The making of hammocks is a proud tradition in the Yucatán. Just about every Maya home has hooks on the wall for hanging their handmade hammock. To mass produce them in a factory would be unthinkable. Every one of these products, exported globally, has been created on a loom, within a family concern. It is often the women who take charge here, though men and children will happily take their turn.
The Maya have been using hammocks since the 1300s. They didn't invent them. The idea was imported from the Taíno people of Ayiti (modern day Haiti), discovered during trading trips. The word 'hammock' means 'fish net' in Arawakan, the language of the Taíno; which gives a huge clue as to what they were making them from. The Maya soon began to stamp their own personality and creativity upon the concept.
Mexican hammocks are not made out of fish nets. They are woven out of up to a mile of pure cotton. A few test runs apparently taught them that lying on knots hinder relaxation, so the Maya hammocks do not contain any. The idea is to dye the cotton strands in advance, then keep going from a single yarn. The end result is probably the most comfortable hammock in the world.
Picture a hammock and you possibly have one for a solitary person, strung between two palm trees. With your head close to one tree, and your feet at the other, it cocoons you. If you're trying this with a Mexican hammock, you're doing it wrong.
These are designed to lie width-ways across it. That opens up the hammock and allows two or more people to relax side by side. It becomes firm, moulding to each body, as it gently sways. Some are huge, holding up to five people before another hammock is required. In Maya homes, they don't only serve as beds, but as chairs too. A common use is as a baby's cradle. They are very safe for this, so the little one can't roll out. In large families, hammocks can be very economical with space!
Hammock weaving accounts for 60% of the industry of the Yucatán Maya. Ever since the Europeans arrived, in the 16th century, Mexico has been exporting brightly colored weaves. Often the colors will tell you something about the artisan who made it.
Young people are encouraged to experiment to find their own designs or the best hues to string together. They are also taught how to construct their own looms. Your own loom means that you're on your way to self-sufficiency; and can make a living in areas that are often mired in poverty.
By adulthood, with centuries of traditional knowledge and an apprenticeship of personal experience behind them, they are ready to launch their choices into the international market. You can imagine the glee, when their creation out-sells everyone elses!
This accounts for the fact that no two Mexican hammocks are exactly the same, though they may appear so from a distance. After all, a winning formula is going to be reproduced! The hand-woven designs might have tassels, elaborate knots on the fringes or anything else that the imagination can throw up. Each person wants to put their all into this. It's a matter of honor, accomplishment, status and pride, so they want to stand out.
The process of creating a Maya hammock is called sprang weaving. This interlocks the weave in a diamond shape, which has a practical function, as well as looking pretty. The crossing of threads is what makes it so durable. A single hammock should last its buyer a life-time, as they don't easily wear out.
(Caution should be taken, if you lie on them with buckles or other sharp objects on your person. Not only is this going to be uncomfortable, but you might snag the thread. That's about the only way you are going to destroy this hammock.)
So next time you're drifting off to sleep, in your Mexican hammock, throw out a quick thought for the individual who made it. Because they'd be thrilled to bits that you choose their hammock - with their design, which they personally wove for you, on a loom that they built themselves. Enjoy!