How MayaBags® are Made
Traditional Maya Skills: Embroidery, back-strap loomed fabric, basketry, carving and great attention to fine luxury detail
The MayaBags accessories collection is based on using the traditional Maya hand skills, whether embroidery, back-strap loomed fabric, basketry or carving. “Traditional” means that a skill has been used for a very long time, generally since the culture’s ancient origins, and that it has played a vital role in everyday life.
Today MayaBags enables the Belize Maya to keep these fine artisanal skills alive, handcrafting products that bring a touch of creativity and luxury to the lives of our customers. Designer concepts, vibrant weaving, and embroidery inspired by sky, sea and the rainforest[m]all come together to make beautifully detailed things.
Embroidery once “branded” tribe and family bonds
Fine embroidery was originally used on clothing by the Maya to depict their tribe or the area in Central America where they lived. Each tribe had its own style of embroidery and used different pictorial images as their “label.”
It is hard today in Belize to reconstruct what exact embroidery the Maya women traditionally used to show where they belonged. Time passed, and a centuries-long combination of missionaries and English colonists encouraged the Maya people to abandon traditional dress in favor of more discreet, simpler clothes.
As a result, the most elaborate embroidery used now to show their roots is a cross-stitch embroidered neckline and cuff on a white cotton shirt and a tiered cotton skirt trimmed with lace. For everyday, the women most often wear a simple sewn dress, trimmed with lace or rickrack.
Today’s simpler dress: More discrete but inconvenient!
While this simpler dress is now well associated with the Maya in Belize, it is a sad modification of their original, more elaborate traditional creations. While discreet, their current dress also makes it difficult to breastfeed babies, a significant inconvenience in a culture where women tend to have many children.
Nevertheless, the Maya women have maintained the embroidery skill that was passed down to them through the generations…that they will pass along to their children and, hopefully, their children will pass along to their children. Using those talents to craft beautiful MayaBags every day helps make that hope more attainable.
The mysterious Belize Maya “stitch”
Interestingly, the Maya in Belize use a very different embroidery stitch than the Maya in Guatemala. In Belize, the women use what is called a safety, clear stitch. In Guatemala, the women use a satin, through-and-through stitch. To date, we have been unable to determine why the stitches are different.
Perhaps, one can imagine, a missionary taught a group of Maya women how to do more efficient stitching that would require less yarn. Or maybe the women evolved the stitch on their own, as yarn is more expensive in Belize. It is also possible that the Maya there have always used this type of stitching. It would be interesting to find an answer.
The most beautiful work comes from the Maya soul
We have discovered that the Maya women embroider most beautifully that which is deep within their souls, within their visual vocabulary–ancient Maya glyphs, Maya gods and goddesses, acolytes to the gods, mythological stories, animals of the rainforest, birds and plants in their surroundings.
“Early on, I asked the women to embroider a church bell tower for holiday gift bags. That was an abysmal failure. They had never seen one…it wasn’t something they could feel, so they couldn’t embroider it,” says Judy Bergsma, MayaBags founder. “I learned from that and from then on we stepped into the visual world of the Maya to create designs they could embroider with spirit and authenticity.”
Rediscovering the back-strap loom; weaving the glorious colors of Belize
Like embroidery, back-strap looming to create textiles has been a highly valued skill since the Maya Classic period, over 2000 years ago. Back-strap looming is a unique form of weaving. One end of a loom is traditionally attached to a wall or a tree and the other end is strapped on the weaver’s back with a strap made of fibers from the agave plant. As the woman pushes her hips forward and back, she raises and lowers the heddle stick. This allows her to push another strand of yarn from right to left (the weft) through the yarns that make up the warp or vertical layout of yarns.
In their weaving, as in all their crafts, the Belize Maya use color in a richer way than other regions, and are much more conscious of color palettes. “The women have a natural eye for selecting a range of colors that complement each other,” says Desiree Arnold, who manages the work in Belize. She says, “at MayaBags, we let the women take a lead on textile designs…because we love the traditional look of their creative patterns. We don’t want to lose the artisanal aspect of what they do.”
One art is lost to time; many others are saved
At one point, Judy Bergsma had the opportunity to talk at length with a Mrs. Ack, an elderly Belize village woman. Judy had always wondered what happened to the Maya tradition of growing cotton, hand-spinning it into fiber and dying it with local plants. She learned from Mrs. Ack that fiber was indeed taken from the cotton tree (yes, a tree!) spun into yarn and dyed by the women[m]but only up through Mrs. Ack’s generation. The lack of a ready market for the fiber and lagging demand for embroidery had killed the practice, Mrs. Ack said sadly.
Mrs. Ack told Judy “it just took too long, given all we had to do, and we made no money from it, so the women eventually lost interest in the skill.” Mrs. Ack even showed Judy the old spinner she still had and a cotton pod she had kept as a memory of the “old” practice. “It made me sad,” Judy says, “because we would love to use local hand-spun yarns in our weavings, but MayaBags started 50 years too late to save this aspect of their skills.”
Basketry without weaving and hunting for jippi jappa
The use of basketry is another key skill employed in the MayaBags accessory collection. Like embroidery and back-strap looming, it is an ancient skill practiced by the women. When people think of basketry, they generally assume the baskets are woven. However, among the Belize Maya the baskets are almost always coiled and stitched.
This means the women take several strands of a plant fiber found naturally in the rainforest called “jippi jappa,” and coil it in the shape of the basket they want to make. Then they use “eke” or fiber from the agave plant to stitch each coil to the last one…and so forth until the basket is complete. “It’s a beautiful process but very time consuming,” says Desiree Arnold.
In the past, the women used to go into the rainforest wearing just their sandals to hunt for jippi jappa along the river’s edge. It was time consuming and dangerous because of the poisonous snakes that lay hidden on the forest floor. So the women were happy when Judy suggested that Maya farmers should start to grow jippi jappa and that MayaBags would buy the plant fiber from them.
This took some time to implement, but now MayaBags buys this farmed jippi jappa for the weavers who work with us. This has made a huge difference in the time they have to spend on a basket. While they still must do a fine cleaning of the fibers from the farmers, this has been a real step forward for them and has created an alternative crop for the farmers—that is also friendly to the rainforest.
Artisanal skills of Maya men
The only hand skills the Maya men have carried forward from ancient times are wood and calabash (gourd) carving, slate stone carving, hand-making “eke” rope from agave fibers, and leather making. Their carving skills are beautiful but are disappearing because there is no longer a large enough market for the end products to make these skills economically worthwhile.
No more living several years from one fallen tree?
We predict that wood carving from rosewood will soon become a lost skill. Why? Rosewood has been extracted from the rain forest in such huge quantities by foreign and local lumber operations—for export to foreign countries—that there is little left. We think it has reached a point of no return.
So little stock is left in the forest that it is unlikely there are enough mature trees left to produce seedlings for future generations. Beautiful bowls and carvings are also made from a few other rainforest hard woods, such as nargusta and tamarindo. But unless things dramatically change the lumber trade will deplete those as well—leaving nothing for the traditional Maya carver who can live off one fallen tree for many years.
MayaBags leather made the “eco” way
The leather we use at MayaBags is real leather with a sound environmental footprint. The only thing used to process the skin is water. Tanning is accomplished using the same method the Maasai in Africa use—by scraping the hairs off the skin with bark. The natural oils in the bark also soften the leather for pliability.
This is a win-win for everyone involved. No harm is done to the small group of men who work on the leather. No residue chemicals are dumped to poison local village water. And MayaBags is able to use leather trim to enhance the look of some of our bags, while supporting a viable environmental alternative to chemical leather processing.
Handcrafting “eke” rope; a vanishing art comes back
Making fine rope by hand is another of the oldest skills among Maya men. But there are few men left who still know how to make it, because the market for handmade rope of this quality disappeared long ago. We love this beautiful rope for trimming our bags and making handles, so we are supporting this skill with training and are purchasing this distinctive rope to use on some of our bags.
The artisanal rope “recipe”
Mr. Choco, who you see here, has been our rope-making trainer. To date he has trained a new group of six women in the skill. In essence, the ponderous leaves of the agave plant are either cooked or put into the ground for rotting until nothing but the fibers are left. Then, the fibers are separated, washed, and left in the sun to dry. When ready, using ash from a small container, the fibers are softened on the type of board Mr. Choco is using here. Next, the fibers are gradually twisted together to make one long strand. And finally, several strands are twisted again together to make the beautiful artisanal rope.
A “spirit” talisman for each bag
MayaBags does its best to support the Maya men’s skills. As one example, we are adding hand-carved stone tokens to each of our purses, each depicting a Maya glyph. This creates several jobs for carvers and makes MayaBags purses yet more special. This special talisman will add another element of Maya spirit and art to each bag.
Each artisan’s personal touch
Part of the joy of MayaBags products is that they are all handmade…meaning that no two MayaBags purses are exactly identical. Quality control is tight, so it is often hard to see the differences, especially in the embroidery and in the weaving. Nevertheless, little differences that represent the individual artisan at work can be seen if one closely studies two purses side by side. With woven bags, for example, stripes might slightly vary in size from one bag to the next. Or the pattern of embroidery stitches might slightly differ from one embroidered purse to another.
In basketry, it is sometimes easier to see differences. For our Maya earring handles, one artisan may use a wider band of white jippi jappa on one handle and a narrower band on another…as these photos illustrate. This is the artisan’s creative touch, making each pair of handles she coils and stitches distinct. It is the artist’s creative process coupled with handmade that drives this unique, joyful MayaBags quality of “not machine manufactured” products.
Artisanal arts: Inspiration for all creativity
High quality, beautiful artisanal skills that have been carried through many generations into the modern world are endangered. Like rare and beautiful birds, animals, fish and plants, these skills provide the “biodiversity” and inspiration for the world of creativity.
At MayaBags, we’re proud to say that these skills are the source of all of our products. We support and value these talents and see that a world where they might someday be lost would be a far less interesting and inspirational place. So, please enjoy our products and let’s celebrate what they stand for.