Ultimate Recycling

Don Domingo Asciona
Don Domingo Asciona. Photo by Joe Coca.

My task this week is to find a pair of shoes suitable for rainy season in Guatemala. I’ll be heading down there next week to work on the final photo shoot for a book on people who are keeping traditional textiles alive. Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón, authors and tacticians, have laid out a rigorous schedule that will take us in all directions to see jaspé dyers and weavers, cinta weavers, backstrap weavers of gauzy inlaid cotton, and much more.

Don Domingo climbs into a chicken sack to keep the fibers in order as he deconstructs it.
Don Domingo climbs into a chicken sack to keep the fibers in order as he deconstructs it. Photo by Joe Coca.




As I squirm with happy anticipation, I’m also thinking back to the last trip there last March. It was so rich with encounters, experiences, and images. One that sticks in my mind for its unforgettable unlikelihood is our visit with Don Domingo Asciona, an 89-year-old gentleman of great persistence and charm.

He learned as a young man to make the intricate looped bags fashioned from maguey fiber that are a standard accessory for many Maya men. He made them for decades both for his own use and for sale. He took the silky maguey fiber, the residue left when all the juicy green pulp was stripped off the blades, and spun it on his thigh into a fine, firm, consistent cord.

Spinning chicken sack plastic challenges old, hard-working hands.
Spinning chicken sack plastic challenges old, hard-working hands. Photo by Joe Coca.

Then one day, he could no longer get maguey fiber. Maybe it no longer grew in his part of the Ixil Triangle in the Guatemalan highlands, or maybe no one was bothering to harvest and strip the fiber out. I know we saw very little of it growing wild. By now Don Domingo was old and arthritic, but he still had the will to practice his craft.

A traditional-style bag in an intricate looped construction, made from chicken sacks.
A traditional-style bag in an intricate looped construction, made from chicken sacks. Photo by Joe Coca.

So he turned to an alternate source of material: chicken feed sacks. These sturdy bags machine-woven of narrow plastic strips are abundant and cheap or free throughout Guatemala. Don Domingo found that he could unweave them strip by strip and spin the strands on his thigh just as he had done with maguey fiber. The resulting cordage is coarser, stiffer, harder to work with than maguey, but by golly it makes a tough and durable bag! A proper traditional bag, at that. You can see him here unweaving a chicken sack, justifiably pleased with his own ingenuity.

We talk a lot about recycling here in the US, and many of us go to some effort to be good environmental stewards. But making bags out of bags?  That would be unusual.


—Linda Ligon


4 thoughts on “Ultimate Recycling

  1. Annie Stratton says:

    What I love about this is the continuation of a traditional craft by reclaiming materials that otherwise might end up as landfill or trash. I am familiar with plastic feed sacks; the original strands are not durable, tend to fray and break. The seeming irony of sack to bag disappears when you realize that there is value added to the material itself through reworking it to become a durable, artistic, usable object whose life will far outlast the material had it not been reclaimed for a new use. Let’s hope that the maguey plant makes a comeback. In the meantime, I honor Don Domingo for his innovative solution and for his dedication to his craft. The materials change, but the skills will not be lost, and will be available for future generations when they are going to even more essential. Thank you for sharing Don Domingo’s story. By the way: this reminds me of my grandfather and uncles, who unwove burlap feed sacks to make twine, then twisted the strands together to make rope.

    • Linda says:

      I like your point about how spinning the plastic strands improves the material and its life. I hadn’t thought of that. (Also reminded me of my mother unknitting sweaters to knit new sweaters after WWII.) You’ll read more about Don Domingo and many others when Deborah and Teresa’s book comes out next year. Guatemala is rich in such people and their stories.

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