Guatemalan resist-dyed fabric called jaspe should never be taken for granted. Yet I undervalued this handwoven cloth for many years until a recent visit to the homeland of jaspe in Salcajá, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Jaspe is a tie-and-dye or resist-dye method, also known as ikat in some parts of the world, which produces patterns in the warp, weft or both in a woven cloth. The weave structure itself is usually plain weave and it can be woven on backstrap or treadle looms, warped faced with vertical designs, weft-faced with horizontal lines, or balanced weave with jaspe designs going in both directions. Simple jaspe is woven in many villages throughout Guatemala, but complex jaspe, called labor, is woven only in a few.
Salcajá, A Town of Labor
The simple jaspe of repeating designs and checks that we saw in Santiago Atitlán was certainly interesting, but we came to Salcajá for the labor, the Mecca of jaspe. We spent all day observing the elaborate process of making the complex labor jaspe of figures, animals, butterflies, flowers, etc., and while I intuitively understand the steps, don’t ask for a linear explanation.
No matter where we went in Salcajá, there was evidence of jaspe—bundles of tied warps or wefts being carried through town; streets with stakes at each end, young and old people walking the lengths with threads and wrapping them around the stakes; brightly colored bundles of threads drying on rooftops; and store after store selling thread, equipment, and bright, almost gaudy, cloth.
Specialists in each part of the jaspe process work in different parts of town. Hundreds of people do the simple tying and dyeing work, but only fifty specialize in labor tying. We met such a special person–Tomasa Siquina, an amarrador, a person who ties labor jaspe. She comes from amarrador lineage, and is now about 70 years old. It’s her job to arrange the threads, tie them into their designs, and after dyeing, to realign the threads before weaving. These three steps are critical for the clarity of the woven patterns. Depending on the complexity of the designs, Tomasa can tie about 160 yards of warp per day—that’s enough to make about 22 cortes (traditional skirts), give or take. This is how she spends most days.
After a morning visit with Tomasa, we met Juan de Dios who was also born into a family of jaspe weavers, learning from his father who learned from his grandfather. He’s a smart business man who keeps the jaspe tradition alive and well in his family and community. He also knows fashion is fickle, so he uses about a half dozen jaspe designs, primarily black and white and maybe shades of blue, and has been tying, dyeing, and weaving these for thirty years.
Jaspe, A Daunting Process
When we arrived, Juan was placing a package on the back of a courier’s bike. In the package were four lengths of corte jaspe fabric to be sold at the next day’s market. We immediately asked if there were any remaining for us to buy, and with a warm smile, Juan said he kept a few lengths available for us. But first, we were to go to the studio and have an overview of the detailed, lengthy process of jaspe making.
It takes twenty-five steps in the making of warp jaspe (outlined in detail in this book) and that will only create a stripe about 3/4″ to 2” in width, depending on the pattern. Even before the warp goes on the loom, the abbreviated steps include: winding spools, winding warp, tying the pattern so dye can’t penetrate underneath the wrapped sections, dyeing, dividing the threads, realigning the threads in pattern, tying more patterns, dyeing again, and sizing the threads. Some of these steps only Juan will do, such as winding the warp threads in the exact order for jaspe striping or holding the raddle while putting the warp on the loom. (I’m including only a few images here as camera failure occurred this day in jaspe Mecca.)
It takes five people two weeks to get a jaspe warp onto the loom: one for turning jaspe, one for holding the solid colored threads, two for turning the back beam, and one for holding the raddle (Juan). These five people have to have the same strength so the winding tension is even or the pattern gets thrown off. And in jaspe, that simply isn’t acceptable.
A Bleeding Jaspe
The length of corte, which just left by bicycle, costs about 75% more than almost identical ones. Juan explained that one is colorfast and the other not. It’s the bleeding cloth that’s coveted. The black analine-dyed fabric will bleed a few times with washing, change to a very deep blue, while the white threads remain white.
So after our time in the studio and dye house, we cut up the remaining bleeding corte to share. I bought one other to do something with someday, or if only remember this day.
The Heart of Jaspe
In Maya-K’iche’, the beginning of the jaspe process has a special name: uk’ ux jeqeb’al tz’aj, meaning “principal heart of the dyeing”. The knot holds the key to the design and without it the entire work is lost, that’s why it’s called the heart. To me, meeting Tomasa and Juan are now knotted into my heart, as they were special gifts to us ClothRoads’s journeyers to Salcajá last month. And deep gratitude goes to our guides, Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón, who memorialized them in Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives, and A Textile Travel Guide to Guatemala published by Thrums Books.
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If you want to learn more about jaspe, the Museo Ixchel in Guatemala City has published and made available a little monograph called, The Magic and Mystery of Jaspe: knots revealing designs by Rosario Miralbés de Polanco.