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Travels || Visit with Lema Cooperative in San Juan La Laguna

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We are having an amazing and humbling time in Guatemala meeting with different artisan cooperatives and learning more about their culture, weaving techniques, and natural dyes! It's extremely important to us to be able to experience first hand what our artisans do. We are beyond lucky to be working with Thread Caravan this week to educate ourselves in Guatemalan textiles as we prepare our new textile collection. We got some ideas stirred up and can't wait to get going on it! 

We have been staying in San Antonio Palopó which is on the Eastern shore of Lake Atitlán. Today we ventured across the lake to San Juan La Laguna via a small ferry boat. Because of the rainy season, the lake can get pretty choppy and difficult to boat across in the late afternoon. We made sure we left early in the morning. The ride over was relatively smooth and the views were just incredible!

Waiting on the dock in San Antonio PalopóOn the dock in San Antonio Palopó
Left, View of the Lake from the dock, Right: Waiting on the dock in San Antonio Palopó
Views of Lake AtitlanView of Lake Atitlán and the Dock
San Antonio Palopó Ferry arriving
Left: View of San Antonio Palopó, Right: Our small ferry arriving to the docks.
View from the FerryView of the Lake from the ferry

We were very excited to arrive. This area is well known for their natural dyes and we couldn't wait to learn more about the process! We visited the indigenous village of San Juan La Laguna to meet with Rosa, the founder of Lema Cooperative. We spent the day with Rosa and her daughters to learn more about Lema and their traditions. A little more background on Lema, Lema is a cooperative of Tz'utujil women that was founded about 20 years ago to improve economic conditions and the quality of life for women in the community of San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan. Each member learned the craft of traditional weaving from their mothers and grandmothers. Rosa shared that this cooperative faced a power struggle with the men of this town due to the fact men did not allow women to weave. The role of women was to remain in the home. The women of the cooperative would meet up in private when their husbands were out in order to weave. They spent years fighting for the ability to weave. It took them about seven years to gain approval to open a store front. Today they are able to continue to weave publicly.

Rosa and her family highly values traditions and works hard to maintain indigenous techniques. The yarns produced by Lema are all 100% organic and uses a natural dye process of the Tz’utujil tradition derived from locally found plants, trees, and insects in the Lake Atitlan area. The bark, berries, leaves, and insects all produce a different color. Lema is actually a bark from a local tree used to create a natural dye which is where the name of their cooperative came from. 

After hearing more about their background, we got the opportunity to dye some yarn ourselves with fresh local plants in the area. We watched Rosa pick chilten leaves in the garden which she said would create a yellow dye. We stood there eagerly watching while she prepped a pot of boiling water over burning logs.

She took some natural cotton yarn and soaked them in water. Rosa separated the small bunches of chilten leaves and added them into the pot of water. She carefully observed the leaves and let the water come to a boil before slowly adding the cotton into the pot. We watched the smoke blow around from the logs as she stirred the pot and allowed the color from the leaves to absorb into the yarn. Afterwards, she brought the beautifully dyed yellow yarn out of the pot and rinsed it with cool water and hung it to dry. We repeated this process using other plant materials including zacatinta bark to release a blue dye and achiote shrub that was pressed into a paste for the orange dye. It is indeed an amazing and time intensive process and for Rosa to share this technique was so eye-opening.  

Rosa separating small bunches of Chilten leaves

Left: Soaking natural cotton yarn to prepare for the dye. Right: Rosa picking Chilten leaves
Boiling the Chilten leaves
Cotton yarn boiling in the pot with the chilten leaves to obtain the color yellow
Pulling the dyed cotton out of the pot

Left: Pulling the dyed cotton out of the pot, Right: Rinsing the dyed yarn of excess dye
Our naturally dyed yarn ready to hang dry!
Dyed yarn
Rosa's daughter is preparing the zacatinta bark to create a blue dye
Helping mom out
The zacatinta bark and natural cotton boiling in the pot
Rinsing the blue dyed yarn with cool water to remove excess dye
This batch of dyed yarn now also ready to be dried
 Achiote seeds mashed into a paste to create an orange dye

Younger Tz’utujil women are not trained with the weaving skills that were passed on to their elders. Rosa made the effort to teach not only her daughters how to weave with the back strap loom, but also offers her knowledge to the community interested in learning how to weave.

 Rosa demonstrating how to prepare the yarn pattern on the trama (warp board) for the backstrap loom
 Rosa weaving with a backstrap loom