Uncommon Threads

Rug hooking is an art where rugs are made by pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a hook mounted in a handle (usually wood).

Rosa grew up in the small rural Guatemalan village of Patanatik in the department of Sololá. Shirley is from the US state of Wisconsin. In many ways, their lives couldn’t be more different. But as they sit side-by-side crafting a rug, they are weaving a common thread between them.  At one end of that thread is an extraordinary work of art; at the other end, an experience that will transform their lives.

Rosa and Shirley both participated in a unique rug-hooking workshop in February 2012, hosted by Oxlajuj B’atz’ or Thirteen Threads, a nonprofit women’s organization in Panajachel. The workshop paired 10 North American women with eight Mayan women who are mentors-in-training for their artisans’ cooperatives. The North American women traveled to Guatemala from Texas, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Canada. Some had up to 20 years of rug-hooking experience while others had never picked up a hook before, but virtually none had ever hooked rugs with strips of used clothing as the Guatemalan women do.

María with one of her completed rugs.

The Guatemalan women came from four different Mayan-language regions. They spoke no English, and some spoke very little Spanish. But despite the lack of a common language, the North American women and their Guatemalan mentors quickly began working in tandem, creating design templates and visiting the local pacas (used clothing markets) together to find the old t-shirts, pajamas, and other clothing that would be cut into strips and woven into their rugs.

“I was surprised at how open they were to someone who did not speak Spanish,” said Jean, a participant from Minnesota. Peg, also from Minnesota, explained that they used “a universal language.” Then she smiled and said, “And sometimes, we just pointed.”

Gaining New Perspectives
As part of the workshop, the North American women traveled to the villages of the Guatemalan women, learning first-hand about the daily lives of their mentors. “When visitors travel here as tourists, they see only the surface,” explained Oxlajuj B’atz’ Executive Director Ramona Kirschenman. “This way, they get to know more about the culture and the background.”

The visiting women spoke with tears in their eyes of the difficult lives of their mentors, many of whom had to overcome their families’ strong objections to attend the workshops. “You really see how far these women have come on their journey,” said Jean.

Learning to Teach
For the Mayan women, the workshop was the culmination of a multi-session training program offered by Oxlajuj B’atz’. Lifelong textile artist Mary Anne Wise has been teaching the women to hook rugs with a high level of design craftsmanship using recycled materials. She is also training them to be designers and teachers within their artisan cooperatives. By learning to be teachers and mentors, the women will be able to advise others within the community on issues such as scale, coordinating color combinations, and expressing their heritage and traditions through their artwork. Working with the North American visitors offered the women the chance to practice their mentoring skills with a particularly challenging group.

“It’s like a sisterhood,” said Jean (left), with Carmen (right).

“If they can teach us without speaking the language, imagine how great they will be when they return to their communities to teach!” said Shirley.

Wise and her colleague Jody Slocum began working with Oxlajuj B’atz’ four years ago, when they led their first introductory rug-hooking workshop for indigenous women. Rug hooking seemed a perfect choice for rural women because it requires few tools and allows women to create art from recycled, easily accessible materials. But it didn’t catch on immediately.

“When we started, we showed the Guatemalan women how we hook rugs and they politely listened,” said Wise. “I’m glad no one told me at the time, but I later learned that they had wondered who would buy a rug made of used clothes. But when the rugs started to sell, the women wanted to know more.”

These early workshops brought other surprises as well.  Many of the students only spoke their Mayan dialect—with several different dialects represented in the room—so Wise had to do all of her training through demonstrations. Teaching the women to create templates further opened her eyes: some of the women had no formal education due to extreme poverty, and she discovered that several had never held any kind of writing tool before.

“I had to rethink the tools I needed,” Wise said. She decided to focus on designs that the women were already familiar with in creating traje (traditional handmade clothing), which has also added a sense of the women’s culture and heritage to the work.

Four years later, four of the thirteen women’s cooperatives currently working with Oxlajuj B’atz’ have become involved in rug hooking, and more than fifty women are hooking rugs. They have not simply adopted the North American style; they have infused it with their own traditional designs and methods and have made it their own.

“It’s as if they’ve reinvented rug hooking,” said Wise. “Their energy, their vitality – they are absolutely phenomenal.”Unfolding a student’s rug to reveal striking colors and geometric patterns, Wise continued, “These women are amazing artists. After just a few years, the work of some of these women is at the level of the very best hooked rugs I’ve seen in the USA.”As the women expand their artistic skills, they also build their self-confidence. Wise spoke of Rosemary, a young mentor who never attended school because she started cleaning houses at age 5 to help her mother support their family.“She told me that she felt like she was a non-person in her community because she had no skills in embroidery or other handicrafts,” said Wise. But hooking rugs unleashed her talents, and her sense of pride. “Now that I sell my rugs, I am not a nonperson anymore,” she told Wise. Holding up one vibrantly colored rug, Wise said, “And just look at her work. It’s amazing!”

As in Wise’s early workshops, the new teachers—many of whom had had little contact with anyone outside of their own communities—faced unexpected challenges in working for the first time with students from another culture. Yolanda, a mentor from Sololá, initially doubted her ability to teach North American students. “My hands were trembling and I didn’t think I could do it,” she said.  “But Mary Anne helped me with her energy and patience, and now I’m a teacher!”

“Even for established rug-hookers in the USA, this is a totally different experience,” said Shirley (left), with Rosa (right).

Empowering Women
The rug-hooking workshop is one way Oxlajuj B’atz’ uses non-formal education to empower Maya women in Guatemala. For eight years, the organization has provided training and capacity-building skills to 27 Maya women’s artisan cooperatives, reaching more than 500 women in rural Guatemala, in the areas of artisan and product development, democracy and teambuilding, small business management, and health and well-being.

Each cooperative is formed around one or more income-producing activities, such as weaving, basketry, or candle making. When an artisan’s cooperative expresses an interest in the program, Oxlajuj B’atz’ performs an extensive needs assessment, then carefully tailors an educational program to meet the community’s specific needs. “Everything we do is very integrated and designed with the outcome of being an empowered woman,” said Kirschenman.

Kirschenman has plans to increase opportunities for workshops between the women artisans and visitors from outside of the region. “We want to develop more customized artisan classes—either group classes or private, one-on-one classes—to create real cultural exchange,” she said. Oxlajuj B’atz’ currently offers several community day tours and package tours, and the next rug-hooking tour is in February 2013.

For both the North American visitors and their Guatemalan mentors, the workshop provided rich new perspectives. “I have been teaching them and they have been teaching me,” said Glendy. “I’ve learned a lot. It has been a beautiful experience.”

For Wise, the beauty of the experience is the close connection made between the women. “You come to know the woman, her family, her daily challenges. I don’t think you can be the same after that. I actually think that is how the world changes, one by one.”

You can learn more about Oxlajuj B’atz’/Thirteen Threads – including information on upcoming workshops — on their website:  www.oxlajujbatz.org.

Photos: Phyllis Bretholtz 

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