For thousands of years Mesoamerican weavers have produced textile extravaganzas on back-strap looms. Although much of the fabric is used as clothing, the designs in the cloth hold symbolism and meaning for the weavers. Those who know the designs can identify the weaver's community and family background.
With few exceptions back-strap weaving is a women's art form. In the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala you can identify the weavers by looking at their ankles. Most women wearing traditional Indigenous clothing have calluses the diameter of a ten-peso coin on the outside of their ankles. It comes from weaving on the back-strap loom, a skill usually learned as a child and practiced ever since.
Unlike the treadle loom introduced to Mesoamerica by Spaniards shortly after the Conquest, the traditional back-strap loom is completely portable. With one end of her loom tied to a tree or pole, the weaver kneels, straps the other end around her hips and leans back. Her feet tucked under her and her full weight resting on her ankles, she becomes an integral part of her loom.
The process of weaving on this type of loom requires constant tightening and loosening of the warp (the threads running the length of the loom) as the weft (the threads running the width of the loom) is passed back and forth. The weaver loosens and tightens the warp by leaning forwards or backwards.
As she weaves the weaver needs to reach ever farther forward in order to pass the bobbin from side to side between the warp or to introduce elaborate brocade designs so, periodically. she rolls up the completed cloth at the end closest to her waist. In doing so her loom gets shorter and shorter and she gets closer and closer to the tree or pole anchoring the other end of the loom.
The cloth produced on the backstrap loom cannot be much wider than the weaver's shoulders. If she wants to make a wider piece of fabric she sews two or more strips of cloth together. In doing so she produces squares or rectangles of cloth, which leads to another characteristic of traditional Mesoamerican clothing: it is wrapped or draped over the body. Quite different from the European concept of tailoring clothing to fit the human body.
The sitting position required by a back-strap loom is unimaginably uncomfortable. The outside of the weaver's ankles rub constantly on the floor or straw mat on which she sits. This produces the calluses on the outside of her ankles. Pain and numbness in the legs limits the time weavers can work.
The skill and tradition of backstrap weaving has been passed through generations for as long as Mesoamericans have made cloth. Unfortunately cloth does not last long and very few examples of prehispanic Mesoamerican fabric survive. However, there are pieces of ceramic art and bas-relief sculpture -- especially of Maya origin -- that show embroidered designs in clothing in great detail. They are very similar to fabric being produced by Indigenous weavers today.
Other than the introduction of new threads, the process of weaving has remained much the same through time. At least that's the way it was until home economics professor Vivian Harvey and ergonomic specialist Karen Piegorsch came along. Though they have never met personally they have corresponded a few times and, perhaps without realizing it, have made quite a team.
I led a trip to Guatemala for Vivian and her students from Ohio State University's College of Home Economics in 1987. Part of the program involved visiting a group of Indigenous women who met weekly for a home economics workshop in their community overlooking Lake Atitlán. Those women and the insights they provided into backstrap weaving became a highlight of field study trips I co-led with Vivian for other university and adult groups over the years. On those trips I've always subtly pointed out the calluses on the weavers' ankles.
Dr. Piegorsch studied the way the women weave and designed a bench to take the pressure off their ankles. The bench is adjustable with a rounded-front seat and a footrest which allows back-strap weavers to tense and release the loom without sitting on their ankles. Dr. Piegorsch wasn't able though to come up with the funding necessary to provide the benches to weavers.
For the last few years Vivian has been raising money through the sale of back-strap weavings in the United States. With the proceeds she has hired carpenters in the Maya highlands to make the benches for distribution to weavers who will use them.
I wonder if the calluses will go away after using the benches. Perhaps not. But the new generation of weavers will not need to acquire calluses in order to continue the ancient tradition of back strap weaving. I doubt they'll regret giving up that badge of honor.