Textile Travels in the Pandemic

Above: Group photo with the tejedoras of “Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Rial Poop B’atz”, Chamelco, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.
Photo credit: 
Lyndsay Harshman

by Bob Miller

Weavers of all ages at “Asociación Brillantes Artesanas Y Tejedoras B’atz” – Tactic, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Photo credit: Jean Miller

The most recent WARP online panel discussion “Follow the Thread: Textile Tours and Traditional Craft” provided a welcome hour for many of us, whether experienced past or hopeful future textile travelers, to vicariously journey to the special places in the world where exquisite handmade textiles are a part of everyday life.  A textile tour is an opportunity to meet the beautiful people that create such treasures and to learn a bit from their wise cultures — not to mention to purchase textile treasures directly from the artisans who create them — and to take home not only a fine piece of cultural heritage, but also the memory of a person, a name, a home or community, a smile — maybe even a shy hug.

Such is the joy of well-done textile travels, and those of us who are involved in small or big ways in connecting textile lovers with underserved artisan makers know the power of bringing the two together with a textile tour. Many of us can recall our own first textile trips and know that handmade textiles are merely the “gateway drug” to a love of people and cultures around the world and a passion for recruiting other textile lovers — or even textile “sorta likers” — to share the experience.

Unfortunately, since early 2020 the pandemic put a stop to most organized textile travel. Many weaving communities dependent on tourism have suffered greatly, with few visitors to buy their textiles on top of the suffering that covid itself brought. Mi encantadora esposa Jean and I spent all of last year and much of this one waiting for a promising trip announcement and for conditions to again begin to feel safe enough for visiting to be a positive thing for all concerned. So when this spring Mari Gray of Kakaw Designs announced a trip in November, 2021 to textile communities in Guatemala we sat up and took notice. Covid seemed to be waning (at the time), Guatemala was accepting vaccinated visitors, and we were willing to take whatever additional steps were needed to keep everyone (especially our hosts!) safe. We asked an expert friend for their opinion (answer: “Mari’s one of the good ones”) and so we signed up.

Afternoon embroidery lessons with Claribel and Tomasita. Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Photo credit: Mari Gray

There were a lot of covid-conscious precautions and adjustments that Mari put in place for the trip, and which we heartily agreed to. And the arrival of “delta” caused us all concern. But the trip was limited to only six participants, and we all were fully vaccinated (and where recommended, “boostered”). Thankfully, vaccinations are starting to be more available in Guatemala, and all of our hosts, teachers, and presenters that we spent more than incidental time with, including in the weaving cooperatives where we visited, were also vaccinated.

Masks were de rigueur. As the first outsiders since covid to visit some of these communities, we took great pains to be above reproach. Guatemala is serious about covid, and everyone wears masks in public. Temperature checks and hand sanitizer are everywhere. We all brought self-tests (Mari had extras) and tested before we went into vulnerable remote communities. We were prepared to have to quarantine if we had a positive test (no one ever did). Classes (and most meals) were in open-air settings and we sometimes stayed where we could prepare our own meals in order to avoid crowded restaurant situations. Additionally, Jean and I severely limited our outside contact for two weeks before the trip and tested one last time five days after returning.

Well, how was it? I am delighted to report that we had a glorious time! Mari did a fabulous job organizing and planning and watching out for us; we spun, we wove, we dyed, we embroidered, we laughed, we ate home-cooked Guatemalan meals, and sipped home-prepared Guatemalan cacao. We studied juicy cochineal bugs sucking on cactus paddles. From our rooftop patio in Antigua at night we watched Volcán Fuego belch fountains of incandescent lava. We wandered around in amazing places and took in amazing sights. We were guests of Maya men and women who made us feel more than welcome. And of course we saw (and bought) glorious textiles. We reunited with old friends and made new ones. And there was more than one quick hug as we said our farewells in each community we visited. I have a small swarm of new Guatemalan Facebook friends. I need to work on my español… and tz’utujil and q’eqchi and… oh, bother!

Corte with exquisite weft jaspe at “Colectivo 13 Batz’ ” – Santiago Atitlán, Sololá, Guatemala. Photo credit: Jean Miller

Doña Amalia says that she can teach me to weave pik’bil — and to speak a little q’eqchi — if I come to stay with her for two weeks in Samac.

I’m ready to go back! How about you?


Bob Miller is a handwoven textile enthusiast and devoted student of backstrap weaving. He and his wife Jean went on their first textile tour (to Peru) in 2018. He currently serves on the Education Committee of the US non-profit Andean Textile Arts which seeks to introduce textile lovers to the exquisite textiles of the Andean highlands and to the equally beautiful people and cultures that produce them.