Weaving Hope: Kem Iye’bal

By Dianne Herrmann, NAN-Certified Master Teacher

This article first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of NANthology. For more information about NAN’s Teacher Certification programs, go to https://needleart.org/certification-programs/teaching/.

When I visited Guatemala in 2020 to lead an embroidery workshop for indigenous Maya women, the shop owner of the Fair Trade organization Yabal connected me to the weavers she worked with. Yabal contracts with indigenous weavers in remote communities to produce woven goods for sale around the world through her shop (website https://yabal.org/). The entry wall of her shop in Xela, Guatemala had a striking painting of a weaver juxtaposed with square blocks covered in samples of woven textiles. The name Yabal comes from a K’iche word that means “hope”; what I saw in the painted image was “Weaving Hope”. I knew I wanted to adapt the painting as a needleart design. I used this design to fulfill the final requirement for NAN’s Master Teacher Certification program by creating an “expertise piece.”

The weaver and her loom are created in stumpwork techniques. Several layers of felt padding form the body, which was blanket stitched around before the shape was cut away from the muslin foundation. Templates were used for the fabric clothing; the pieces for the bodice and sleeves were hand embroidered. The clothing was added using invisible thread before the body was attached to the main fabric. The hands are made with a traditional stumpwork technique of wrapping and bending wire to make fingers and then joining separate pieces to create a hand. Because the figure represents an indigenous Maya figure, an appropriate color of floss to was selected to create a realistic skin tone. Fabric was painted to match the floss color to fashion the face, which was on a separate slip; the absence of facial features makes her a more generic Maya woman. The hair is padded and then braided with wool.

The square blocks covered with weaving from the original painting are interpreted in squares of traditional needlepoint stitches on a piece of interlock canvas; that canvas has then been stitched to the ground fabric at a 45-degree angle. The weaver is working on a backstrap loom made from dowels, pearl cotton and a small piece of woven fabric. The warp threads are pearl cotton.

There are two rectangular companion pieces that display just the square needlepoint stitch patterns on the attached interlock canvas piece from the original work. One of the samplers is in the same earth tones as the original “Weaving Hope” and one is in the more traditional bright Maya color palette on black canvas. Each of these is called “Wall of Hope.” I had two huge takeaways from my time designing and then stitching my expertise piece. First, it’s a L-ON-G journey from conception to execution, and there are many missteps along the way. Treating each attempt as a learning opportunity kept me going instead of being discouraged. Second, we work in a community full of generous, helpful, and wise artists and teachers. No matter who I turned to for help, whether to locate a reference about an unfamiliar technique, or to figure out how to do something new and strange and difficult, or just to share my progress and hear a comment or an observation, I was always rewarded with thoughtful insights and helpful suggestions. I continue to believe that as a teacher, I’m at my best when I’m learning along with my students, and I know that I grew in my understanding of the interplay between excellent teaching and learning while working through all the Master Teacher requirements.