There is more involved in understanding a culture than simply knowing the language. For GoNOMAD writer Sheila Mary Koch, learning how to weave huipiles was the key to gaining greater insight into Mam culture and women in Guatemala. She writes about her experience in her article Threads of Sisterhood: Weaving With Mayan Women in Guatemala.
“Yarns of every hue fill the marketplace in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. This highland village in Western Guatemala boasts the country’s most celebrated weaving. Women handweave these vibrant colors into blouses called huipiles. No huipile or men’s shirt collar is alike.
I started studying Spanish at one of the village’s language schools and living with a family. They spoke Mam, a Mayan dialect, like nearly everyone in Todos Santos. The longer I stayed, the more learning to weave seemed the best way to experience Mam culture. Maria, my host, agreed to give me weaving lessons.
First, I needed yarn or hilo. I came upon a yarn vendor. There were at least four different shades of purple and yellow, and blues and turquoises that inspired images of coral seas. Washing the hilo in a corn meal paste then drying it in the sunlight was one of Maria’s special techniques.
The next morning, we started work while the sun was still bright in Maria’s hillside garden. Her three children were at school. She hooked one end of my loom to a rope hanging from one of the poles that held up the roof of her mud brick house. The loom’s other end was attached to a woven strap that went around my hips.
While weaving never became easy, I persisted. After four days, I’d created my own unique cloth. More importantly, I’d experienced the daily rhythm of family life in Todos Santos. Later, as I traveled around Guatemala, my weaving experience opened up many conversations with women.”