Nestled in a highland valley about an hour outside San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, lies the small community of San Juan Cancuc. The inhabitants are indigenous Maya and speak their indigenous language, mostly Tseltal. In the tradition of weaving and embroidery unique to each community, the people of San Juan Cancuc have their distinctive fashion emblazoned with bold, geometric patterns.
Many people in the community proudly wear their ancestral clothing. Styles that have been passed down for generations can be seen being worn while passing through the small town center. However, these labor-intensive fashions take a lot of time to produce and are a high cost for locals. Because of this, locals opt to purchase more affordable clothes like jeans and t-shirts. You see this change especially in the dress of the men.
The men of San Juan Cancuc wear long white tunics accented by incredible embroidery in fantastical colors. The bold designs cover the cuffs of the long sleeves and the chest area up to around the neck. A thin vertical line extends from the bottom edge of the design to the bottom edge of the garment. The best thing about this garment is that there are large holes under the sleeves that cut down the side slightly. These serve two purposes; when it’s cold you can fold your arms in the sleeves up inside across your chest and when it’s hot, you can remove your arms from the long sleeves and let them hang decoratively.
The women on the other hand wear short sleeve huipils, that have the chest and back blocked with a field of embroidered designs. At the bottom of the embroidery block, there is one broad vertical line of design on each side of the block that continues down the length of the dress.
Spending an afternoon seeing how these garments are made is always an unforgettable trip. We headed to San Juan Cancuc with a lovely woman I know from San Cristóbal, Marta. We headed to Marta’s sister-in-law’s home. Welcomed by Juana, who is a skilled weaver, and her lovely family, we get to pass the afternoon at their humble home located up a small path through the brush and trees. Here she demonstrates the unique style of weaving to San Juan Cancuc that incorporates embroidered geometric patterns. Everything is made by hand on the Mayan backstrap loom.
ANCIENT MAYAN WEAVING TECHNIQUE
This ancient technique has been passed down for generations. In the simplest explanation, it involves a series of sticks that the thread is attached to. One end of the threads are secured on the stick and then to a pole. The other end is attached to a piece of leather that wraps around the artisan’s waist at her lower back. The loom extends and hangs about six feet between the pole to her waist. Once the strap is attached, the base layer of the textile is started. White thread is carefully woven between each thread from one side to the other. Once the thread is through, it is then pulled taut with a long piece of a wooden wedge that is placed through the threads and pulled toward the maker. This process is repeated and you can see the textile begin to form.
As the main cloth is made, there comes a time to add the embellishments. This is where the embroidery technique begins. Juana carefully lays in rows of brightly colored thread. As she weaves each small section, she counts the threads as this is how she knows her design. She actually can’t see her design as she is making it because it is on the reverse side as she weaves. The rows of color begin to take shape as a grid of brightly colored blocks. Her eleven year-old daughter, Juana, carefully watches her mother as she too is learning this art form.
The pattern design on the garments of San Juan Cancuc are easily recognizable. Intense hues with brilliant pinks and darker tones like deep purples and blacks are arranged in columns of color. The younger generation can be seen experimenting with patterns including zig zag and floral motifs. One of these woven pieces takes about three months to complete working on them partially throughout the day.
Eleven year old Juana shows us what she can do with the backstrap loom
The weaving demonstration is punctuated by everyday life. The kids, shy at first, quickly warm up to me and Manuel de Jesus can’t get enough of the camera. They play around the yard and want to show us parts of their wonderful life. Around the house, we discovered chicken coops, a rabbit pen, a small nursery where they are growing coffee plants, a beautiful little vegetable garden abundant with cabbage and plenty of wild edibles growing in the surrounding nature. Little Juana climbed one of the mango trees to pick us some delicious mangoes.
After spending time on the porch weaving with Juana, she prepared a local staple, pozol. This isn’t the soup some of you might be thinking of. This traditional drink is made with water and fermented masa (corn dough) – sometimes cacao is added for a different flavor. This drink is what the men drink before and after going out to work for the day instead of eating a regular meal. It is said to provide potent energy for the day’s work.
When Juana’s husband, Manuel de Jesus (not the junior mentioned earlier), returned from worked he greeted us and then the first thing he did was sit down for a large bowl of pozol. We then went to a small shed where he shared some of their honey that they’ve collected from their bees. It was delicious and I took a small bottle home.
As it was time to end the day, Marta, her daughter and I headed back to San Cristóbal with some extra goodies besides woven goods. We left with honey, a branch of bananas, epazote, cabbage, a rabbit and an great appreciation for this amazing culture.
Little Juana climbs the mango tree to pick us some fruit. Mid-air mango! Manuel de Jesus cowers as his sister tosses a mango to him. Mango time!
Juana mixes a regional drink of fermented masa (corn dough) and water known as “Pozol” Marta picks wild epazote on the hillside Juana cuts us some cabbage from her garden to take home Kids having fun with the pet rabbits Fresh honey collected from their bees being bottled to go.
Little Juana carries a branch of bananas with a head-strap down the trail to the car.