In this week’s episode, LaChaun speaks with Maud Lerayer. Maud is the founder of Behind The Hill, a textile company based in Brooklyn, New York. Behind The Hill creates unique and contemporary pieces for home decor using a variety of heirloom cotton which grows wild in shades of pink, terra-cotta, green, beige, and white in Mexico and Guatemala. They are partnered with three communities of Indigenous people in Central America who still grow, spin, and weave color-grown cotton, the same way it has been done for centuries. They work directly with their artisan partners, to strive to keep ancient traditions alive while working hand in hand with the weavers.
Sarah Resnick: I’m Sarah Resnick.
LaChaun Moore: And I’m LaChaun Moore.
Sarah Resnick: And we are the hosts of the Weave Podcast, a project of the weaving yarn shop, GIST Yarn & Fiber.
LaChaun Moore: Hello. Hi, everyone. In this week’s episode, I’m speaking with Maud, the founder of Behind the Hill, a textile company based in Brooklyn, New York. Behind the Hill creates unique and contemporary pieces for home décor using a variety of heirloom cotton which grows wild in shades of pink, terracotta, green, beige, and white, in Mexico and Guatemala. They are partnered with three communities of Indigenous people in Central America who still grow, spin, and weave color-grown cotton the same way it’s been done for centuries.
They work directly with their artisan partners in order to strive to keep ancient traditions alive while working hand in hand with the weavers. I’m so excited, intrigued, and fascinated by the fibers you work with. Thank you for joining us today, Maud.
Maud Lerayer: Hi. Thank you so much for having me and for the invitation.
LaChaun Moore: Can you start out by telling us about your background and where you’re from?
Maud Lerayer: Sure. So, I was born and raised in France. I studied linguistics and psychology and things like that, and then I moved to Mexico in 2003 to finish a master’s in linguistics, and I was supposed to stay nine months. I stayed nine years in Mexico City and then I moved to New York in 2012 and I’ve been living in Brooklyn since then.
LaChaun Moore: And how did you make that transition to working and starting Behind the Hill?
Maud Lerayer: Yeah, so I studied linguistics and for me, everything makes sense. The path I took makes sense, but it’s… Yeah, I usually have to explain my choices. So, yeah, so when I moved to Mexico, I was 22, something like that, and I wanted to work for… I wanted to be a French teacher I think in Mexico, to teach French to foreigners, so that was my first idea, and I wanted to also work in culture. So, culture… French culture in Latin America, or you know, like working with movies, and culture and art in foreign countries.
So, my first job in Mexico was French teacher for mostly L’Oréal, so the French company, and I was doing marketing a bit with them, as well, and so they asked… My students asked me if I wanted to work for their marketing agency in Mexico. So, I started to work in Mexico, and I loved it, and I stayed for nine years, and then I… So, when I was living in Mexico, I was traveling a lot during the weekends and I would go to remote communities, and I was in touch with beautiful crafts and textiles from Mexico during the nine years I lived there, but I never really did anything to work with artisans. I was really focused on I guess starting my work life, like in a company.
But then I moved to New York and I kept working in marketing for big companies while in the transition. It’s actually a real year of transition that happened in 2013 and ’14. I arrived in New York. I was married, and I divorced in 2013, so I mean… I was in my early thirties and I was by myself in New York. I found myself in winter in New York after spending nine years in Mexico. Not speaking English, knowing few people, and I just was like, “Okay, so what do I want to do? Do I want to stay? What do I love? What do I know?”
And I just started to watch a lot of documentaries, reading books about… more and more, I would say about sustainability, about how to do something better, and because I was working, so in that marketing agency I was in Mexico City, and even later in New York, I was working for big companies, like The Coca-Cola Company, Mercedes Benz, L’Oréal, Sony, all those big brands. I felt I was completely disconnected with what I really love the most, which is Indigenous cultures. That’s really something I have been… That has followed me my whole life, I would say.
But you know, I kind of forgot during my twenties. Yeah, I wanted to work for big corporations. I don’t know. I just wanted to learn, probably. I don’t know. That’s the path I chose at some point. But I felt disconnected. Yeah, in 2013, I felt disconnected, and I wanted to go back to what I really love, which is learning from Indigenous cultures. And at that time, so in New York I was working in a company that I really didn’t share their values with, but the good thing is that I was in charge of Latin American markets, so I would travel there a lot, to Latin America, and so I would go to… I was traveling so much, I was 50% of the time traveling to Latin America, so I was spending a week of meetings in… I don’t know, Argentina, or Colombia, Mexico, Peru, but I would always stay during the weekend, just to visit by myself, to go meet people in the Andes, or to go meet people just in Lima, Peru, and sit with the people who make shoes in Lima.
You know, I was really doing that over the weekend because I had no… The weather was better than in New York, and because I usually… Yeah, that’s what I love. So, I would extend my working trips and I just… I would come back to New York and think, “Oh, I’m good at that. I’m good at connecting, finding the right people to do the things that nobody really knows about in New York, and I think I could connect ancestral processes with beautiful stores in New York.” And I think that’s how it started, that idea of working with Indigenous artisans that I have been in touch with really since over 15 years now from my experience in Mexico and all my travels in Latin America.
And because most of the time I travel by myself, I really take the time to sit with… You know, if I find someone working on something somewhere, in a remote workshop somewhere in a small village in let’s say Mexico, I would go there, ask questions, usually I’m invited for a meal, and next thing you know, I’m part of the family. So, yeah, I don’t know. That’s how it started. So, it’s a bit maybe confusing for most people, but for me just one thing led to another and now I’m really happy I did do the transition between the marketing world and big corporations and what I’m doing at the moment.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah, and I mean, I’ve had a few conversations with people who have fiber-based businesses and a lot of their stories are very similar to yours, where they were working in corporate America, or just with a large corporation, and they didn’t feel as if the work that they were doing was really, truly their passion, and then they sort of found themselves connecting with textiles and following that journey, and the result was creating really successful businesses that were also sustainable.
And I’m really curious to talk specifically about the products that you produce at Behind the Hill, but also the heirloom cotton varieties that you use in your weavings. So, pink, terracotta, green, beige, and white, a lot of people don’t know about naturally-colored cotton, and naturally-colored pink cotton is so rare, and the colors that I see of your goods are so beautiful, so I’m really curious if you can talk about naturally-colored cotton specifically and the communities, the Indigenous communities that they come from.
Maud Lerayer: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you for asking that question, because I’m so… Nobody really understands what I do sometimes and I’m like, “No, it’s not natural dyes. It’s not dyed at all. It’s just the way the cotton grows.” And so, there are people even in my family sometimes, they’re like, “Oh, okay.” After a few years, when I think it’s clear enough, but no, so few people know about that type of cotton.
Basically, that cotton has been around forever. I mean, for generations and generations in Latin America, in a few villages in Guatemala and Mexico, where really it was born. This type of cotton has existed forever and has been used by Indigenous weavers to add some details to their clothing. So, the thing with that cotton, it has… There are different philosophies around why it has disappeared and why it has not been as used as the white cotton. But from what I’ve read, the Spaniards, when they arrived in Central America, they said that the white cotton was more pure, and so that’s what… That’s the kind of cotton that had to be cultivated and worked by the Indigenous communities, so they stopped working the brown cotton.
And also, when I was talking with the artisans I work with, they were telling me that white cotton has long fibers, so it’s easier to spin and to weave, and the brown cotton, when I say brown cotton, it’s a bit more generic because then it’s brown, but it’s also… It can be green and pink, but it’s still the same. I mean, we usually talk about white and brown cotton. And then there are different shades of that brown that can be pink, as well. And the brown cotton has shorter fibers, which makes it a bit more difficult to spin and to weave, so that also might be why it has not been cultivated as much as the white cotton.
So, how did I know about the brown cotton is just traveling, just really… Well, it was very, very early on when I was… I think I was… Behind the Hill was just still an idea, was just the very beginning of Behind the Hill, I spent two weeks in Guatemala by myself. I lived with a family in the highlands of Guatemala. And then I was reading about specific weavings from specific villages, and I just saw an amazing piece that was woven with that beautiful brown color and indigo. And I never thought the cotton was… You know, I thought it was dyed, but I read the name of that piece and it was like it was written coyuchi… No, sorry, ixcaco. Coyuchi’s in Mexico. Ixcaco and indigo. And I was like, “What is ixcaco?” And so, I basically… I was on my phone in the evening in my hotel room and I just thought, “Okay, I have to go and try that ixcaco thing. I don’t know what that is.” And it happened to be in a beautiful village by the shore of Lake Atitlán.
So, that was not on my way for that trip, but I decided to go the day after. And so, I arrived in that village called San Juan Atitlán, so on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and I arrived in the morning, and I decided to hire a tuk-tuk, you know, those little motorcycles, for a few hours, and I said to the guy, “Okay, you have to find for me, help me find pieces of textile made of something called ixcaco. Do you know ixcaco?” And he said, “Oh, no. I don’t know ixcaco.” So, I Googled, I showed him a picture, and he said, “Oh yeah, of course. Yeah, yeah. My grandma knows that, so let’s go to my grandma’s.”
And so, that’s how it started really, and then I said, “Okay,” the grandma I think didn’t really have anything to show me, but so then I said, “Okay, are there cooperatives of artisans?” You know, weavers in the village, and we went to all of them. So, that’s how I started to work with that material that I think is amazing and nobody was really interested in that material in… I mean, I don’t know any other project other than mine really doing some work with that cotton from Central America.
So, first, when I started Behind the Hill, I had a few products with a few blankets with that cotton, usually mixed with indigo as well, and sometimes other flowers and natural dyes, and I had also other types of objects, like I had… Well, wood, and carved wood, and things like that. But all the products, the story I was the most interested in, because it was so different, was the stories and the products with the naturally-colored cotton, that ixcaco from Guatemala, and so I decided quite early on, like six months after I started Behind the Hill, I would say, I started to work only with naturally-colored cotton, and to really focus on that material that is so unique.
And then I became… I’m quite a nerd about it and now I’m… So, I work with a group of Mayan Tz’utujil, so the Tz’utujil is a… It’s a subcategory of the Mayan category in Guatemala, so it’s a very specific Mayan language and Mayan culture in Guatemala, so I work with them, and I also expanded and now I work with other ethnical groups in Mexico, which are the Amusgo people from Guerrero, and Mixtec people from Oaxaca. And so, I work with different villages who all grow the naturally-colored cotton, which comes in different colors, so brown, and the brown can be red-brown, or a very light brown, or can be green, it can be pink in Guatemala, as well, so that was a very beautiful surprise.
Actually, I visited, it was 2019, in February. I visited Guatemala. I visited the group of artisans I work with. And I arrived and they said to me, “Oh, Maud, we have a problem, because the beige cotton, the light brown cotton, this year didn’t really grow beige.” I was like, “What? What do you mean? How is that possible?” And they said, “No, it’s pink.” I was like, “What? Show me. Show me now!” And it was an amazing blush pink when it was so… Everyone wanted blush for everything. You could see blush pink in every product on the market. I was like, “Okay, keep it all for me. I want the whole harvest about that beautiful pink.” And it’s really when I think I really knew I really wanted to work all naturally-colored cotton, because I think it’s absolutely so fascinating to create products based on harvests rather than on trends. You know, I mean I didn’t decide to make pink products because it was trendy to make pink products. I just like… It’s what it was. It’s just what the harvest gave me.
Well, I did the same product, but with that cotton that was harvested, which I think it’s amazing. It’s fascinating. So, it’s challenging, as well, of course, because if you don’t… It would be easier for a designer to know exactly the color that you could use, but no, it’s changing, and I think it’s fascinating.
LaChaun Moore: That’s such an amazing journey and I’ve extracted so many really key parts of it. I think one part is just… It’s amazing to think about designing based on the harvest, right? Designing based on what you have as opposed to forcing these materials to exist as something else by manipulating them.
Maud Lerayer: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And you know, again, I’m not a designer. So, it makes sense for me, as well. I mean, now I guess I am a designer, because that’s what I do, right? But I don’t have that background, and so for me, it’s not that much of a problem to… I don’t feel limited. I feel just like I just take what it is, and I’m amazed so far by the process, and so for instance, this season, so I actually… I will receive the new… I have already the samples, but I’m receiving the beginning of the new collection with the last harvest this week, so it’s… But I already saw the colors, and it’s unbelievable. The green from Guatemala this year is almost mint, which is… I mean, so I’m making a blanket, so this collection that is gonna be released next month in March, it’s gonna be really no design. It’s just like the color of the cotton. I want the cotton to be the hero and I will try to make it simple, so people can understand what it is.
So, this green cotton is… That green blanket is just green, and it’s almost mint, so it’s perfect for spring. I think it’s so pretty and there is also a pink, so there is green, there is pink, there is white, there is like a between pink and brown. I don’t know. It’s a very strange color that is amazing too, and I decided to not mix it with any other colors, so people understand, and they are gonna come with a seed of cotton, so people can even… You can buy a green blanket and it will come with a seed of cotton, so you can plant in the soil your seed and grow your own cotton tree from the same cotton of your blanket, you know what I mean?
So, anyway, yeah, it’s just like it’s a beautiful process, and I love to share. Textile for me, and that’s what I think is very fascinating, is textile is about tradition. It’s about… Yeah, history of a place, and geography, and it’s about if it’s thicker, it’s usually if the cotton is spun thicker in a place in Guatemala or in Mexico, it’s because it’s more in the highlands, so it tells you about geography of the village, of the place. It tells you about… For instance, the blankets I work with, the blankets I make, I can usually say if the weaver is a young woman or like a stronger woman with experience, because it’s gonna be tighter. And if it’s a young, like I don’t know, 25-year-old small weaver, I can tell because it’s gonna be a bit more loose. You know what I mean? It’s fascinating to see-
LaChaun Moore: Sort of the environmental factors.
Maud Lerayer: Yes. Exactly. And so, I’m very fascinated by the color of the cotton that changes every season almost. Yeah.
LaChaun Moore: And that’s what I’m so curious about, because as you mentioned, it was beige, or the cotton that they thought was going to be beige turned out to be more of a pink, and now you have this mint green. Do you know much about the agricultural aspects of it and what causes the changes in the cotton?
Maud Lerayer: So, sometimes it’s a little bit hard for me to have the exact right information from the artisans, just because for them, it’s very natural I think, and it has been like that forever, so it’s hard for them to explain exactly. I would have to spend time in the fields, and I hope I can do that someday, and just be doing my research myself and go to the fields. But from what I’ve been told, it really depends on the environment, the climate, the weather. So, if it’s too rainy, the cotton is gonna be a bit different. You know, it’s like… Let’s say it’s like an apple on the tree, right? An apple or any fruit. If the sun goes in on a part of the fruit, it’s gonna be maybe more yellow, and on the other side, it’s gonna be more red, or more green. It doesn’t have the same color always on the food, so it’s a bit the same on the cotton.
And so, for instance, I have two kind of pinks this season, because from one flower they will split. They will keep on one side the light pink and on the other side the dark pink. So, this is gonna make two colors from one flower.
LaChaun Moore: Wow.
Maud Lerayer: You see? And then if there is… Also, it depends on the soil, so I like to, because I’m French, I like to compare my cotton to the grapes to make the wine. So, you can grow some… What can I say? Like a cabernet, or any grapes in Bordeaux, in France, and it’s the same grape in Oregon, but it’s not gonna be the same wine. It’s not gonna be the same taste. Because the weather is different, the soil is different, the treatment is different. So, it’s the same grape, but it’s not the same environment, so it’s not the same taste.
And it’s the same for the cotton. If you grow the same seed next to the ocean, it’s not gonna be the same color exactly if it’s a bit more in the highland with more wind, more rain. So, that’s how I understand it from different sources, so basically they tell me what they see, what they observe, but they don’t really tell me exactly the science behind it.
LaChaun Moore: Wow. That’s so fascinating. It’s just so fascinating and so interesting. I mean, I could go on for years and days with questions, but one of the things that I wanted to ask you about that’s kind of related to that is I know that through Behind the Hill, you also do curated travels, where you introduce people to the artisans and your practice. Can you talk about that, as well?
Maud Lerayer: Yes. Sure. So, again, because I love to share those stories, and also my goal is to be as transparent as possible with my customers. I don’t want to keep the artisans just for me or it’s not about that. I really… The mission I think of Behind the Hill is really to share what Indigenous cultures have been working on for centuries. So, I started those trips in Guatemala in 2017. Really, when I started Behind the Hill, the trip was like in the next couple of months, because I feel so confident in Latin America, because I know very well, it’s easy for me to organize that kind of trip. And you know, people are very interested, and sometimes it’s not easy to… You can be interested in weaving, or in naturally-colored cotton, but you don’t really know how to navigate in Guatemala.
So, I facilitate that. Usually in the morning we have an activity, so we meet weavers, we meet artisans from there. It can be artisans from… You know, they work wood, and they work ceramics, and they work different medium, but also of course we visit the artisans I work with, and in the afternoon it’s more free so we can… I always have plans, but people can do a bit more of their own visits. Because we are all grown ups and nobody really wants to be like for a full week with a full group, so I try to have a good balance of independence and cool activities.
And yeah, so while with COVID, of course, everything stopped. The last trip was supposed to be in March 2020, so my suitcase was ready. I was ready to go. My boarding pass in hand and I just didn’t go that day. March 16th. And it’s fine. Soon, I hope we are gonna resume those trips, and I wanted to actually start also in fall, 2020, to visit the artisans I work with in Mexico, because now I work with more and more villages in Mexico, and it’s in the southern part of the country, on the coast of Oaxaca, on the Pacific coast, so it’s heaven there. It’s just sunny all year long, it’s beautiful, you eat amazing foods, and you get to visit amazing artisans who are Indigenous people. And I know them very well. I have a two-year-old child. My daughter is two years old. When she was three months old, I traveled pretty much everywhere with her in Guatemala, in remote villages in Mexico, and yeah, first time she saw a chicken was the chicken was playing… Well, she was playing with the chicken, basically. Sitting on the ground when I was working with the weavers.
So, I don’t know, I really know very well, and I think for me it’s like it’s part of a mission to just share that information with people, so yeah, they are fun. Usually, people who travel with me are makers, or artists, or they… A few people are weavers, as well. But you know, different painters, and yeah, so it’s really beautiful. Mostly women, as well. And mostly from New York. Yeah. It’s really beautiful. I love that part of the project. It’s really something for me that has helped me grow, as well, as a… Because to share what you love the most is very empowering. Sorry, it’s a difficult word to say for a French speaker. Empowering. But yeah, I love to organize trips for people.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. And did you have any new projects that you’re working on that you wanted to share with our listeners?
Maud Lerayer: So, at the moment I have been in between two harvests, which means that I can’t really keep communicating what I was doing last year on the designs and everything, because the color is gonna be different this season. So, I have been working slowly the beginning of the year, January, February, on the… I mean, not slowly actually, but I didn’t really communicate anything, but yeah, I kind of relaunch Behind the Hill in March, so by relaunch it’s more… Let’s say that 2020 was very difficult for everyone. Okay, that’s no secret. But also, it allowed me, and it gave me some time to reflect really on what I want to keep, what I don’t want to keep, what I want to reinforce, and I think the story behind what I’m doing is very important and I didn’t really take the time before to share… Well, except during the trips. But otherwise, I’m by myself, and I work with a lot of stores now in the U.S.
I don’t… I mean, you see. I speak English, but I still sometimes look for my words, and so it’s not natural for me to send a newsletter in English, and to share my story in English is not… This is a difficult exercise for me, for instance. And to do my website. So, it’s slow for me to… English is my third language and to have a company in a language that is not your own is difficult. So, it took me some time, but I know for sure since 2020, and since that time I had to reflect, that I really want to do more content and share more about what I do, and I want to… I don’t want to fulfill orders every day, because that’s what I was doing, like fulfilling order, fulfilling orders.
And now I also want to be more strategic. So, I want to still fulfill orders, of course, but I also want to take some time to be more strategic and to share more about that naturally-colored cotton, and so that’s why also I’m very grateful you reached out, because I’m always happy to share my story and to share moreover than my story the heritage of the artisans I work with.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. And where can people go on social media to follow your work?
Maud Lerayer: So, mostly Instagram, so it’s @behindthehill_, and while I have a website, I’m really working now on the content, so about the cotton, what it is to work in harmony with nature, and we are a very, very sustainable company, so zero waste policy, very… I really try to… I partner with brands in the U.S. that help me recycle my material, like [inaudible 0:34:48.9], things like that, so all of this information is gonna be on the website in a few weeks, like in the next two weeks also, so yeah, information, Instagram. Yeah, that’s the main thing.
LaChaun Moore: Wonderful. So, before you go, we have one question that we ask everyone that joins the podcast, and that is do you have any advice or words of wisdom to share with weavers and textile enthusiasts?
Maud Lerayer: Oh. Well, you know, I’m not a weaver myself, so I can’t have really a word of wisdom, but I would say that to follow a passion I think is the main, the most beautiful thing. Whatever the outcome is. Yeah, to follow a passion and to follow the gut and to think if… I do believe in something and it has changed my life, to go for it rather than to stay stuck in something I was not very comfortable with, like to work for a company I was not very proud of. I’m proud of what I’m doing at the moment and I followed my passion, I think. Yeah.
LaChaun Moore: Beautiful. Thank you so much.
Maud Lerayer: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
LaChaun Moore: That’s a wrap. If you’re interested in seeing images of the beautiful Indigenous cottons mentioned in this episode or to read a full transcript of this week’s episode, you can find links in the show notes at www.gistyarn.com/episode-136. Thank you for tuning into this week’s episode. Until next time, happy weaving!
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