From flirty bags, tortilla baskets, hats, and clutch style wallets to jewelry boxes and earrings, in Yucatán you can purchase just about anything made from the sought-after string of henequén. Used to make everything from personal accessories to home goods, the versatility of this Yucatecan fiber might surprise you.
Hand-made by Maya artisans, many of them preserve special techniques, handed down through generations, for working with the fibers. Today, artisans innovate these techniques by incorporating new colors, like neon, or by making fun, surprising combinations. They also incorporate the use of wood, metal, and other regional materials to create designs which reflect emerging trends in fashion.
It’s not abnormal to find handbags made from henequén, lined with cotton, and decorated with hand-carved wooden details. Each piece is an example of talent, demonstrating both craftsmanship and artistry, and resulting in products which should top your shopping list.
These products are ideal for those shopping for gifts made 100% in Yucatán. The majority of these products are hand-made, with much of the work incredibly fine and detailed.
There are weeks of work behind each piece. First, artisans must find henequén in one of the few shredding farms that still exist, like in Xochhel y Hocabá, about 40 minutes from Mérida. Next, artisans separate the fibers into groups of long and short fibers. Then they dye the fibers with natural wood coloring in boiling water (or colorful dyes that can be bought in hardware stores).
Once the fibers are dry and fixed into bundles of henequén, the artisans use experience and imagination to create handicrafts. Sometimes, they follow an example or design, but usually the artisans channel an innate, generational wisdom. This wisdom dictates everything from technique to the combination of colors and the model of the product.
Doña Florencia, an artisan from Xocchel, shared her story with me. “I was taught by my grandmother. I learned to use the waist loom when I was still very small, making rugs and bags from henequén. With this work I’ve been able to achieve a lot for my family and my children.” The waist loom is composed of a set of wooden bars of different sizes and thicknesses, like a bench. The women hook the principal bars with a rope, and they sit in front of the bench with a plain piece of wood, which they work with their hands to create fine braids, demonstrating an incredible ability.
At the end of the day, each piece is unique: hand-made. Both men and women continue this tradition, preserving a piece of the Maya culture and the legend of Yucatán’s “green gold.”
The artisans have also learned to adapt the fiber into new models, which is how you can find a fabulous clutch style bag or a hip backpack, hats for girls, women, and men as well as carrying bags for wine bottles and desk accessories, among others.
So, when you see a handicraft made from henequén in the souvenir shops in Mérida’s historic Centro or online, take a moment to appreciate the long history of tradition and the proud hands that are behind each product, bringing a part of Yucatán to the world.
Violeta H. Cantarell for Yucatán Today
Juan Manuel Mier y Terán for Yucatán Today
Andrea Mier y Terán for Yucatán Today
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