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The Wool Artisans of Y'abal, the highlands of Gautemala

Momostenango, Guatemala, 

I have always been fascinated with textiles. I could pick out high quality fabric with my eyes closed as a child. Somehow I just knew which clothes were made of a finer material. It must have driven my mother bananas when I would consistently pick out silk, linen, and satin clothes.. But even though we couldn't afford them, and I inevitably ended up trudging to school outfitted in polyester and spandex- I still liked that I knew quality when I saw, or felt it.

Lately I had been thinking on the fact that in our fast fashion culture, a lot of people don't really know how or why silk becomes silk, wool is wool or how cotton is cotton.

This begs the questions, how does it go from nature to clothing? Are wool products good for the environment, are they good for people and animals too?

Are they sustainable, practical, and made in a healthy environment? 

I have heard about the deplorable practices in some countries of mulesing Merino sheep- (Australia, I'm looking at you ) Were there any other things one needed to be aware of regarding the making of wool products? I was eager to find out, so I did some research into wool production and found that in many countries it is done pretty much the same as it was hundreds of years ago.

Happy sheep, which are pesticide free, manually operated looms which require no electricity or fuel, and natural colors, dyed by hand without the use of chemicals, oh and then hung to dry in the tropical sun.

Sigh,

Could there be a more lovely textile baby then that?

Add to that- that wool has natural antibacterial properties

~is renewable and biodegradable

~naturally breathable

~resists dirt and stains

~is hard wearing and long lasting- 

and wool is rumored to actually assist in a better nights sleep...

Intrigued with this overlooked textile, I headed to Momostenano, Guatemala, a part of the world renowned for wool production, to take a look at just how sheep fur becomes a blanket-

and, to see if indeed, it would make me sleep just that much deeper...

 

Once settled in the picturesque highland city of Quezteltanago, I set out down cobble-stoned streets to meet Allison Havens of Y'abal Handicrafts. Y'abal is a wonderful non-profit initiative in Guatemala, working to provide dignified work to rural women.

Sourcing gorgeous textiles from communities all over the region, Allison has helped put into place health and education programs in some of these communities, with the profits going right back into the programs established. Aside from the weaving co-ops, she also works with a family of artisans crafting wool blankets and rugs and she invited me to go along for a tour and meet them. One of the highlights of my trip, was climbing up to Momostenano. I was in awe not only of the gorgeous lush scenery, but of stunning beauty in the culture,  the hope and the kindness - amidst a technicolor background..

 

 

 

 

And so through the towns and cities we drove, past a never ending parade of color.  The green of the foliage, the shocking violet flowers, the crumbling pastel walls, the deep jewel tones of the traditional Maya dress...

 

 

I could have literally kept a journal devoted entirely to color. (OK I did- this was an excerpt)

Once at Luis' farm, the color journey continued, through the deep browns and earthy reds of an adobe hallway, past a room of colorful, playful, religious shrines.. bundles of fresh yellow corn hung from the ceiling. In the courtyard, oatmeal colored wool .. freshly cleaned and hung to dry..and a shallow stone tub with a mat of  bright turmeric yarn, vivid orange in the cool clear water..


  As Luis shows me around his home and the yard, I see various family members, working together on projects or tasks.
‘’All family” Luis tells me proudly, as he shows me his book of designs, explaining the different types of symbols he can weave, a chevron, a bird, corn, water, and a word or two on their meanings...

He asks if I want to try the foot loom, and although I try to demure, I can't.

         

 

And let me tell you- to weave a rug , its is way harder than it looks !

Luis assures me, it take years of practice to become an expert..

His family has been raising sheep and making wool for five generations.

His father taught him, and he’s has been doing it all of his life. He is  proud to show me his process. I can see it in his eyes, and hear it in his voice, even if I can’t always understand the words. Pride.

 

During my tour of the family workshop, I  learn that only after the wool is sheared, cleaned, and carded (this is done by vigorously brushing it between two large hair brush sized paddles until it becomes light and fluffy)-is it ready to be spun into yarn.

  Then, using a natural mix of dyes, ashes, and salts, the yarn will be dyed. It may sit for a few hours or a few days in a tub of water with the colorant, depending on how deep or bright they may wish the final product to be. Once it has reached the desired hue, it will be hung to dry.  Luis tells me he how here, he is at the mercy of mother nature, and although this terrain is great for raising goats and sheep, it isn’t quite so dependable when it comes to dolling out sunshine.  

Sometimes it can take a week, if the sun won’t show, he tells me. It gets cold at this altitude, and the day has been overcast. I nod with the realization of what this means, and contemplate the true meaning of slow fashion.  I think about how much time and effort go into producing a garment, and how much respect families like this truly deserve.

Reflecting on the day, I am full wonderment, but also- troubled at the slow and steady loss of this beautiful culture..

I recall reading about the trials of the Maya, to preserve their culture in modern Guatemala.. 

"Women may still wear their traditional huipiles and cortes, but the significance of the symbolism in the weaving is being lost. Poverty and illiteracy along with inadequate access to health care still plague the indigenous people. Yet their pride is intact in their rich cultural heritage. I hope that in a small but significant way, that we may continue to foster empowerment of the Mayan community" {Deborah Brown, Coloures De Pueblo}

 I can't help but wonder how people will avoid falling through the cracks in this country..

  But for now, anyway, I can see that this family is happy. Happy to share their knowledge and expertise, and this one family will have to be enough for today.

Perhaps there will be more tomorrow. I thank Luis and his family profusely, for allowing me , a perfect stranger, into their home today. I curse my mangled Spanish, and wish there was a way to convey my emotion more accurately.

Luis especially, has been more than open, and in his guiding me through the day to day of his life, accepted me as a link, sharing family traditions and his culture with the world. He wants to show me some more of the designs that they can do, and the colors they can produce that I have not seen yet, before I go..

And there is is again, that something special, that sparkle in his eye when he shows me his blankets and rugs..

That thing you want all the artisans, all the people who make the things we wear and sleep in and furnish our house with, to feel

Pride. ..

and yes, now that I think about it - knowing all this,

I do sleep a lot better ..

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