This is a rags to riches story. A story of Guatemalan women weavers learning the folk art of hooking rugs from an American woman. A story of how used clothing is transformed into one-of-a-kind rugs, each expressing the artist’s vision of Mayan culture. A story of how artistic and economic opportunity is transforming the lives of women from the highlands of Guatemala.
The Cooperativa de Alfombras de Mujeres Maya or Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Project is now an association of over sixty women artisans scattered across seven communities in the Guatemalan Highlands. Founded in 2013 as the first rug hooking group in Guatemala, the rugs highlight one avenue of the evolution of Maya textile and cultural history. Through the sales of their rugs, the women earn a sustainable income allowing financial support for their families and an education for their children.
Forming and Transforming
In 2006, Mary Anne Wise, an American rug-hooking artist and teacher, along with textile artist Jody Slocum traveled to Guatemala. Jody, a volunteer with Farmer-to-Farmer, had spent time in Guatemala before but she wanted Mary Anne to see the country’s woven wealth, which they did. But they also saw poverty, discrimination against the Maya culture, and the tragedy wrought by a recent landslide.
In 2009, Mary Anne returned to Guatemala to give her first rug hooking class to eighteen students which led to seven more workshops over the years. The students, all women, drew design inspirations from the symbols and motifs found in their huipils (traditional blouses), surroundings, and cultural stories.
When a “Teach the Teachers” program was started in 2012, with the purpose to ensure that rug-hooking knowledge remain in Guatemala, seven teachers graduated. These teachers began year-long community classes and by the end of 2013, over fifty women from six highland villages had learned the skills necessary to produce high-quality rugs.
Mary Anne’s co-instructor during the teacher program was Reyna Pretzantzin, a talented indigenous woman with a background in fair trade and product development. In 2013, with Reyna’s leadership, the The Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Cooperative formed and they applied to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, to sell their rugs. And sell they did. With this income, Multicolores was formed with the mission to create economic opportunities for talented and motivated artisans. Reyna Pretantizin became president of Multicolores, and the Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Cooperative plays an important role in the new association with Board members and interns coming from within the ranks of the rug hookers.
New Skills, New Dreams
While rug hooking is not an indigenous art, it is one that is compatible with Guatemalan women’s lives–it’s portable, equipment costs are minimal, and recycled clothing is an inexpensive local source for hooking material. Since most of the women are all weavers, they have an inherent sense of weaving patterns from their traditional clothing. But they don’t have inherent design skills for creating new products, nor the ability to translate what they envision onto paper or cloth for this new-to-them art form of rug hooking.
Each rug is made using recycled clothing which is cut into thin strips and hooked into a base fabric called monk’s cloth. One small rug could take days in preparation from cutting strips to preparing the cloth. Then the hooking begins. Many months pass while fabric scraps are pulled through the cloth revealing birds flying, flowers growing, lightning flashing, or a long-forgotten huipil pattern combined with a contemporary woven motif or iconic patterns from the Semana Santa street rugs.
When the ClothRoads tour group visited Multicolores in Panajachel this March, we met artisan Glendy Emiliana Muj Garcia, Multicolores president Reyna Pretzantzin, and development director Cheryl Conway. Glendy spoke confidently to us about her growth as an artist, proudly showing off her in-process large rug—the largest she has ever made. Reyna couldn’t be prouder of the women, saying, “The hookers are creating their own products and designs. They now believe they can do more than they ever thought possible. They are more secure, both financially and in themselves. Many have taken on leadership roles. And their children—they have gone from shy to outgoing. They are happy in their community because of this change. Now there are over sixty women from seven villages–even a few children have started learning and some husbands are assisting in the preparation.”
For Multicolores, the goal continues to be self-sufficiency and sustainability. To achieve this new markets and products need to be developed, additional payment need to be made to the artisans who create high-quality marketable products, and there needs to be financial literacy and planning classes for the women, many of whom are illiterate.
You can learn more about Multicolores here. If you’re visiting northern Colorado before May 20, go see The Power of Maya Women’s Artistry at the Avenir Museum of Design & Merchandising in Fort Collins. You can meet some of the artisans in person at the Santa Fe Folk Art Market in July, plus Mary Anne Wise and Multicolores offer yearly rug hooking classes with the Cooperative in Guatemala.
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