Pijbil Weaving in Guatemala–Elegant in Every Way

Enjoy this story of Amalia Guë, a beautiful, steadfast earth mother of a woman, featured in Deborah Chandler’s Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives. I cannot forget visiting her six years ago when we were working on the book: shafts of sunlight coming through cracks in the walls to illuminate the fine work the weavers were doing; a hospitable lunch of beans with tortillas to scoop them up; children laughing down the mountainside. So much beauty.
—Linda Ligon, Publisher


 Amalia Guë was born in Simajij, an aldea in north eastern Guatemala that at that time had no road and could only be reached on foot. The first of what were eventually eight siblings, she was only four years old when they left Simajij because it had gotten too dangerous. The killings there seemed to be random, and just walking down the road was risky. Her grandfather, killed near the corner of his house, was the only person their family lost during the Time of Violence. They moved to Samac, an hour’s walk down the road, but safer. Eventually, they recovered the land they had had to abandon, but they never moved back.

Amalia’s grandmother was a backstrap weaver who taught Amalia’s mother how to weave, who then taught Amalia, who is now teaching her daughters.

This large room in Amalia’s house serves many purposes: bedroom, living room, weaving studio, yarn storage, meeting space, and sometimes dining room for guests. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

Pijbil Weaving

Amalia is the President of the Grupo de Mujeres Ix Balam Q’ue’, Diosa de la Luna (Group of Women, Goddess of the Moon). With sixty members [now only twenty-five], the group is focused on keeping the traditional weaving technique of their area alive. Pijbil is woven in a number of communities, each with its own variation, but the Samac version is pijbil in its purest—and most challenging—form.

 Woven entirely with a 20/1 single-ply non-mercerized cotton, the cloth is a gauzy plain-weave foundation with inlaid designs of plants, animals, small figures of women and men, and geometric forms. What makes the work especially challenging, even aside from working with a single-ply warp, is that all of it is white, background and inlaid figures alike. Challenging and elegant.

Elegant in every way, non-mercerized single-ply white on white is Samac’s version of pijbil. The background is woven with one strand of weft, the designs with three strands so they stand out more. Because a single strand of 20/1 thread is so fragile, the warp is sized before being woven by running it through a bath of water with corn or other vegetable starch. The stiffener protects the work in progress and washes out when no longer needed. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

The inlaid figures come from the weavers’ daily lives. The arch may be a hill, a mountain, a river, or a road. Small dots represent grains of corn, beans, or hail. There are little ducks that look just like Amalia’s ducks. Animal paw prints look like those of a dog, but the traditional interpretation is that they’re jaguar prints, the jaguar being a sacred animal in Maya cosmology. Designs also include the leaves of the pacaya plant, which is used for special fiestas and ceremonies, especially around the time of Semana Santa, when the plant is mature. Tobacco and corn both attract the hummingbird, and, of course, the spider is the weaver. A star, regardless of how many points it has, is simply a star, often used as a decoration on top of the monstrance in a religious procession.

The inlay is done with a needle-like bone or fine wood pick-up stick that is called pijbil, thus the name of the cloth. Selected warp threads are picked up, and three strands of weft are laid into create the design. Those three threads together give the designs more substance; even so, the best way to see the picture is to hold the cloth up to the light.

Pijbils–carved bone or wood tools for lifting chosen threads to form designs. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

Hope for the Future

The community of Samac and the group of women are so far from any markets that it has only been with dedicated help that the world beyond Samac has seen their work. Olga Reiche, a Guatemalan woman who grew up in the area, has been a tireless promoter of the pijbil weavers and their cloth. Having their work in a few good stores in Antigua and now having some international clients as well has been good, but the biggest event by far is their inclusion in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Weaving for that show alone keeps the women working for much of the year, and it gives their traditions and culture great exposure. Amalia has been their representative each year—which is why her son will be able to come and go freely between Guatemala and the United States. When she went to the Folk Art Market in 2013, she was pregnant with an expected delivery date in August. She had miscalculated, and to everyone’s surprise—especially hers—she went into labor her second day there. Fe Francis ended up being born in Santa Fe and so is an American citizen in addition to being a Guatemalan citizen.

Amalia Guë in her booth at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe. Photo by Thrums Books.

Just as baby Fe Francis, called Frankie, will grow up in a world different from his mother’s, so the grandmothers in the group grew up in a world different from that of the younger members. Formal education is part of it. Many of the older women never went to school. Amalia only went to first grade and really wishes she had been able to continue. Her six children, three girls and three boys, are all (or will be) in school, leaving Samac to get the best education they can.

Frankie with his mother and sister Nilsa. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

Years ago, the only use of pijbil weaving was for huipils. Now, to reach that broader market, the women are weaving table runners, scarves, and other items of many different sizes. Part of the art of pijbil is that the designs are centered, both edges being balanced. The older women, who have spent their lives weaving huipils, have those counts in their heads. Want horses? Count this many threads. Want rows of women and men? Count like this. They know many figures and the counts for all of them. The designs are not written anywhere; they are stored in memory. But all the counts are for the width and length of a huipil. If you want something narrower or wider the counts won’t work. The younger women in the group are just the opposite. They can measure and re-calculate where the designs need to be for different-sized finished products, but they don’t yet know how to do many figures.

Years ago, women wore their traditional clothing all the time, but its use has diminished. There’s a clear distinction between everyday wear and special occasion clothing.  And that’s the main message of working to save the purest form of pijbil weaving from extinction. It is beautiful and it represents the culture in many ways; for both of those reasons and more, it has value.

—Deborah Chandler

Discover the histories, hopes, and dreams of textile artisans of Guatemala in the award-winning, Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives.

4 thoughts on “Pijbil Weaving in Guatemala–Elegant in Every Way

  1. Virginia Glenn says:

    I had never heard of Pijbil weaving before our visit to Guatemala a year ago. I saw some in a museum there and saw women wearing huipiles woven this way. As a weaver myself, when I came home I immediately did some research on the technique, I would absolutely love to purchase a piece of this type of weaving. I know we’ll return to Guatemala again sometime but in the interim – where could I get a Pijbil huipil or at least a sample of this wonderful weaving technique. It reminds me so much of hand made lace which to me looks like woven magic.

  2. Deborah Chandler says:

    It is a great deal, in fact such a great deal that they sold out immediately. I have already been in contact with Amalia and we should be able to get some more weaving from Ixbalam Ke to Loveland soon. And please know, Amalia says thank you and blessings on everyone.

  3. Mary Anne Wise says:

    I know those shawls- they are beautiful- and paired with the book, which I own, what a great package.

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