Guardians of Mayan Knowledge and Traditions: Tz’utujil Women Dyers of San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala 

Humans have always had an eye for color. Since prehistory, humans have delighted in using natural pigments for art, writing, clothing, and even on the human body. Over time, natural dyes have fallen out of use with the adoption of synthetic dyes, but the beauty, safety, and connection to nature offered by natural dyes continue to give them relevance. Today, there is interest from communities across the world in recreating and innovating ecologically sustainable dye production, particularly in ways that support rural and indigenous livelihoods. 

The pre-Hispanic murals of Bonampak are one of the most significant and best preserved pictorial works belonging to the Mayan culture and a great example of the use of natural dyes, especially for the Mayan Blue that comes from the plant Indigo, Indigofera suffruticosa Mill. Photo source: Artequin.

Tz’utujil Mayan Traditions 

Many indigenous communities have long traditions of natural dyes. In Guatemala, the Tz’utujil Mayan people, one of 25 recognized ethnic groups, are known for preserving knowledge and practices of natural dyes.  

According to oral tradition, the use of dye plants in the Tz’utujil Mayan community of San Juan La Laguna dates back to its settlement in the 16th century. The tools and techniques were passed down from mother to daughter. The traditional costume of Tz’utujil women, with origins during the colonial era, includes a dark blue skirt with dye from the plant Sacatinta (Justicia spicigera Schltdl.) Now, the costume incorporates more colors, reflecting changes as the market has made them more accessible. 

Aerial view of San Juan La Laguna home of the Mayan Tz’utujil people at the shore of Lake Atitlán in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala. Photo by Toby Argüelles.

The Place: San Juan La Laguna 

San Juan La Laguna, home of the Mayan Tz’utujil people, is known throughout Guatemala for its use of plants to dye cotton yarn and for its traditional textile production. It is home to a variety of women’s associations and cooperatives that seek to revalue the use of natural dyes and compete in the fierce modern textile market. Fabrics dyed with natural dyes have found an important niche in the market for the tourism sector. Natural dyes are no longer used for any type of fabric locally, but are completely reserved for the elaboration of textiles destined for national and especially foreign visitors. 

Mother Teresa Hernandez in the left and daughter Ascelin Mendoza at the center and Candelaria Yotz at the right from Kemo’ Association. Photo by Boris Llamas.

Sharing traditions 

The knowledge of dye plants comes from daily interactions with the natural environment when working in the fields. Since everyday outfits included white cotton tunics, they became natural canvases that inspired further experimentation at home to produce plant-based dyes and dye cotton yarn that would later be used to make textiles. Over time, this became work done in the home by women, who are traditionally in charge of weaving the different textiles. Knowledge is passed down from grandmothers to their daughters and granddaughters who learn to put this knowledge to practice at a very young age that in average they start at 10 years old.  

Within textiles, Women have also been able to transmit and preserve their knowledge and ideas within the textiles, using a diversity of symbols to capture a deep Mayan worldview as if they were poems or books written with cotton threads dyed in a variety of colors. 

Amalia Tay Mendoza dying thread with Achiote (Bixa orellana L.) from her house among trees, plants and mountains. Photo by Boris Llamas.

Economic impact 

Over time, women have seen how this work can generate income to helps support the family and have organized to sell their textile products to tourists. This is especially useful for many families, as men often earn a low salary working, and has allowed women to become economically empowered and independent. Men of the community, seeing the economic income that women generate and the aid they can offer the family, make space for craftswomen so that they can accomplish these goals. Craftswomen also commented that this has helped to decrease sexism and support women’s ability to learn, educate themselves, and grow professionally. 

Common plant species used by the Maya Tz’utujil women of San Juan La Laguna for the production of natural dyes.

The Plants

Dye plants and their practices also illustrate how the women and the community of San Juan La Laguna have deep connections with the natural environment. Plants are not only used to produce dyes, but also provide raw materials, food, medicine, and are even used in Mayan rituals and ceremonies for spirituality and well-being. Plants serve as regulators of the natural environment, where the entire culture originates.

These practices are interwoven with cosmology and worldviews. For instance, harvest times may depend on lunar phases as well as on plant maturity for desire tones and colors. Such is the case of Sacatinta (Justicia spicigera Schltdl.), which was reported to produce a grayish-blue color when harvested during a full moon and a light blue hue when harvested during any other lunar phase. This also happens with Palo de Tinto (Haematoxylum campechianum L.), which reported to give a dark purple-blue hue when harvested on a full moon but a light purple when harvested during any other lunar phase. 

The Process

The procedure for extracting the dye varies for each person, depending on the species and the part used, but all coincide with basic steps that can be described below

.Cotton Preparation: In Guatemala there are two types of cotton, white and brown. The first step is to clean the cotton by extracting the seeds. Clean cotton is placed on a pillow and hit with a Y-shaped piece of wood called Ajxacaj’  to soften and fluff the cotton. 

Cotton threading: Spinning of the cotton that is done by means of a traditional spindle whorl, called Malacate in Spanish and Baal in T’zutujil, which consists of a thin piece of wood with a ball of clay near one end of the piece of wood. To spin, women place a small set of fibers in the ball of clay of the spindle whorl and constantly and smoothly turning the piece of wood within its own axis so that the fibers stretch and form a thread that wraps around the mud ball. This procedure must be carried out with constant movements and the thickness of the thread will depend on how much the cotton of the winch is stretched when turning it on its axis continuously. The thread formed is called Bat’z in T’zutujil. 

Preparation of the plant and mordant: Both dried and fresh plants are used, but fresh plants provide stronger and more intense colors. When there are seeds, as in the case of Achiote (Bixa orellana L.), they are used dry. Barks and roots are dried and then left to rest in water at least one night prior to use so that they release the dye better. The part of the plant being used is crushed or cut into pieces and placed in a container of water to be cooked for several hours. Mordant, an important non-dye element that acts to fix the dye colors on to the fibers, is sometimes added. Mordant is another natural element, often a plantain or banana stem.

Yarn Stain: After the plant has expelled all the dye in the water, it is filtered in a strainer to remove all organic remains. Thread is added to the dyed-hot water by submerging it and then removing it repeatedly to allow oxygenation. After dying the entire thread by dipping it several times, it is left to rest in the dye for at least one hour. The time can vary depending on how strong a final tone is desired. Finally, the thread is washed to remove excess dye and organic remains, and left to dry in a shaded place.

Backstrap Loom Weaving: The thread is then placed into the backstrap loom system, named because it is held from the weaver’s waist at one end. It has three axes, the upper one where the opposite end to the waist is held, the intermediate one where the fabric is opened, and the lower one where the fabric is gathered. With this weaving system, a variety of products can be made, including scarves, huipiles, traditional women’s shirts, table covers, and blankets.

Preservation of tradition 

These beloved traditions face an uncertain future.  

Economic insecurity, globalization, ando ther pressures are pushing the current younger generations to pursue external career in more profitable trades and professions. At the same other craftswomen are leaving their work for jobs that require less time and effort, and deciding to create new enterprises other than handicrafts with the help of remittances sent by migrant workers in other countries (including the US). Artisan practices are also affected by preference for modern and industrialized techniques due to their speed, lower cost, and practicality to maintain a constant offering. In addition, the recent COVID-19 pandemic decreased the sale of textile products due to the absence of tourists, who are the majority of the demand for these artisan products, causing some textile associations to dissolve. Construction and other land use changes are making certain plants like willow (Salix mucronata Thunb.) and cedar (Cedrela odorata L.), as well as trees that need to be very mature to be used to produce dyes such as avocado (Persea americana Mill.), more difficult to find. Each time they have to go deeper into the forests of the mountains to find them. 

From left to right Irma Ixtamer, Marcela Hernandez at the back, María Mendoza at the front with the weaving equipment, Elena Pérez, Teresa Hernández and Boris Llamas intern from the Biocultural Collection of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 

As part of a 2022 internship with the Missouri Botanical Garden Guatemalan graduate student Boris Llamas documented the natural dying in southwest Guatemala. He worked with Tz’utujil Mayan craftswomen who have formed associations and cooperatives in the area to protect traditional practices. Through the project he documented plants and animal products used to produce more than 18 colors and tones, and collected threads and textiles that are now part of the Garden’s William L. Brown Center’s Biocultural Collection. These collection help document and educate about a unique and beautiful tradition. 

Boris Llamas-Menchú, Ethnobotanist 
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