These were the parting words I heard at every one of the 4 Mayan co-ops I visited on my recent trip to Guatemala. Talking with the women, learning about their craft, and in some cases seeing how they live, definitely solidified my commitment to fair trade.
The first co-op I met with is Corazon del Lago, “Heart of the Lake.” It takes its name from the majestic Lake Atitlan on which their village is located. Its waters are surrounded by lush, natural beauty and the slopes of three massive volcanoes.
Mayan women started the co-op in 1999 to promote their indigenous craft of weaving and help raise the standard of living for their families. Thirty-three craftswomen and 3 craftsmen are currently in the co-op.
They are among the very few indigenous artisans who make their own dyes for the threads they use. Saffron produces shades of orange, blues come from indigo, coconut shells are used for peach tones, sarsaparilla creates a lovely light brown shade. Even a very tiny bug, the Cochineal, produces tones of red and pink.
Francisca Hernandez, the lovely woman who manages the co-op, spent a morning explaining the meticulous processes involved in creating their gorgeous fabrics. It starts with cotton grown in the Quetzaltenango region, northwest of Lake Atitlan. Twenty pounds of cotton will make about 90 scarves.
The women spin the cotton into threads and then dye it by submersing it in boiling water tinted with one or more natural ingredients. The colors are sealed with a combination of banana bark, ashes and salt.
Francisca went on to explain that once dry, the lengthwise threads that will form the design are wound on a warping mill. This is a meticulous process where the weaver has to count every single thread in each color she’ll use to make sure the count conforms to the design.
The weaver then loads all these threads onto a loom. She creates the final design by weaving a “shuttle” with more threads on top of and under the lengthwise threads.
And here’s another very unique aspect of Corazon del Lago’s weaving process. They use a back strap loom, where one end of the loom is attached to a pole or wall and the other end is attached to the weaver with a wide strap around her waist. This allows her to keep the weave very tight, a feature specific to Mayan weaving. This is the method used to make a number of products sold on Fair Trade Designs: the San Juan and San Pedro scarves and the Chichi Handwoven Bag.
When you buy a scarf, shawl, or any other type of woven fabric in a store, it’s most likely been made from start to finish by a computer, including the design. These talented Mayan women and men create the design with pen and paper and use their hands every step on the way to the finished product.
When we were finished at the workshop, Francisca took us to a small building a short walk away. Inside was a craftsman, hard at work on a massive pedal-operated loom. He was weaving a shawl like the Francisca shawls sold on my web site. As the translator says in the video, the rhythmic movement of the weaver’s hands and feet is almost like dancing.
Our last stop was Francisca’s home, a modest cinder-block structure where she lives with her parents. Behind her home she grows a few cotton plants that she uses to supplement the cotton in the workshop.
Like Francisca, the other women in the co-op live very simply. Most of them have anywhere from four to nine children each. Part of what they earn from their work pays for school for their children, which is not free in Guatemala.
Because this is a fair trade co-op, the women of Corazon del Lago receive the bulk of the proceeds from the sale of their products. Your purchase of their lovely creations directly aids these hard-working women trying to lift their families above the staggering poverty of their homeland.