By Megan Reilly Cayten – This is a story about a little girl from a world where weaving is a way of life, and many women consider the loom their second skin. If language is culture made audible, as Oaxaca-based photographer Eric Mindling says, then clothing, and textiles, are culture made visible – no more so than in the villages of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, where your huipil (blouse) tells the world where you come from, who you are, and where you belong.
Sara is from one of these villages – Aldama (formerly Magdalenas), about an hour’s drive through the mountains outside of San Cristobal de las Casas – and she is 8 years old. I met her when I was visiting the group of master weavers, all women, who call themselves the Grupo del Café, because they started weaving together during the coffee harvesting season. The leader of that group – Maria Elena – is Sara’s mother, and weaves the textile for the clutch named after her that I produce for my ethical fashion accessories brand, Catrinka. Maria Elena and a handful of the other women in the group met me in the grassy area outside Maria Elena’s dirt floored house to show me some of their recent creations (amazing) and tell me how business is (pretty good). Our conversation was winding down when Sara ran in with her loom and lit the place up.
Sara, like her mother and so many other indigenous Mayan women in Chiapas, weaves on a backstrap loom, which looks a lot like a belt that you put behind your back, with the strings of the loom extending to a single knot which is tied around a tree or pole. With this simple tool, women weave extraordinary pieces like the huipil (blouse) Sara wears – traditional to Aldama – which was made by a friend of her mother’s. Children grow up with their mothers weaving, for themselves and for others, and typically start experimenting with textiles early. Sara’s little sister Meli, just 4 years old, proudly showed me a carrot and a flower she had embroidered. Sara learned to weave at age 6, and can now create her own textiles and even sewed a simple bag of her own design, which she wants to develop and sell. Sara tied the end of her loom to a tree and started to weave.
What are you making? I asked. “I am just playing for now. It’s fun.” Why does she weave? “Because I want to learn to make my own huipil,” says Sara. Almost all of the women in this community make the clothes they wear every day and for special occasions, like their own wedding. Their clothing is personalized and unique, and carries within it their own spirit and intentions. I asked Sara what she wants to do when she grows up, and she said again that she wants to make her own huipil. I have no doubt she will make it happen.
Sara learned to weave at age 6, and can now create her own textiles and even sewed a simple bag of her own design, which she wants to develop and sell.
Indigenous Mayan textiles of the kind traditional to Sara’s village are intricate, laborious, and endlessly creative. The work is hard, and for many decades there has been pressure to abandon it, as poverty, globalization and discrimination against indigenous communities conspired to encourage women to abandon their traditional crafts in favor of earning money in the new economy. The Grupo del Café represents a success story, inasmuch as these women make a decent living from their work, and create new pieces ranging from modern tapestries in black and white to their traditional patterns and bright colors, thanks to the work of intermediaries like Kiptik, who provide a bridge to market for artisans, and ethical fashion and home brands that value the soul and the artistry of the pieces the Grupo del Café creates.
Sara represents the new generation. I can imagine some readers being worried about the prospect of child labor, and can assure them that Sara goes to school, and her time on the loom is her choice, her creations hers alone. But her fascination with weaving demonstrates how deeply rooted this act is in the community she comes from, and gives me hope that this extraordinary work will continue.
About the author – Megan Reilly Cayten is the co-founder and CEO of Catrinka, an ethical fashion accessories brand dedicated to the financial empowerment of women and girls. She founded Catrinka after a career in international development and infrastructure finance, that led her to live and work (and shop for textiles) on five continents. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children. To learn more, check out this video. You can follow on Facebook and Instagram.