Weaving Artisans - Weaving The Many Threads of Motherhood through the Loom
It’s Mother’s Day—a day filled with brunches, flowers, and reflecting on what motherhood means to us. It’s easier to recognize that mothers juggle multiple tasks: they weave through their many roles as individuals, partners, a worker outside of the home, a worker inside of the home, being daughters themselves, and more.
In some parts of the world, mothers weave their lives both figuratively and literally.
Motherhood and Weaving
Weaving has long been associated with mothers—even back to the original mother herself. For Quechua weavers, it is a common belief that one’s first weaving pieces must be thrown into a river as an offering to Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth. In many other deity-related stories, such as Egyptian, Maori, and Mayan folklore, the moon-goddess of weaving is also the goddess of childbirth. Even the motion of weaving is connected to being a mother. For the Tzutujil, a Mayan group, using a shuttle to weave yarn through the loom’s heart is likened to providing sustenance to a baby.
Although it may not seem like it, mothers who do not use looms also weave throughout their lives, albeit in a figurative way. Many contemporary scholars like Anne Lane Hedlund, Anita Ilta Garey, and Tina Miller use the metaphor of “weaving” to describe the way mothers navigate their multiple roles, jobs, experiences, interests, and discourses to shape their lives.
Learning to Weave
Both figurative and literal weaving mothers share a role as teachers. In cultures such as Laotian and Mayan communities, weaving knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, usually through a grandmother or mother. In accordance with weaving’s connection to motherhood, female children are usually the students. In many weaving cultures, these children are exposed to weaving at an early age. For the ancient Nahuas, part of a baby’s girl’s bathing ritual included receiving weaving objects such as a spinning bowl and a weaving batten. Some mothers even hold their babies in carriers like the Peruvian manta on their backs while they craft. As babies grow into children, they move beyond observation and directly begin learning to weave.
The Power of Motherhood & Weaving
In Western society, weaving might not be considered particularly empowering for mothers, especially with its link to an apparently stark, gendered division of labor (in the aforementioned Nahua bathing ritual, baby boys received hunting bows, not weaving objects). As such, it seems like an archaic remainder from the days of when women were relegated to so-called mundane, unskilled tasks at home. Surely, exciting, meaningful jobs exist outside it.
However, for Navajos, weaving is a highly-revered pursuit. It is also a respected art that encompasses crucial Navajo philosophies like balance and harmony. In general, weaving is not just a useless, unskilled hobby (although hobbies are important to have); it takes considerable time and effort to cultivate and apply such creative, detail-oriented knowledge. It is also important to note that weaving is a way for many mothers to earn income as well.
Furthermore, some weaving cultures, like the Navajo and several indigenous Mayan groups in Guatemala, have also been historically matrilineal, a family system where descent is traced through the mother’s family. Accordingly so, weaving is also a form of women taking control through resistance. In 1865, the US government forced Navajos into the reservation, Bosque Redondo. Although they were given manufactured textiles at Bosque Redondo, Navajo women continued to weave. Even when US officials further attempted to wrestle power from the Navajo women by introducing white weaving instructors, they refused to relinquish the power they had over controlling their work and continued to use traditional techniques. In the midst of modern economic and social pressures to abandon traditional crafts, weaving can still be seen as an empowering form resistance today.
Empowering Future Generations
Weaving not only empowers mothers; it empowers children as well. Education is almost universally considered a form of empowerment. Although there are no multiple-choice tests involved, weaving is a form of education. Weavers are not only learning a valuable skill, they are also learning about their cultural traditions—knowledge that is at risk of disappearing every day. To further weaving’s educational connection, Nilda Callañuapa Alvarez, a Quechua weaver and academic, even views grandmothers as “the book [of] textile tradition”. As with pursuing other modes of schooling, weaving can also provide a source of income should children choose to continue weaving in their adult life.
Weaving through Change
Of course, we don’t always grow up to be exactly like our mothers (insert a collective sigh of relief). When it comes to weaving, some children deviate from their mother’s techniques. In their 1970 study on Zinacantec Mayan weaving, Greenfield, Maynard, and Childs found that weaving mothers were constantly hovering over their children’s work. This contrasted with their findings in 1991, where mothers played a more distant role when teaching their children to weave.
In addition to using different teaching techniques, weavers’ pieces can look different from what their mothers produced. For example, D.Y. Begay, Navajo weaver and community curator of the Kennedy Museum of Art’s “Weaving is Life” exhibit, incorporates more contemporary colors and designs.
Some children abandon weaving all together. In their joint study of Oaxaca’s textile traditions, the Getty Conservation Institute and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) (1997) found that many girls no longer know how to craft textiles. In a relatively short amount of time, what was once common knowledge for generations has become a rarity.
It is important to note that transforming or leaving traditional weaving completely behind is not simply a matter of free choice. Many external forces can be attributed to the changes in weaving.
For starters, tourism comes into play. In Greenfield, Maynard, and Childs’ aforementioned study, one of the reasons why a 1991 mother, Katal, did not have time to constantly observe her children (like her mother did with her) was that she was occupied with producing garments for the newly-sprung tourist market. As a result, her children were free to experiment outside of the highly strict, traditional designs Katal was limited to when she learned to weave.
Of course, these tourism-related forces cannot be separated from economics. Traditional techniques may be abandoned in favor of more cost-effective, faster methods. These faster methods enable weavers to meet tourist demand. They can also allow artisans to meet tourists’ aesthetic tastes, such as in the case of switching to chemically-dyed yarn (which creates a wider variety colors) instead of the limited palette that traditionally hand-boiled, naturally dyed yarn makes. Why change so much to meet this market’s needs? Unfortunately, catering to tourism may be the only way a family can earn income.
Both these tourism and economic pressures are not unrelated to the rising power of Westernization to devalue practices that do not fit so-called Western and “modern” ideals. (Unfortunately, in many countries, not fitting with these ideals is associated with being lower class.) Even Guadalupe Alvarez Valenzuela, a Quechua woman and weaver now in her 80s, already saw the push of change when her mother wanted her to stop pursuing traditional weaving and wearing the traditional clothing it produced because of these practices’ association with the lower class. Additionally, as previously explored, crafting is still not seen as a practice that is empowering in the West.
A Mother’s Inspiration
Although the pressure to abandon weaving increases with each passing generation, there are still artisans who keep weaving traditions alive, and do so with considerable success.
Many have mothers to thank for that.
While she weaves, Navajo weaver Irene Clark pays homage to her mother by utilizing the “hair bundle” design her mother created. Clark’s daughter, Teresa, also employs the unique design to pay homage to her mother and grandmother. Both weavers have had their work featured by the Kennedy Museum of Art. Cathy Moomaw, a Cherokee weaver, has also won several awards with her grandmother’s signature diamond blanket techniques.
Of course, we do owe success to our own strengths and creativity. But the knowledge mothers pass down, as well as the warm memories they help create, often provide that much needed inspiration for our art.
Strengthening the Woven Threads of Motherhood
Weaving has a long, historical connection to motherhood—whether it be mythologically, figuratively, literally, or all three. Although there are forces that seek to sever the strong threads of the loom and of weaving mothers’ lives, weaving mothers continue to play a key part in contributing economically, resisting, preserving culture, empowering children, and most importantly, empowering themselves.
What about weaving’s connection to a gendered division of labor? Well, more mothers are starting to teach their boys how to weave. And perhaps by changing our conceptions of what empowerment and power looks like, we can start weaving a narrative that values crafting and artisans for all too.
This Mother’s Day, you can contribute to the movement—remember that an empowered mother (or person) can run experiments in a lab, can debate in politics, and can also proudly create art at the loom.
Author: Jazzy Celindro, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer