of ergonomic equipment with training to support the use of new postures and movements.
For centuries, Maya artisans in Guatemala have created beautiful textiles with the backstrap loom.  The weaver straps the loom around her hips, and then rocks back and forth to adjust the tension on the cloth throughout the weaving process.  In effect, her body becomes integrated with the loom, and while the loom itself is quite simple, the weaving process is dynamic and sophisticated.  Both the loom and the textiles woven on it have deep significance within the indigenous community, and have come to symbolize the culture to the outside world.  Backstrap weaving is also important economically: it enables women to sustain the family unit by working at home.  However, pain, numbness, and fatigue limit the length of time a weaver can work, and are readily evident in how slowly and stiffly a weaver moves when she leaves her loom. 
Through visits to Guatemala beginning in 2003 I’ve learned that indigenous weavers often live in extreme poverty.  Further, gender roles in traditional Maya homes dictate that a woman’s place is kneeling on the ground, not sitting.  Thus, despite chronic, disabling symptoms, women weavers push their bodies through fatigue and pain in order to provide for their families.  This pattern sets up a vicious cycle which ultimately degrades earning potential. 
The Synergo Arts weaving bench project evolved in response to the indigenous people’s desire for a culturally, environmentally, and economically viable alternative to the traditional kneeling posture.  Their search for a healthier way to continue using the traditional loom connects with the Maya culture’s history of creativity and innovation –characteristics which are sometimes masked by current issues of economic poverty, gender inequality and racial prejudice.
In 2005, facilitated by a variety of nonprofits in Guatemala, we researched, designed and tested prototypes with women in their cooperatives and at home.  As a result, 150 women in nine communities across the highlands of Guatemala are already using the bench.  It rocks with the rhythm of the weaver’s body, and has a specially-shaped, padded seat that adjusts to fit the individual weaver.  Because it’s adjustable, the bench can be shared by other weavers in the family or community.  An interlocking footrest provides leverage and stability.
Weavers who use the bench report that pain, numbness, and fatigue are no longer limiting factors.  They are now able to create more with less effort, in less time, and with higher quality.  Those producing plain-weave items have the potential to triple their output in only twice the time.  Quality improvements include cleaner cloth, which comes off the loom straighter and more evenly woven.  These performance benefits increase the ability to provide for families.  The women also describe feeling a greater hope for the future, due in part to a lessened threat of having to leave their communities to seek work elsewhere.
The need for enhanced incomes and better working conditions for traditional weavers everywhere is great; in Guatemala alone there are an estimated half-million backstrap weavers, and backstrap weaving is done in many other areas of Latin America, Africa and Asia.  Currently through educational resources and outreach activities Synergo Arts seeks to help communities build their own infrastructure for fabrication, distribution, promotion, training, and micro-finance for the bench, so that they are not dependent on outside support.  Our current model involves providing a start-up kit and technical support that help local carpenters make the bench, and a program for training for weavers.  We also offer education to empower artisans to apply ergonomics to their lives beyond the bench.
Ultimately, Synergo Arts envisions a world in which artisans create their own prosperous, healthy, and self-sufficient lives through the application of ergonomic knowledge and sustainable innovations.
To donate to Synergo Arts and help them deliver ergonomics resources for the millions of artisans around the world who depend on craft for their survival, visit  Karen Piegorsch is the founder of Synergo Arts.



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