Two years ago, I wrote this blog about our visit with the Guatemalan basket makers at the Mayan Hands field office in Panajachel. Every time ClothRoads receives a shipment of baskets, we marvel at the ingenuity and skill of the women who make them. We’ve followed along with their updates on the need to train more groups to keep up with orders, how long it takes to train women to work with plant fibers when they have been weavers working on backstrap looms for many years, and how they create new designs.
As luck had it, when we visited two years ago with our friends Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón, authors of Traditional Weavers of Guatemala, we were able to see how new designs come forth. We arrived when a basket-design contest was underway; it was sponsored by Mayan Hands in an effort to expand a very successful line of baskets.
How Weavers Became Basket Makers
Josefina and Maria, from the Sololá area, were in the courtyard working away on basket orders. They are from one of four coops now making baskets, but El Triunfo was the first.
The El Triunfo (translated “triumph”) coop was a small group of only four women. They were weavers but they had also learned the art of pine needle basket making as members of another Mayan Hands coop. But they lived far away from the other coop members and were spending too much time traveling. So when the river swelled, making it impassable, they decided it was time to start their own coop within their community.
In August 2014, this group presented some stunning basket samples to the Mayan Hands field workers. The field workers recognized the creativity and craftsmanship, and immediately recommended them to the Mayan Hands collection. They quickly became top sellers and with this triumphant success, the group has quadrupled in size.
Basket Making Materials and Technique
The baskets are made using three different fibers: a wild grass, the green-colored fiber, the pine needles which are brown colored, and raffia which is dyed in any number of colors. Most of the baskets are formed by a coiling technique, in which a continuous round length of material is wound around or on top of itself in an expanding spiral. The wild grass and pine needles are the foundation. The third element, the raffia, is the stitching or wrapping fiber which surrounds the core and binds one row to the next.
Locating the right fibers to create the baskets is not without effort. The location of the exact tree for the pine needles is hours away and they only have a short time to gather, clean and dry them (a three-month period for harvesting during dry season.) This is a family effort to collect a few hundred pounds per woman to make baskets for the entire year. Of course, how much each woman will need is certainly based on orders, always a gamble, but with the success of the project the odds are in their favor.
A Basket Making Triumph
Fortunately, the demand for these beautiful and fragrant pine needle baskets continues to grow, and Mayan Hands is now collaborating with another basket-making group and bringing the artisan’s creations to new markets. ClothRoads continues to add new designs to our product line. Perfect to use as baskets (just in time to stuff with goodies for Easter), or wall décor.
A special thanks goes to Mayan Hands for the outstanding support given to the Guatemalan women and for providing background information on the basket project and their makers. Founded in 1989, Mayan Hands has assisted many impoverished Guatemalan women in making better lives for themselves and their families. They partner with approximately 200 weavers, organized in groups of 10 to 30 women, living in different communities around the western and northern highlands of Guatemala.