Weaving traditions of the Guatemalan Highlands come to the heart of Whidbey

Posted in Spotlight, Visual Art

Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
Aug. 28, 2013

Once you turn off Maxwelton Road and head up the gravel lane that leads to the Clinton weaving workshop of Dominga Laura Lopez de Halter, you can almost imagine yourself being transported to the highlands of Guatemala.

The lane continues past a wooden sign announcing your arrival at Rancho Dos Arboles, then winds around to deliver you to the doorstep of a long, low building with double doors flung open to the breezes.

Take two steps down into the cool. softly-lit interior, and you will find Laura Lopez kneeling on the floor, her loom strapped to her waist, her fingers plying vibrant threads and yarns as she weaves one of her intricately brocaded fabrics.

A fifth-generation weaver from the village of Santa Catarina Palopó in the highlands of Guatemala, Lopez has been weaving for 32 years, seven of those years here in her Rancho Dos Arboles studio.  She learned the art of weaving traditional Guatemalan textiles directly from her mother and her grandmother, who in turn learned it from their own mothers and grandmothers.

(All photos by David Welton)

Dominga Laura Lopez de Halter works in her weaving workshop in Clinton. (All photos by David Welton)

Although Lopez has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, she maintains a strong connection to her homeland.  Her native village is located near Lake Atitlan, which she refers to as “my lake.”  She returns to Santa Catarina Palopó every few years to visit her mother and other family members and comes back to her studio with a fresh supply of yarns, threads, and inspiration.

Following tradition, Lopez prefers to use natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, that have been dyed in rich hues using plants indigenous to Guatemala.  Occasionally, however, she will weave in a bit of something unexpected, such as thin, shimmering strands of mylar, to give the piece a bit of sparkle.

Working the threads.

Working the threads.

In addition to English and Spanish, Lopez speaks Kaqchikel, which is one of twenty two Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala.  Each of Guatemala’s regions has its own dialect and weaving tradition.

The backstrap loom that Lopez uses in similar to the ones that Mayans used for centuries before the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.  Although more complicated floor looms are sometimes used, most Guatemalan weavers today still prefer the traditional backstrap loom.  The advantage of the backstrap loom is that it is portable, so in mild weather weavers can gather together outdoors to weave and keep each other company.

Lopez is a master weaver of the traje, the traditional dress of Guatemala.  The traje consists of an intricately patterned skirt or corte, a wide woven belt or faja, a huipil, which is woven in rectangular sections that are then sewn together to form a blouse, and a long wound headdress akin to a turban.

Lopez de Halter shows some of her fabrics at her workshop in Clinton.

Lopez de Halter shows some of her fabrics at her workshop in Clinton.

This beautiful headdress is created from a single, flat piece of patterned fabric, usually striped.  Lopez demonstrated how she wraps her hair in the fabric, then winds it around her head several times before tying it into a neat knot just above her forehead. This headdress keeps long hair in place and acts as a cushion for the market baskets Guatemalan women carry on their heads.

The colors, patterns, and textures of the traje are passed down from mother to daughter and are specific to each region.  Lopez weaves the patterns of her own village, but she has mastered the patterns of other regions as well.

Many of the traditional garments are multi-purpose.  Fajas and head wraps are wide and long enough to be worn as a scarf or a shawl or with a few folds quickly fashioned into a tote or a baby carrier.  Narrow woven straps called cintas are traditionally wound or braided into young girls’ hair both as ornament and as a means to secure long hair on top of the head.  Lopez points out that wider cintas can be used as straps for such things as guitars or yoga mats.

SPOT Guatelama Weaver_WELTON (334x500)

While Lopez carries on a centuries-old tradition in her clothing designs, she creates wall hangings, place mats, table runners, beaded jewelry and shoulder bags as well. All of the works Lopez offers for sale were designed and woven either by herself or by her mother and her grandmother.

Lopez loves to teach others about her Mayan weaving tradition and gives demonstrations in her studio.  She occasionally travels to teach groups interested in learning how to build and weave on their own backstrap looms.

For a weaving demonstration, weaving lessons, or more information about her work, Laura Lopez can be reached at 360-321-5399.

Her clothing, jewelry and home decor items can be purchased at her studio store, located at 6000 Maxwelton Road in Clinton.

Laura Stangel Schmidt is a mixed-media artist and writer living in Langley.

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