In January 2023, I had the pleasure of spending ten days in San Juan la Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan researching heirloom cotton, meeting with the growers, and connecting with the women of the Mayan Tz'utujil weavers cooperative.
San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala
I have been working with the Mayan Tz'utujil weavers for over five years. We met in September 2017, the year Behind the Hill launched. Together we created a small collection of four handwoven textiles using beautiful naturally-brown cotton called Ixcaco. This collection was our first with the native cotton from their village. It is a meaningful collection for Behind the Hill, and two of the designs continue to be bestsellers—the Desert Cotton Blanket and the Atitlan Cotton Blanket.
Ixcaco cotton alongside our first collection that was launched in 2017
My relationship with the Mayan Tz'utujil weavers is very special to me. Our communication has always been seamless, honest, and open. I visit them in Guatemala at least once yearly, and we talk on WhatsApp weekly. My primary contact is Delfina Par, a Mayan Tz'utujil weaver, and entrepreneur who coordinates all of our orders. Delfina, a mother of two like myself, has become not only a business partner, but a true friend. She was one of the first people I told when I found out I was pregnant, the first and the second time. We share our business ups and downs and discuss everything from motherhood and life experiences to travel.
Delfina Par and heirloom colored cotton.
Like any genuine relationship, in-person meetings are necessary to create an authentic connection and discuss personal information. And since Behind the Hill works with materials and traditions with little written information, it's essential for me to connect in-person to listen and learn from masters of the craft.
In January, I went to Guatemala to meet with people who grow and weave heirloom cotton, and who hold the knowledge passed down from their ancestors—information about its colors, harvests, seeds, and deeper significance. Learning more about colorful heirloom cotton from Guatemala is a passion of mine, but what is particularly interesting to me is understanding more about the relationship between this cotton and the indigenous people of the area—the way it is woven into their identity and cultural heritage.
Heirloom colored cotton from Guatemala. Ixcaco cotton on the right in its rich brown hues.
Dominga Perez (1920-2017) was the first woman from San Juan who, back in the 1950s, would travel to Panajachel on the other side of Lake Atitlan to sell handwoven textiles. At that time, women would weave mostly for themselves and their families. Dominga discovered that if she traveled to the larger village of Panajachel with her eight daughters, she could sell a few textiles a day. Very early on, she realized she needed to offer a range of textiles that were unique in color and material—pieces unlike anyone else's. So, she started experimenting and weaving with Ixcaco cotton. Of Dominga's eight daughters, Teresa was the most interested in weaving. At seven years old, she began to learn and quickly became an excellent spinner and weaver. Inspired by her mother's entrepreneurial spirit, she knew she could sell her pieces and make a living.
I met Teresa multiple times between 2016 and 2020 (she unfortunately passed in 2021), and she was an incredible entrepreneur with a vision. She saw an opportunity for the women in her village—they could weave from home, allowing them to care for their children and make a living with their woven pieces. In 1986, Teresa started the first cooperative in San Juan la Laguna—a small group of women who began to grow, spin, and weave Ixcaco cotton. Teresa used to call the naturally-brown cotton "Loq mayij" (meaning "the gold" in Mayan Tz'utujil). She understood that this cotton, part of the Mayan culture, was endangered and needed to be revived.
Maud Lerayer, Founder of Behind the Hill, with Teresa Ujpan Perez, founder of Flor de Ixcaco, Guatemala, 2019.
A few years later, when tourism started to grow in San Juan, Teresa opened the shop "Flor de Ixcaco," where she offered cotton spinning demonstrations and displayed her very own harvest of naturally-brown cotton. Teresa became interested in exchanging seeds with people from other countries. She also began experimenting with grafting plants in her small greenhouse, trying to create more variations of color to use in her weavings.
Heirloom colored cottons from Guatemala
In 2020, I was interviewed by the Australian magazine “Sowing Seeds” and together with the editor, we decided to include interviews of the master weavers who make our products. Here is the interview of Teresa Ujpan Perez that was published in the magazine.
Sowing Seeds, N. 2, page 75.
During this visit, I connected with Miriam, a third-generation woman of Dominga's family (and Teresa's daughter). It was extraordinary to meet with Miriam. Only she and her sister Ana know the specifics about heirloom cotton within this family lineage—the rituals, origin, stories, places, maps, culture, secrets, and hidden seeds.
Miriam shared with me that every twenty days, according to the Mayan calendar, she celebrates Q'anil in the traditional Mayan way by honoring the seeds of cocoa, corn, and cotton. Through a fire ceremony, Miriam asks permission for the seeds to be fertilized and grow strong to help her community thrive. She respects her legacy and is committed to working with heirloom cotton and positively impacting her community.
It has been inspiring to meet such influential women in the tradition of heirloom cotton, textile weaving, women's cooperatives, and the growth of San Juan. The Mayan Tz'utujil weavers and I have nurtured our relationship together for over five years with great respect and care. It has been a joy to feel our trust in each other grow. I was truly honored to have such precious family stories and secrets about heirloom cotton shared with me during my most recent visit.
Maud Lerayer, founder of Behind the Hill and the weavers in Guatemala.
Behind the Hill is not just a brand. I am personally committed to the people I work with, to honor their legacy, and respectfully share their work with the world. Together we create products that feel right and inspire positive impact—for the cotton growers, the weavers, myself as a designer, our customers, and our planet.