An Ancient Fibre Transforming Communities

The Maya Youth Artisanship Initiative has been set up by textile artist Angela Damman to teach a new generation of artisans how to work with the fibre extracted from a species of agave indigenous to Yucatán, México: henequen.

One hundred years ago, 70% of all cultivated land in the Yucatán was used to grow henequen and it once accounted for 90% of all ropes in the world, but the advent of synthetic fibres led to a steep decline in cultivation and in the skills used to create this strong, versatile fibre.

As a result, the craft of spinning and weaving with this endemic plant fibre almost became a lost textile art as the artisans who possessed the skill grew old and young people were reluctant to learn this traditional skill.

The young women of this region have been brought up in communities where they are marginalised in every aspect of their lives: they are indigenous women, poor, living in rural communities and speaking Maya. The initiative aims to reverse this sentiment by transforming these into positive attributes, showing them that being Maya, a weaver and living in a rural area with a rich cultural heritage is a pathway to opportunity.

The pilot, in collaboration with Ashley Kubley, assistant professor, University of Cincinnati, aims to preserve the technique of working with henequen and elevate it from the utilitarian to create fine artisanal products such as bags which use new patterns, woven on backstrap looms and using natural dyes. Collaborating with the local community, the practice of weaving is now being transmitted from the teachers to the students, women 29 and under.

By bridging the generational gap through the transmission of skills, the craft is being demystified and destigmatised for the young women. The hope is that this will allow a new generation to develop the industry and see the art of weaving plant fibres as a design vocation. Participation in the luxury artisan handicraft market will enable them to keep alive the ancient knowledge of their ancestors, leading to a new appreciation for their Mayan identity and the regeneration of rural economies. This truly is sustainable development.


Text and Images: Carry Somers.

Weaving image: Angela Damman