Sunday, 15 March 2020

Mi Corte de Maya (my Mayan skirt)

Finished and waiting for its trip to the spa (washer and dryer)

I was really looking forward to the textiles of Guatemala – after all, the Maya had been using the local cotton to weave fabrics for thousands of years. Everywhere we went, the local ladies were wearing colourful skirts and hand embroidered blouses.  I watched weavers with their backstrap looms using a similar technique to what I had seen in the Andes, but using cotton and sometimes other fibers to make incredibly intricate designs.  My problem was what, of the hundreds of choices, to bring home to remember these experiences.
After the spa, the batting shrunk about 4 inches each direction.  Just what I was hoping for.  Even though all the fabrics had been washed before, something green decided to add its colour to a number of nearby squares.  Ah, well, it adds to the joy of this qypsy wife quilt.

San Juan Atitlan is noted for its traditional weaving.  They still harvest white and brown cotton to hand spin and then weave.  It fascinated me to watch cotton being spun in the same way as I had seen wool spun.  The commercially woven textiles use imported Brazilian cotton thread.

All the natural dyes being used.  Our guide was wearing a traditional corte, and faja (sash) but a modern blouse.

At our homestay, we got to wear traditional clothing.  Yes, the ladies are tiny.

Jen's huipil (blouse) was hand embroidered.  My quilt has a few squares that are also hand embroidered, not as beautiful though.

A painting showing backstrap weaving

My corte and the pillow cushions at the top as well as scarves that I couldn't resist.  The pattern on the blue indigo scarf is called volcano(makes sense in the land of volcanoes).  In fingerweaving, I'm used to calling this lightening.
I had heard about the market in Chichicastenango (between Antigua and Lake Atitlan) and we were able to spend a number of hours there as we passed through.  Yes, there were tourists, but this is truly a market for local people as well. To my delight, the solution to my “what should I bring home” problem  was the patchwork pillow covers made of small squares of different types of weaving.  I brought home two covers that gave me almost fifty examples of weaving, some commercially woven, others small bits of hand weaving, and some that even had hand embroidery. Many, if not all, of the squares had been taken from other items and showed the patina of age.

Selling flowers to worshipers as they enter.  

The streets of town

Much like in South America, cemeteries are fascinating places to explore and we passed family members visiting their relatives.

Giving offerings to a traditional shaman for assistance.

When we returned to Antigua, we discovered the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales.  Yes there were touristy souvenirs, but this is mainly the place where locals buy and sell their traditional clothing as well as hand woven items.  I had learned that the beautiful hand embroidered shirts cost up to USD 1000 to be made, so many ladies were delighted to buy a second hand one for much less. To my delight, I found a traditional skirt (Corte is the Mayan name) in bright colours of yellow, blue and grey.  It was soft from wear and priced very reasonably because this corte was made of commercially woven fabric.  The quilter in me thought – here’s the focus fabric and there’s yards of it J. 

The bag is woven of brown cotton, still important in indigenous ceremonies.  The scarf is of Ceiba (cotton) and Seda (bamboo silk fibers).  The dye is Cochinilla (the insect that lives on prickly pear cactus and Achiote.  This might be the same combination of dyes that were used on my cushion cover to make all the different pieces of fabric seem to be the same colour.
It was pure luck that I read about the Gypsy Wife quilt pattern when I got home and realized how perfect this would be with my dozens of bits of fabric.  I added a couple of other small textiles from my travels through Central America, some of my left over bits from other projects, and some bright solid colour fabrics to complement the woven fabrics.  I’ve had an incredible time the last six months using these fabrics, to build the many squares to create this quilt of memories.  I thought the final putting together would be complicated and perhaps frustrating, but instead I found myself caught up in the joy of adding just one more piece or one more square and taking one more step toward the final quilt. Here's a few of my favorite squares.

Mi Corte de Maya.  This is the square that gave the quilt its name.  The skirt is made from a hand embroidered handkerchief that I found at an artisan's market near Granada, Nicaragua.  The idea for the dress came from my local quilt shop, Divine Stitches.  Thanks, Nan for this incredible idea.

After washing, not quite as pristine white.

This quetzal actually came from Teotihuacan near Mexico city.  The fabric is cotton and agave fibers. It fascinated me to learn that there was a connection between Teotihuacan's original inhabitants and Tikal, an important Mayan site in Guatemala.

Proof that I climbed to the top of Teotihuacan.

This square is called Antigua, probably for the island, but it reminds me of Antigua, Guatemala.  It was sewn on my 1951 Singer Featherweight sewing machine, as were a number of other squares.  

This paper pieced square is called Hibiscus, which is the flower used to make Jamaica (pronounced Ha - my -ka) an incredible drink you could find throughout Central America.  My other favorite drink was Horchata.

The original light grey definitely took up the green from some fabric in the quilt.  It actually helps this square be part of the group.

I had started by making the smallest squares, which were safely in bags labeled by size,  But when I got to the bigger ones, they hung out on the design wall, pushing me to make the next one.  And the next one.

Some of the 6 inch squares.  

First five sections came together one day.

Then the last five sections the next.

Someone decided to hand embroider some flowers on this fabric.  

More embroidered bits of fabric

The outer border comes from my one attempt at weaving - It fits in with the idea of samples, I think.

If you look closely at the quilt, you'll see squares with 1 1/2 inch half square triangles.  Who in their right mind actually chooses to cut up good fabric into little bits and then sews them together?  Actually, I made a quilt some years ago that you put a small square on a larger one, sewed diagonally and then cut off the corners (over and over and over).  They got sewn together and hung on my design wall waiting for a place to be useful.  For me, this fits with the idea that someone collected dozens of small bits of weaving and then put them together into a cushion cover.  Never waste.

Special thanks to Reyes, our guide, who shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for his two homes (Belize as well as Guatemala) and who gave me my name in the Mayan language which has become an important part of my logo which has signed this quilt.  And thank you to Carolyn at Velvet Hand Designs for taking my vague thoughts and creating this incredible logo "travel is my life, home is my anchor".

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Sewing Memories of Central America. April to June 2019

Yo coso recuerdos cuando viajo.  Por favor autographia mi colcha.  Gracias.  (I stitch memories when I travel.  Please autograph my quilt)

My fiber art project while exploring Central America was a wee crazy quilt. Of course the quilt and embroidery police are shaking their heads (what, THICK wool, not fine silk or cotton.  The stitches are sort of wonky.  It’s not very traditional…)   I’ve finished it and am enjoying revisiting the memories I’ve stitched into it.

As I was getting ready to travel, the box of advent calendar yarns from Allison Barnes Yarn were looking at me.  It started as I was taking the skeins and winding them into balls – my thoughts about the pink had changed from – meh, pink – to OMG, it’s all the colours of the Alberta Wild Roses.  Thin sock yarn looked to me like chunky embroidery thread, so I wound about 10 meters of each colour onto thread holders.  Just in case I wanted to do finer embroidery, I added my spools of Wonderfil Elana, a thick machine wool thread.  I added a crazy quilt square that had been sitting around for ten years (it had originally traveled with me to Australia in 2009 and then been mailed home when I realized that it was silly to think of spending hours hand embroidering every day when there is so much fun happening around you).  My thimble, a couple of needles and a thread cutter completed the package.

I actually started this before I left with a winding golden path machine sewn from square to square to guide the journey.


The start and finish to the journey.  I did about half of the wild roses as I traveled from the airport in Fort St John to Mexico City.  I purposely left it unfinished until I returned home when the wild roses were in full bloom on the trails. Thanks to Cathy who still has pennies and contributed one to my quilt.


Three weeks traveling from Mexico City to Playa del Carmen with Adrianna and a great group of folks then switch over to another group with Reyes for Tulum before heading onward to Belize.  My memories included the incredible flowers in the markets.  Roses were USD 1 for a dozen and we even saw some “typical” bouquets for a wedding reception with 500 dozen roses. The coin is a 5 centavo which would be less than one cent.  Showing is the Mexican coat of arms – eagle holding a snake on a cactus.


From Tulum, we traveled into Belize with Reyes.  Of the many fantastic memories, I chose to remember the day snorkeling at Caye Caulker.  The reef is reputed to be the second best in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  My fellow travelers from Australia just rolled their eyes and said this was much better.  The first place we snorkeled, there were hundreds of different kinds of fish, but a preponderance of long white ones with yellow tails.  After that, it was turtles, sharks, and everything imaginable.  And, yes, the water is turquoise. The Belize dollar is officially pegged at 2 to the USD, making it easy to figure out how much everything costs.  We had to make sure that we exchanged all our money at the border as it isn’t exchangeable anywhere else. 


The national flower/plant is the Ceiba tree and that is what is on this square.  Felted into the branches is some of the Ceiba cotton (harvested at Copan across the border in Honduras) and around the roots is some natural brown cotton fiber I begged at a shop in Antigua where I was buying a lovely hand woven scarf of cotton and silk (actually, ceiba and bamboo, both local to Guatemala).  Guatemala calls itself the heart of the Maya world and the indigenous people have been weaving fabrics for thousands of years. The coin shows the ceiba tree and is a 1 centavo.  Guatemala has quetzals (not dollars), recognizing that for the Maya, the feathers of the quetzal were their currency.


In Antigua, we changed groups and headed toward Honduras with our guide Dennis.  Our time in Honduras was less than a day, just long enough to visit our last Maya site, Copan.  Hot and humid (rainy season was in full swing), I remember incredibly beautiful birds and a small new town inside the border built for the archaeologists exploring Copan.  I harvested ceiba cotton from the ground to add to my Guatemala tree and took the liberty of signing my quilt with my Maya name which had been given to me by Reyes. Currency in Honduras is the Lempira (named after an indigenous chief that resisted the Spanish) which is worth about 5 cents.  So this wee coin, 5 centavos, is worth almost nothing but the memory. 

El Salvador

In Succhitoto, I spent a day on an incredible hike to explore one of the areas most involved in the Civil War of the 1980s. One of the revolutionaries, a man younger than me, described what had been happening and why.  By coincidence, one of the group was a local fabric artist who had lived through the 80s as a refugee in Honduras before coming home.  She showed us how the traditional indigo baths worked as we passed them and I learned that it was the indigo (royal blue) that was as important to Spain as the gold of Peru.  My square has imaginary flowers made from hand dyed indigo fabric from the artist’s shop in town.  El Salvador uses the US dollar as its official currency but also mints its own coins, loosely based on American coinage.  My “dime” would only be usable in El Salvador.


We got to Nicaragua by ferry across the Golf of Fonseca.  Actually, it was more of a tour jet boat, with stops to see interesting sights along the way. An unofficial customs stop (if you email the day before, they will open for you) and then a basic bus along back roads to Leon.  What to use for my memories of a country of empty houses and boarded up businesses with friendly helpful people everywhere we went? Where we avoided Managua because of demonstrations and riots that didn’t make any first world news.  The white dimensional flower is a May flower – trees everywhere with huge white flowers.  It was also the stylized emblem on the doors of the National Theatre in Granada as we walked past on a deserted street as we headed toward the riverfront and the square. The fabric is from a hand embroidered handkerchief that I bought at an artisan’s market just outside Grenada. The Nicaraguan Cordoba is worth 4 cents Canadian (and not exchangeable outside of the country)  but this 10 centavo piece is perfect for the golden yellow center of the May flower.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica (and then Panama) is very different from the other countries of Latin America.  No Maya influence and very little Spanish presence initially as there was “nothing of importance”.  Ecotourism, strong economy and a large expat community meant we blended in more easily.  Before, my attempts to communicate in Spanish were met with a friendly smile and an attempt to use English for me because I clearly was not local.  Here, if I spoke Spanish, the first assumption was that I might be fluent.  We explored cloud forests (finally saw Guatemala’s national bird, the Quetzal), volcanoes and the beach, as well as some great museums in San Jose.  Our guide described Costa Rica as emphasizing its Spanish rather than indigenous history.  Other information suggested that Costa Rica was an area of transition – not strongly influenced by the Maya or Aztec to the North or the Inca to the south.  By chance, the fabric for this square was perfect – butterflies flowers and leaves for all the natural beauty.  With 500 or so Colones to the US dollar, this was one of those places where the paper money had lots of zeros (and the word mille meaning thousand not million). I needed to do some searching to get my 5 colones coin for this square.


How to describe Panama?  Snorkeling in the Atlantic (Bocas del Toro), cloud forest with flash floods and incredible scenery (Boquete), snorkeling in the Pacific (Coiba National Park just east of the Galapagos), the Panama Canal, snorkeling in the Atlantic (San Blas Islands).  Heat, humidity and rainy season.  I created another underwater scene with the orange starfish and the iridescent clown fish we visited at Bocas del Toro.  Three days on San Blas before coming home is represented by the curling conch shells that were everywhere – small, large, brightly coloured, bleached white, broken into interesting shapes and blown to call me to meals. Panama’s coinage is the Balboa which is par with the US dollar.  Balboa is the conquistador who conquered and settled Panama.  I chose this ¼ Balboa (25 cents) for its design and unique pink accents.  I also discovered that Panama loves to create commemorative coins that looked like our loony but were only ¼ Balboa.

Next task, work though my hundreds of photos and put my memories into words.