In 1946, when WW II had just ended, Mary Meigs Atwater went to Guatemala to look at textiles. Considered the “dean” of the American handweaving revival, she wrote up her experiences in a monograph titled Guatemala Visited, and published it under the Shuttlecraft Guild imprint. You can still get copies today. It makes for fascinating reading, especially for textile junkies.
Back then, Guatemala City was “amazingly clean and tidy,” she notes, and goes on to describe the cobblestone streets and pretty tiled sidewalks, and so forth. That’s not the Guatemala City I’ve seen, but on the other hand the half-acre topographic map she describes is still intact and eye-popping, and the museum offerings are vastly improved.
Mary and her traveling companion, Harriet Tidball, covered much the same ground that I did with Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón in the years leading up to publication of Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives. Antigua, San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Momostenango, Quetzaltenango and beyond. Much that Mary describes is familiar: the color and vibrancy of the women’s huipils, the halo-like head wraps of Santiago Atitlan, the vast market hubbub in Chichi, the magical simplicity of the backstrap loom. But so much has changed.
In Atwater’s time, villages were picturesque clusters of whitewashed adobe cottages with tiled or thatched roofs. Today the architecture tends more toward concrete block and corrugated tin. Not so pretty, but more practical, and less likely to fall in on one’s head in case of earthquakes or other natural disasters.
Then, the women carried large clay pots on their heads to bring water from the public well to their home; today the pots are lightweight blue and white striped plastic. Less picturesque, but much easier on the body.
And interestingly, women in those times were reluctant to sell their textiles. Acquiring a single huipil could take hours of persuasion and bargaining and arm-twisting. Today, in many of the poorer towns, it’s all too easy to acquire beautiful pieces for little money. I’ve even seen women strip off their huipils in public, their need for a bit of cash was so urgent. This is not a good change—it’s a reflection of poverty and need resulting from decades of civil war.
Is It About The Cloth?
A good two-thirds of Atwater’s monograph is devoted to analyzing the textiles—their structures and techniques. And this brings us to an important difference between that publication and Deborah and Teresa’s book. Atwater makes occasional reference to the habits and character of the Indians (the Maya), but they—those who made the cloth—are not otherwise present. In Traditional Weavers of Guatemala, the subtitle says it all: Their Stories, Their Lives. Reading it, poring over the wonderful photographs, you come to understand not just the technicalities of the weavers’ remarkable craft, but their motives, their memories, their dreams.
This seems important to me. It’s an underlying premise of the books we publish. Looking at handmade objects as artifacts is interesting and worthwhile, but understanding the humanity, the personal ingenuity, the life experiences of the people who create them helps us understand and appreciate in a deeper way. We begin to feel what it means to be part of the human species, a species of makers, a species where heart and mind and hand work as one.