San Juan La Laguna is a charming town on Lake Atitlan and just a short ride away by water taxi from the buzzing little port town of Panajachel. It was the first town we visited whilst scouting workshops for our Guatemala: Weaving, Embroidery and Community Tour. San Juan has a wonderful communal spirit thanks to the multitude of cooperatives focusing on coffee production, traditional textiles and organic produce. Natural dyeing is incredibly popular in Guatemalan textiles today and San Juan has more than it’s fair share of interesting and insightful places to learn local techniques, in August 2019 we visited the natural dye garden of the Flor Juanera Cooperative in San Juan with our partners from Maya Traditions to find out more about sustainable natural dyeing processors in the community and for the heritage textiles market in general.
The artistic spirit of San Juan La Laguna is reflected in the gorgeous murals that welcome you to the village with a creative embrace. These depict scenes from Tz’utujil heritage, including women weaving and men playing musical instruments. The textile community in San Juan is solid, with women in control of most of the dyeing and weaving cottage industry. There are plenty of boutiques selling handmade ikat woven cushions, throws, bags, scarves and shawls and there is a distinct whiff of bohemianism in the air as many travellers decide to stay on in San Juan, immersing themselves in the creative vibes and chill cafe culture.
The native women of the region are creative, entrepreneurial and strong. The mostly Tz’utujil community in this beautiful town still wear traditional cultural garments in their day-to-day lives, the most notable feature being the decorative necklines of their huipils which are embroidered with 24 squares that represent the town’s patron saint, Saint John the Baptist. Their textiles are mostly dyed in red to represent the purity of their ancestral blood, blue for the sky and the lake that envelops the town from above and below, and green for the lush volcanic flora surrounding Lake Atitlan valley. Often, all these colours are combined into a deep purple.
Our first stop on arrival was the house of one of the artisans, Celeste, who collaborates with Maya Traditions. She was working on the most incredible piece of multi-coloured ikat fabric that included intricate designs of insects, centipedes, love hearts, flowers and butterflies.
So far, she had been working on the fabric for two days, carefully creating the vivid motifs by binding bundles of yarn used for the warp threads of the loom into the desired patterns before dyeing and then over-dyeing the exposed threads. She told us she still had two days’ worth of weaving ahead of her before it was finished.
The piece was part of a big commission that requested she uses synthetic dyes in order to achieve the level of vibrancy desired for the design. Although we were in San Juan to work with natural dyes, the natural ancestral knowledge required was a well-guarded secret for many years which meant that most artisans in the region were actually more familiar with synthetic dyes. It’s only as foreign demand for naturally dyed fabrics has risen over the past twenty-five years that more artisans have reverted back to the traditional techniques for exported goods and souvenirs.
After saying goodbye to Celeste we walked up the steep hill to meet the artisans of Flor Juanera Cooperative, or Xe’ Kuku’ Aab’aj in Tz’utujil, and visited their organic, natural dyeing and medicine garden. The garden looks different depending on the season and we got to know the women from the cooperative – Cecilia, María Clara, Elena, Eufemia – whilst we looked through a sample of natural dyes that would be available for our textile tour in March and August. The dyes are mostly made from tree bark, plant leaves, vegetables and coconut shells. The plants give different colours depending on whether they are fresh or dried.
Environmental concerns about synthetic dyes have also caused an increase in demand for naturally dyed textiles. Many chemical-based dyes can enter irrigation systems and have hugely detrimental effects on local communities. However: this doesn’t mean that all products made using natural dyes are always holistic. The demand for natural dyes has left many eco-systems ravished and some plants used for natural dyeing were/are even becoming extinct as most of the raw materials required are taken directly from the local environment rather than purpose-driven farms, therefore resources are rarely re-planted. It’s very important to have sustainability in mind when buying naturally dyed goods. One of the best ways you can ensure you are shopping (or dyeing) sustainably is to visit a co-operative that has its own natural dye garden.
For our workshop that day, we decided to work with Campeche tree. It is really quite a remarkable resource: the dye it produces when cold turns fabric a vivid blue, but when hot the dye turns into a regal purple. This was very exciting to experiment with and something we’d never seen before. Whilst natural dyeing in Mexico we learnt how altering the PH level will affect the colour a dye turns, but the temperature alone was a whole new method to explore with!
We left the fabric we’d bought with us in the dye vat for about 30 minutes and that was long enough to turn it a deep, rich purple. Then all the women helped us to pull a skein in order to wrap the bundles around the threads which create the ikat resist dyeing technique. You need to have a very firm grip and it took four of us to wrap everything together correctly. Spaces are created in the yarn to ensure that the dye doesn’t enter the hidden areas of the yarn when you submerge it in the dye. This means you can create different patterns and re-dye the same fabric with new colours later. We created basic striped patterns but as you can see from the images of Celeste above you can create very sophisticated motifs. The technique we used worked really well (thanks to the expertise of Cecilia, María Clara, Elena and Eufemia) and we were very pleased with the final outcome and colours.
We used the fabric and yarn from this workshop again in our bird embroidery workshop taster in Santiago and in the Randa and Ixcaco workshop with the Waqxaqi’ Kan Cooperative. The idea with all the workshops from around Lake Atitlan is that each cooperative teaches us new techniques that are unique to the heritage of that community. This means that throughout the tour, participants can add new layers and skills to a particular garment as they learn new methods from the artisans. We shared this concept with Cecilia, María Clara, Elena, Eufemia and they loved the idea of creating a multi-collaborative piece with the communities working around the Lake. After the workshop, we headed to one of the cafes for some local coffee and cake before taxi the water taxi back to our hotel.