Posted by: lavernewaddington | April 2, 2010

Backstrap Weaving- Easter colors in Guatemala and a new tutorial

Easter is upon us. Here in Santa Cruz, the stores stock aisles of chocolate Easter eggs but people have not really warmed to this tradition so we usually see these same Easter eggs sitting forlornly at the check out well into October when they are replaced with Halloween goodies. Now Halloween is something  that has really taken off here.

The night of Holy Thursday here has its own special tradition. All the streets of the downtown area get closed off to traffic and become a gigantic pedestrian walkway full of strolling families and teenagers out and about socializing, eating – there are food stands set up every few yards – and stopping in at the various churches. The idea is to visit nine churches. My mother tells me that this was the tradition amongst Catholics in India too when she lived there.

In Guatemala it is a very different story. So let’s see what activities and traditions surround Easter there. Of course as soon as Guatemala is mentioned, you know what to expect…

################# LOTS OF GLORIOUS COLOR #############

A sawdust "alfombra" laid out in wait for the Good Friday procession in Huehuetenango

Easter weekend was my final one on my trip to Guatemala in 2008. I don’t usually move around all that much when I travel. I like to find two or three nice places and a few weaving teachers and stay put but, as all my weaving classes were over, I was taking the opportunity to visit as many spots as possible before heading back to Guatemala city for my flight on the Monday after Easter. This meant that I got to take in the Easter celebrations in three different places.

I arrived in the city of Huehuetenango the Wednesday before Easter hoping to travel further into the highlands the following day. Little did I know that the whole of Huehuetenango would be shut down on Holy Thursday as an unofficial "hang over" day after Huehuetenango Day celebrations on the Wednesday night - food and music including a "battle of the marimbas" in the main plaza until the wee hours. So there was no transport to be had and Thursday was a very dull day indeed. BUT, I woke up to the preparation of these fabulous sawdust "alfombras" on Good Friday morning.

Now, Antigua is THE place to be in Guatemala  if you want to see the most spectacular sawdust alfombras. People come from all over, the city is packed to the gills and prices rise so I was determined to avoid Antigua for those very reasons. I had no idea the alfombra tradition was carried out in almost every city, town and village in Guatemala and so I got to enjoy a smaller but no less colorful version of it in Huehuetenango. 

Alfombra means carpet in English and the tradition is to create these fantastic carpets from colored sawdust on top of which the Easter processions will pass. Other carpets are made from pine needles , flowers, stones and even vegetables. Large metal and wooden stencils are used to form the shapes and designs and the entire carpet is intermittently sprinkled with water to weigh down the dust and hold it in place. The themes are most often religious and once the procession passes they are completely destroyed.

What amazed me most was how quickly and efficiently the designs were measured out and put into place. Everyone worked quietly on what is, after all, a somber day but it was very hard to feel somber with all those gorgeous colors about. Watching the whole process was irresistible and I had to drag myself away to take my bus into the highlands. I was actually glad that I wasn't around to see all that hard work destroyed.

Read an excellent article here which gives a lot of information about the origin, history and significance of the alfombra-making tradition. To quote just a little…


The custom of making carpets was brought from Spain and the Canary Islands. However, it is believed that in pre-Hispanic times the Maya made carpets for various ceremonial reasons. Possibly the carpets were used in altars to induce positive energies and absorb negative ones. Thus the constant destruction of the carpet is necessary to remove bad energies and bring new positive ones with the construction of a new carpet or offering.”

The church in the main square of Nebaj with an effigy of Judas hanging on a noose above the main door. In the afternoon young men came to shoot at it.

Next stop was Nebaj, a small town of adobe dwellings tucked away in a highland area known as the Ixil triangle. There I was also treated to splashes of color but in this place the color came in the form of the women’s traditional huipiles (blouses) and cortes (skirts).

People from the neighboring villages of Chajul and San Juan Cotzal had come into town for Easter to see and be seen in their very best hand woven huipiles decorated with animal and geometric figures in supplementary wefts and warp wrapping.

The typical scarlet jacket decorated with black embroidery worn by the men of Nebaj for festivals. Apparently the jacket is modeled on that of Spanish officers from colonial times.

Good Friday was no somber occasion here. The atmosphere was festive with even a ferris wheel set up near the market and cotton candy, icecream and balloon vendors strolled amongst the crowd. The older men too, were wearing their festival gear – scarlet jackets embroidered in black. In this way I got to see the traditional clothes of all three areas in one place. All I had to do was sit in the plaza and watch it all go by while trying to discreetly snap a photo or two.

The icecream vendor is wearing one of the typical backstrap woven hair sashes of the area complete with enormous tassels-quite a weight to be carrying around. So much decoration and color on every huipil!

Finally on Saturday when things had settled back to normal I visited the artisans market and met two of the coolest weavers and vendors there. Such a shame that I was at the end of my trip and couldn't spend more time with them. We swapped heddle making tips and weavings.

This is a lively Nebaj textile that I received as a friendly swap for one of my own weavings. I would have loved to have stayed longer in Nebaj but it was time to move on to Chichicastenango.

Colorful in its own way, the market town of Chichicastenango is more a tapestry of sights, sounds and smells. It was even more chaotic than usual on Easter Sunday. It was my second visit there and I could really tell the difference as this time the locals who had come into town for the Easter Mass far outnumbered the tourists. The Easter celebration was a strange and interesting mixture of  Catholic and indigenous rituals.

One of the clogged market alley ways on the left - spot the tourist! Fortunately there are some places where one can escape the madness. The Hotel San Tomas allows you stroll around its beautiful colonial-style courtyards and enjoy the marimba music.

Of course I had to revisit my favorite stall - guess which one!

LEFT: Thread which the vendors were calling "seda" (silk) - only available in green and pink. Why only these colors? I was told quite simply that these are the colors of Chichicastenango. RIGHT: The steps of the church gave a nice high vantage point from which to survey all the activity until I nearly got run down by the emerging Easter procession.

After all this frantic travel and activity I went to Guatemala City and onto Miami where I spent three nights stuck in the airport waiting for a flight back to Bolivia – the hazards of stand-by travel!



The double "S" band on the loom

As promised, I have  made a tutorial on weaving another of the yurt band border designs using simple warp floats. I used this design on the cell phone pouch that appeared in this previous post. I warped up this week to weave the design with the tutorial in mind. However, there were obviously other things on my mind as well as, instead of warping up the required fourteen warps, or seven pairs, I warped fourteen pairs and so ended up with a warp twice as wide as necessary. So I wove the “S” border design in two columns as mirrored images and found that it was the perfect width for a belt.


You will find the tutorial here.

Continuing with the black and white theme, you may remember the Abba Yohanni piece that I showed you in this previous post.

The cross motif taken from a curtain in an Abba Yohanni cave church in Ethiopia

Here I can show you the table runner finished (which I think I am going to turn into a wall hanging) but I mostly wanted to revisit this topic as Alexis Tancibok in London, whom I met on Weavolution, recently emailed me with some interesting background information on these motifs and the curtains on which they were woven. (which I quote below). I am very grateful for this as I had not been able to turn up much on the net about it and was mistakenly under the impression that these curtains dated only as far back as the 17th Century…

“Curtains like this were a common feature of churches in N. Africa & the
Middle east from at least the fourth century. They were often devotional
items commissioned or donated by individuals making a vow, fulfilling a vow,
or as an act of piety.
Similarly fabric woven with religious motifs – such as Abba Yohanni’s cross,
and stylised scenes from the Gospels, and Apocryphal texts were designed and
worn by people at all levels of society as talismans – the V&A has a rather
decent collection, so too does the Louvre. The best extant versions are
Coptic (Egyptian) which is relevant to the Abba Yohanni piece because the Coptic church and the Ethiopian church have strong historic links…

Early christian art motifs are still extant in the Eastern tradition and in many cases almost unchanged from when they first emerged. The shape of the cross for example is commonly made in twisted leather both in Ethiopian and Coptic pendants.

Devotional curtains/veils/textiles serving different functions in Eastern Christian settings are still used today – especially in Ethiopian churches and shrines.”


I couldn’t keep away from the colors for too long….

I have another wonderful thing to share courtesy of a new online acquaintance. Chris Buckley in Beijing has generously allowed me to use images of his yurt band pieces. Those of you who saw the X and O yurt band border design in the tutorial on simple warp floats last week will recognise it here on this piece worked in two colors…

I am excited to have yet another yurt band design to chart and attempt to weave. Chris tells me that these Kyrgyz yurt bands were cut and sewn together to make mats and that he acquired them on a trip to far Northwestern China. I have only just started exploring his fascinating blog.

And here is another gem from Chris…

Here is a slight variation of the 'S' design featured in this week's tutorial! Ah...the colors!! If only I could get red and blue to work together so well for me!


And to finish, a contribution from a blog reader. Sharon finished her first mug rug in one-weft double weave with her own butterfly motif…

I have seen the rest of her butterfly charts and they are so pretty. Hopefully we will get to see the whole set of mug rugs as they come off the loom.

Oh… and I spied Grace Hatton on her blog working on the yurt band border from last week’s tutorial. She has a fun post entitled “Loom Porn – Size Doesn’t Matter” where you can see a photo of her band and other small looms.

Enjoy the new tutorial and keep the projects coming…remember, I love to hear from you all! 🙂


  1. I love the colors! Thank you for taking us on such a lovely tour – it’s making me want to come visit the area.

  2. Once I was in Guatemala for Semana Santa and the alfombras are one of the most amazing art forms I have ever seen. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
    Your black and white belt is stunning! That was a nice accident!

  3. I love your blog posts so much that I hope you will one day write a book that I can carry around and enjoy reading when the computer is switched off. I find it too much to take in from the screen, I want to look at the pictures over and over and re-read things!

  4. Thanks for the beautiful travelogue, Laverne. South America is one place I just don’t see myself traveling, and I love seeing the pictures and reading the stories.

    As a weaver and fiber-holic, your texts bring me so much closer to the weavers across the planet from me. Thanks again, for the weaving, the stories, and the pictures.

  5. Hi, Laverne
    When will be the next time you visit your favorite market with all those Back-Straps Looms they on sell? Could you pick one up for me? I’ll be glad to pay you. What do they cost in American Currency? I would love to have an authentic back-strap loom sticks from South America, but make my own back-strap.
    Love the photograph you posted on your trip. Nice photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. You know I was born and raised in San Francisco and use to cross that bridge at least 3 times a month or more and use to drive on it every day when I worked in the Presidio of San Francisco Army Base (back when it was an Army Base), it’s closed now, but the Park Service took over that land and tore down many of those old wooden army buildings and barracks, but saved the brick and cement buildings. They really changed the appearance of the Presidio. it’s now open to tourists, bicyclists, joggers or people who loves to take long walks and it’s more open. Looks nicer tell you the truth.


    • Hi Cookie,
      I am most likely goingt o Guatemala in the next few weeks. I will be in touch with you through Ravelry and let you know about the loom sticks. I am headig back down to San Francisco tomorrow and maybe I will go to Presidio!

  6. These people are true artists. I love their woven items and their clothing.

  7. In reference to the woven church curtains, did you get any references to the earlier ones mentioned in the post? I’d love to know where the earlier ones were located and what type of weaving was used to create them.

    By the way, I still love your work – and your enthusiasm. As a teacher myself, I’m often too tired to weave at the end of the day, but looking at your work and your obvious enjoyment is inspiring.

    • Thank you Rob. I would like to put you in touch with Alexis who provided me with additional information on the curtains. I will pass your email addres on to him. I , too, would love to know about other curtain designs.

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