This is a guest post by Laura Bucci, who knits and sews bags. You can find her at her arts & crafts blog.
I must admit that I prefer to buy foreign craft items when I’m actually visiting the country of origin as opposed to buying them in my home country. There’s something missing when these items are sold out of context. Right now, I’m thinking specifically about Latin American crafts since that’s where I’ve traveled to in the last few years. I feel there’s a lot that I’m not getting by not having seen the people, the landscape, the country, the culture where the piece is made.
In one of my the trips to Guatemala, I bought two small embroidery wall hangings. Although I did not meet the women who made these pieces, throughout Guatemala it is easy to spot Mayan women working on the streets or craft markets (as seen in top picture). By being exposed to the culture, and through dialogues with shop owners, my appreciation of my newly purchased embroideries was greatly increased. And now when I look at my Mayan embroideries at home, images of the place, the women, and the culture flood back.
To some women in parts of the world, working with thread has long been a way to share their culture, life experience, and to earn a living. Weaving and embroidery (all handmade) are two important crafts practiced by Mayan women. The two embroideries seen on this page are from a group of women called Artesana Maya. This group/project was formed in 2000 with the help of Foundations for Education, a US organization based in Guatemala, with the idea of helping women earn money through their craft. In Guatemala there are many indigenous groups, this one being K’iche’ and Kaqchikel from the small village of Panimatzalam, near the enchanting Lake Atitlan.
The women create folkloric embroideries of their daily lives and depict images such as harvesting the fields, feasts, and children playing to name just a few. Their embroideries, which can be used as wall hangings or cushion covers lean quite heavily on the stitch, which they tend to use the way a painter uses paint on canvas. As the photos on this page can attest to, their work is bright and colorful - a reflection of the natural light and color in that part of the world.
The members of Artesana Maya bring as many as 20 to 30 embroideries to Foundations for Education who then helps to sell them to visitors passing by their offices. They also sell their work directly to some local shops where they are paid 175 Quetzales for each embroidery, about $23 USD. Their embroideries are also sold abroad for up to $40 each.
Being a creative person myself, I wonder sometimes what the process is like for handmade items created in less developed countries. So, I asked Romelia Gonzales, the director of Foundations for Education, a few questions and found out that the women produce one-of-a-kind and limited editions pieces. They weave their own cloth that will serve as the background for the embroidery, then they draw in the design in pencil, and finally start the embroidery.
Mayan women are generally hardworking, often taking care of the house and children as well as being involved in some type of work outside the house. This means that sometimes a daughter will have to help with the weaving or embroidery work and sometimes a son or husband will do the pencil design. Some of the women bring Romelia five or six embroideries a month but during harvest season, Christmas or Easter they temporarily cease the crafts work.
Currently, the women of Artesana Maya are busy working on a custom order. Thanks to Foundations for Education’s website, US Rags – a fashion company – discovered the women’s work and has hired them to make limited edition embroideries on t-shirt material.
While the embroideries above are colorful and uplifting and are meant to help earn a living, it is interesting to witness the striking difference when the craft is undertaken for activism or self-expression. Guatemala endured a civil war that lasted 36 years and ended in 1996. This war deeply effected the Maya population of the highlands, specifically the area of El Quiche where half of the massacres took place and were now poverty is the highest in the country. Foundations for Education was instrumental in developing yet another project which resulted in a completely different type of embroidery that is more sparse and often combines line images and text . 30 Maya women expressed their personal experience on the civil war in Guatemala. Romelia says,
“My thoughts were to help the Maya women earn some money through the making of embroideries. The women decided that they wanted to express their feelings about the war… Scholarship students interviewed the women about their embroideries and the final result is this book that was put together with love for these courageous women.”
The book, in English and Spanish, is called Threads Breaking the Silence and is $15 US plus postage.
It conveys the history of the people in the Quiche highlands, followed by portraits, interviews, first person accounts, and pictures of embroideries created by the women. If offers a frank account of the women’s experience of the war and allows the women’s voice to come through.
Image credit: top and last two – Laura Bucci, others – Romelia Gonzales