Mujeres de Maíz

In this post, we’re excited to introduce you to local collective Mujeres de Maíz from Santiago Atitlán! This small group of makers is creating some unique and gorgeous designs, some of which are going live this Sunday on our Artisan Direct page to help provide a digital platform for them, since they do not have an online sales channel at the moment. We’ve got dresses, jackets, earrings, sandals, and more to share with the digital world soon, thanks to the hard work from this collective!

Read below a short Q&A with Mari Liberali, designer behind the collective. (And hey, nice name right? 😉 )
XOXO,
Mari

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1. What does “Mujeres de Maíz” mean and what was the inspiration for that name?

The Name “Mujeres de Maíz” is based on the sacred book of the ancient Maya called Popol Vuh, which tells us that the Mayan people were created by the gods with maize. Maize (corn) is the sacred food for many populations in Central America, including Guatemala. And there are a lot of Mujeres de Maíz in Guatemala, there are many strong women here, who can teach us so many things! But, in our project, we choose to share the special work of a small group of women. 

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2. Could you tell us a little bit about your personal background and how you came to be involved with this group?

I am Mari Liberali, artist and fashion designer from Italy, and in 2017 I left the conventional fashion job to work with indigenous people and their handicrafts. I was looking for a job with purpose, I was very tired of the injustice that fashion normally promotes. So I arrived at Cojolya Association, in Guatemala, to work with the backstrap loom, in Santiago Atitlán. It was there that I learned everything about this new world, from collaboration, NGOs, and handmade textiles. I spent a year and a half as a textile and accessories designer and decided to continue my work outside the Association with different artisans, and we ended up founding the collective Mujeres de Maíz in 2018, based on original embroidery from Santiago.

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3. Who are the members of Mujeres de Maíz, where do they live, and what kind of handmade traditions do they practice? How is the group organized?

We are a group of 5 women. I am the designer and co- founder of the project along with Loida Sisay, and soon after we incorporated other artisans.
Loida is a co-founder, embroiderer, and master of embroidery. She teaches visitors traditional embroidery techniques. Chonita is an embroiderer and she coordinates and communicates with the other members. Isabel is also embroiderer and is still developing her products, with a new mixed embroidery technique that we are developing. And Maria has a community shop in original fabrics, we buy textiles from Maria and we also represent Maria by selling her unique products. The artisans all live in the community of Santiago Atitlán, on Lake Atitlán. Santiago is well known for the embroidery of birds and flowers, always represented in traditional huipiles. Our goal is to help preserve and encourage women to create their own designs and develop new forms of creation with original embroidery. Each of the women has her own style of embroidery and has started to develop unique designs for the project.

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4. How has COVID-19 affected Mujeres de Maíz, and what do you think are the next steps for the group?

Our project has practically stopped because our focus is on local sales and we depend directly on tourism. Fortunately, larger groups like Cojolya are supporting us and selling our products online. And now, we found new support in Kakaw Designs, so thank you! In the future, when we are be a little stronger and bigger, we hope to be able to send abroad through our own website and we hope that our network of artisans will also grow. There are many talented women, very good at embroidery art who have come to offer their skills, but we still cannot absorb them all. Soon, after all this over, we hope that more and more people could be interested in our market, valuing the handmade process and also the people who do this work. I think this is the future, and it is already coming. 

 

 

To learn more about this collective, please follow their journey on Instagram.

And stay tuned – this Sunday, June 29th, 2020, the products from this collective will be live on our site on our Artisan Direct page.

The evolution of Juan Carlos’ masks

When COVID-19 reached us in Guatemala and the artisan’s market where Juan Carlos has a stall suddenly closed, he started making cloth masks with materials he already had at hand. Clean used cotton corte on the outside, and a new cotton fabric on the inside. Pretty simple construction, and he started with just one size.

//Side note: From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to be profiting off of an international health crisis. So as Kakaw Designs, we are not making money on these mask sales – the $35 per 10 masks covers our costs.//

Even from the first batch, the masks were beautiful and practical, but we realized that people had different face (head?) sizes. So we then went to making two different mask sizes – Small and Large. And we learned that people were most interested in cheerful colors, so we decided to go with more vibrant cortes, and started using a variety of colorful inner lining fabric, too. So many little improvements along the way.

And then Juan Carlos figured out how to put a little wire in there for a more comfortable fit around the nose. I’ll share a little trade secret with you – it’s just crafty pipe cleaner! It does the trick.

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And then after that, we received some requests for a filter insert, and we figured out how to do that, too. I scheduled a meeting with a local now filter-expert, and we got the scoop on what material to buy, and where in town.

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That leads us to where we are now: offering two-layer cloth masks in Small and Large with a nose wire and insert opening for optional filters. We’re selling filters online too, as an optional add-on, because not everyone likes to wear them, and we just think that’s a personal choice. The masks come in bundles of 10 units – five Small and five Large each, but if you’d like something different, just let us know in the comments at check-out 🙂

<buy a bundle here>

masks packaging

maska packaging

Production for these masks has gained so much momentum that Juan Carlos is now working with three more families to make them. This is all thanks to all the support online — we truly appreciate it! During this challenging time with limited income sources, being able to work from home making these masks means a lot to us.

Brocade weaving with Doña Lidia

We received special interest from more advanced weavers for backstrap looms prepped for brocade. We knew just the right person to help us prepare these looms and demonstrate the weaving process: Doña Lidia! She is a master weaver and a friend for so many years. She and her sisters are the talented weaving teachers during our Textile Travels, too.

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While we can’t have in-person weaving lessons right now, we thought ,”why not offer some looms for weavers who want to practice brocade from home?” What makes these brocade looms different from our more simple Practice Looms are two additional rods that have separated the warp precisely in order to facilitate horizontal brocade lines to be made, as well as a wooden needle for inserting supplementary weft threads. Oh yes, and we include 8 different colors of thread for supplementary weft, too.

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After some sample weaving by Doña Lidia

We spent some time in my garden at home one morning to take these videos demonstrating some of the brocade weaving process. We are speaking in Spanish, and for absolute beginners, Doña Lidia’s movements are probably fast-paced. However, if you’re already familiar with weaving, you should be able to keep up 🙂 Take a look:

In video 1/5, Doña Lidia patiently shows how to wrap the loom with the provided maguey belt to start weaving.

 

Small brocade figures known as “mosquitos” are woven in with supplementary weft threads in these videos 2-4.

 

 

 

In the last video (5/5), Doña Lidia demonstrates inserting supplementary weft to make horizontal brocade lines using the additional rods.

 

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3 looms togetherThree unique looms with everything you need to practice brocade weaving will be available this Sunday on our site!

 

Questions? Let us know at mari@kakawdesigns.com 🙂

 

XOXO,

Mari

Is it okay to wear the blouses? Artisan Direct profile: Cobán

As time passes with continued restrictions due to COVID-19, our rural artisan partners started to ask us if we could try to sell some of their independently-created products. With all physical stores shut and no digital means to sell on their own, it’s a really tough time in rural communities.

The Artisan Direct Pop-Up on our site was the result of these requests. This past Sunday, we started with a small listing of four blouses made by the weavers in San Juan Chamelco, Cobán. They are each handwoven, new, and so beautiful. But don’t worry, this is just the beginning – the shipment from this group included almost 50 pieces 😬

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With some of the weavers

While we will slowly be featuring other artisan groups, this Sunday’s web update will focus on handwoven blouses and dresses from this same group. (Updates are planned to go live every Sunday!)

I received a beautiful conscientious question about these pieces, which was “Is it okay to wear the blouses?” — now, if you’re not familiar with some of the tensions that exist in Guatemala related to non-Maya people wearing handwoven huipiles, this might sound like a ridiculous question. It’s a blouse. Of course it’s made to be worn.

And in this case, yes, these blouses are made and sold to be worn by anyone who would like to support the weavers. This is why:

  • The blouses made for sale by the organized group of weavers.
  • The weavers directly benefit from the sale of these items. They set their prices as a group.
  • The pieces are all new, and the cooperative keeps track of who wove which one, meaning that the original weaver is known and that the process is transparent.

With other textiles, this may not be the case because:

  • With used textiles, it can become very difficult or even impossible to pinpoint who made the piece, and how much that original weaver received for the sale of the piece.
  • Many backstrap-woven pieces, especially those with rich brocade, are made for weavers’ personal use or for a family member. They are not usually meant to become commercial items, but often weavers do decide to sell pieces for personal reasons, whether that be for wardrobe preferences or immediate need for cash. The worry is that textile middlemen may take advantage of emergency situations in rural communities, and not compensate the weavers adequately for the sale of used textiles.
  • There is a surge in products that feature Maya weaving symbols, but in print and other techniques that do not benefit weavers. These products are troublesome as there is no benefit to the weaving communities.

 

I really appreciated the question so much. I hope this clears up the complicated topic a little bit. It’s a difficult area to maneuver, and asking these questions is the first step.

 

The Weavers in Cobán

The weaving group in Cobán is comprised of 30+ weavers from a number of smaller communities around the city. They specialize in beautiful flowy cotton blouses in a variety of different weaves, with picbil being the most delicate and labor-intensive. Only a handful of master weavers from the group is able to perform this gorgeous weave.

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picbil loom weaving 2 web

The delicate picbil weave, traditionally using white on white for an elegant blouse. One huipil of three panels takes over a month of weave from start to finish, and in colder seasons the process is elongated as los temperatures make the threads stick together, making weaving very challenging.

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Backstrap weaving

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Herlinda weaves with concentration

Picbil loom

They’re starting to work with natural dyes from local plant sources, which is really exciting! Still more testing needs to be done to make sure colors are stable and replicable within reason.

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Stay tuned for this Sunday’s store update on our Artisan Direct Pop-up page for the beautiful creations from these talented weavers.

How to weave on our Practice Backstrap Loom

Looking to learn a new crafty skill while at home these days? We’ve got the thing for you, then: learn how to weave on a simple backstrap loom.

These looms have been prepped with naturally-dyed cotton warp and weft by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán. The design is already so pretty, there’s no need for complicated weaves – the most simple weave will make a beautiful wall-hanging with all the tools still attached.

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<Find our Practice Backstrap Loom Kit online>

To start, these are the contents of each kit. We currently have three naturally-dyed color variants available.

What's in a kit

And these are the parts of the simple backstrap loom:

Parts of a loomYou’ll see droplets of water in the above picture because I decided to starch the warp and iron before weaving. After the starching, I spent some time to separate the threads. After that, though, it keeps the fibers more neat and avoids fuzziness and clumping. It’s up to you if you would like to starch, it is an optional step.

Here are some simple videos filmed at home, following COVID-19 restrictions so not at all professional, but I figured better to just to it. I hope they are somewhat helpful and can get you started on your first backstrap loom.

To start, this one explains the parts of the loom:

 

See how I’ve attached the loom to a pole on my terrace in the following video. It should be attached higher than where you will sit – whether that’s in a chair or on the ground directly.

 

Once you’ve got your loom in place, you’re ready to start weaving:

 

For this simple loom, there are only two steps (yay!). They are demonstrated separately in the following two videos.

Learn Step 1, which is pulling the heddle and inserting the weft from right to left:

To check from the side if you’ve lifted the heddle or rod correctly, you can take a look like in the below picture. In the first picture, you can see that it’s not “right” – there are some threads that are going from above the rod to below the sword. So it’s INCORRECT:

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But in this one below, you can see that the sword is inserted neatly without messy threads, so you know it’s been done CORRECTLY:

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And then Step 2, using the shed rod and inserting the weft from left to right:

The rest is just repetition. Step 1, Step 2, Step 1, Step 2… until you’ve reached the point in the loom where it becomes difficult to pull up the heddle. I would suggest stopping there, and leaving all the tools attached to the loom, and hanging the piece on your wall as home decor. You’ll be able to tell your friends and family that you wove it, and hopefully those around you will also gain appreciation for the handwoven world.

Remember that it’s ok to make mistakes! You can always retrace your steps, cut the weft (NOT THE WARP), or my personal preference: just move on. It’s all part of the process, and you should be able to see in your work how you are improving. It’s kind of fun to remember how you once made simple mistakes – and learned from them.

So I must admit, I’ve never tried to explain the steps of backstrap weaving digitally like this. I’m not an expert. You likely have some questions. Please feel free to ask questions below in the comments so others can benefit from them too, or if you’d rather ask privately, shoot me an email at mari@kakawdesigns.com.

Happy weaving at home! Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

 

XOXO,

Mari

The Custom Design Process

It’s been a fulfilling process for me personally to work as a facilitator for custom orders, connecting creatives abroad and local artisans this way. I asked Rita from Wild Shade Designs to write a little about the process of working with me to provide the client’s perspective. Read on below to see what she said.

These orders are helpful in collectively increasing work for our artisan partners. But more than that, they also get to try new design concepts, learning, growing, and creating new paths in a competitive artisanmade industry.

Right now with the COVID-19 situation, our artisan partners don’t have the normal access to sales – whether that be a small coop storefront, a stall at the artisan market, or orders for other local stores. These sales are all paused, until further notice. So custom orders are especially helpful at the moment, as we are also experiencing challenges as a small business, and worry about keeping steady production for our artisan partners.

If you feel inspired to create something in collaboration with us, please shoot me an email at mari@kakawdesigns.com to get the conversation started.

XOXO,

Mari


Review of the custom design process by Rita:

Designing my own textile and having it produced into products was something I wanted to do for a long time, but it seemed like something that would be cost prohibitive for a small maker like myself.  I sell naturally dyed scarves, and I wanted to try something new and more diverse to grow my shop, but I was concerned that the number of units required to produce a custom product would make it impossible for me.  After a lot of back and forth in my mind, I sketched out a design and e-mailed it to Mari at Kakaw Designs.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was surprised to find the minimum order was very reasonable and not an issue.  I am not a professional designer, so I was also a bit concerned that my sketches wouldn’t be adequate, but the sketches turned out to be just fine for the process.

I was also concerned that producing custom products in another country without being on the ground there would be almost impossible, but it is actually quite easy.  I send the design to Mari, and she handles the rest.  She communicates with the weavers and leatherworkers, gets the products packaged and shipped, and does all the legwork for you.  The process is much easier than I had imagined in the beginning, and it is truly magical to carry something made by talented artisans using your design!

My first design was pretty simple, so I wanted to try something a bit more complex for the next order.  I created a sketch and sent it to Mari, who then consulted the weaving cooperative to get feedback on the design.  After consulting the weavers, we adjusted the design to better fit the limitations of the dying and weaving process.  The process requires flexibility and exchange of ideas, and I really feel it is a collaborative process between designer and artisan.  In my mind, that makes the textile even more special.

 

Fish tote at park sketch

I am so glad I started this process with Kakaw Designs.  The custom design process has allowed me to expand my micro-business and develop an outlet for creative expression I would not have had otherwise.  In addition to the scarves and bags we have previously worked on, I am now working with Mari to expand into custom blouses as well.  If you’ve been thinking about the custom order process, but haven’t quite made up your mind, I recommend you give it a try.  It’s amazing fun to create your own custom designs, and once you get started, you realize just how infinite the possibilities are!

-Rita, Wild Shade Designs

Fish tote at park sketch 2

Xibalba Joyas: elevating jade through design

Laura Spillari, owner and founder of Xibalba Joyas, is one of the most positive, collaborative, and design-filled people in town. It has been an absolute pleasure to have our products included in her gorgeous storefront at the center of town. Unfortunately, the store is shut down at the moment due to COVID-19 restrictions. That’s why we took this opportunity to showcase our products together digitally. Find our combos featuring one Kakaw Designs item and one Xibalba Joyas item together in our One of a Kinds page  starting tomorrow, Sunday, April 5th.

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Naturally, I (Mari) asked her to share a little bit so that you can get to know her and her jewelry designs. The following questions were answered by Laura herself:

 

1. You have one of the most beautiful stores around town. Can you tell us when you started Xibalba, and the inspiration behind your brand and store?

Thank you so much!

Xibalba was born in 2012. The idea was to recover the cultural value of jade and present it through design-oriented jewelry. Guatemala is a country where ancestral knowledge exists, materials and handwork come together to maintain our cultural legacy alive.

We started in a petit and cozy space and a couple of years ago, we moved to our current location, a beautiful colonial house in the center of Antigua. We couldn’t be more in love with the location! Now, we not only create jewelry but we have partnered with several artisans and designers who present other products such as textiles, leather goods, decor objects, and many other interesting little things.

The team consists of 5 collaborators and we contribute to around 125 artisans directly or indirectly in different regions of Guatemala.

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2. Do you think you have always been an artist, since you were little? When do you think you came to realize this?

I’ve always considered myself a creative person. I grew up in a house where everything was made or prepared by us, whether it was clothing, planting, or plumbing… so I kinda learned how things could “be done.”

I was surrounded by elements such as textiles, ceramics, basket weaving, among other handmade traditions. Walking on cobble stones and going to Mayan sites on vacations… this has been with no doubt a part of my identity and has provided great inspiration for what I do.

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3. One of the things I love about your store is the incorporation of innovative designs on traditional materials, like jade and silver. Can you share a little bit about traditional use of those materials, historically-speaking?

Guatemala has a unique variety of jade. It is formed here because of the geographical location and the geological history.

For the Maya, our ancestors, jade was the most valuable material. They thought of it as a gift left here for us, which brought all the strength from underneath the earth and was able to take our thoughts and prayers to heaven. Jade was carved by master artisans who made from large stelas to miniature mosaic masks, among other incredible ornaments.

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4. We’ve talked about doing an online collaboration before, but we finally decided to go through with it now because of the COVID-19 restrictions in Guatemala. What are the effects for your business, and what can people do to support you and other small businesses working with artisans right now in Guatemala?

Indeed it  is a situation that has affected us all. However, we are confident that together we will rise!

It has been difficult to find new paths for our partner artisans since our business depends on tourism completely. Our number one priority is to generate an income for our artisan partners, so they can support their families.

The best way to help is just by being conscientious. Learn about what you buy, where you shop, support handmade products with a value chain behind them.

Today, we make a call to a world wide community: let’s all find ways to help each other, from our homes… by providing opportunities however possible.

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Why Ceramics?

Maybe you’ve noticed. We started working with a new cooperative, new medium, not too long ago: hand-turned and hand-painted stoneware ceramics.

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Our Ikat Donburi Bowl and Ikat Tumbler on display at Xilabla Joyas

At first it was for completely selfish reasons. To be honest, this is how most of the product designs come about. For entirely selfish reasons – because I got a new computer, and want a laptop sleeve. Or I got a scooter, and want a new backpack (it’s too hard with a shoulder bag). Or it’s getting chilly, and I want a thick and cozy shawl. The list goes on and on.

For our ceramics, I felt this desire for a new product when I was working on my master’s in Europe. I was getting pretty used to the coffee (espresso) culture in Austria, but I still missed having cozy and large vessels for tea. That’s how I grew up in Japan, after all – tea all day. (Side note: I remember the first day of class in Austria, where education was surprisingly traditional, the professor said that there would be one break, or sometimes no break at all, for a 3-hour meeting. But then he added something like, “Unless you need a coffee – in that case, feel free to leave and take a coffee break whenever you need.” They sure love their coffee.)

And at the time, I was sad to not be able to work in-person with our artisan partners while away. I felt like I wasn’t being as creative as I usually was. And I just wasn’t feeling all that cozy, living in a sterile apartment with all white walls, everything electric, no garden, and for me, no character.

So even though I was thousands of miles away from Guatemala, and months away from spending summer here, I did the most reasonable thing in order for me to obtain some ceramic pieces I wanted in Europe. I designed them to be made in Guatemala. 🤷🏻‍♀️

It took several tries to get each design right. We now have four different ceramic items we are making in partnership with a cooperative at Lake Atitlán. They have been received well in the Antigua community, and have been selling well at the stores here. It has been a very interesting process to work with the new medium.

ceramic capucchino sets

Prototype Cappuccino Sets in the making at Lake Atitlán

One thing I love about working with ceramics is the ability to incorporate textile designs in a non-textile way. Something about this departure is freeing. With woven designs, I find myself worrying about using traditional Maya patterns, or even the opposite – introducing designs that are somehow inspired by all the different traditions from around the world that I have been exposed to. My conclusion is that above all, I believe it’s important for our artisan partners to make a living. Traditions will only continue now if they can be a source of income for rural families. But still, there are other ethical concerns whirling in the back of my head. And with ceramics, we’re actually working entirely with non-indigenous techniques to begin with, and so I see no conflict with trying something new. New shapes. New sizes. New patterns. New colors.

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Our Cappuccino Set features simple and calming running stitches in an indigo shade

With that said, I do try to stay away from designs that are strictly Maya. I don’t want to copy village patterns. So you won’t see any of the beautiful brocade patterns found here on the stoneware. What I wanted to show was more of a global common thread of textile traditions. Thus, the simple ikat patterns in indigo, and the simple running stitches, also in indigo. We tried other colors, but settled on my favorite, the calming navy blue. What’s more fitting than the magical indigo hue, the strongest of the natural dyes, found all over the world in textile traditions?

Anyway, thank you for reading. If you’d like, here are the links to take a look at our ceramic bundles online:

Ceramic Bundle with Tumblers

Ceramic Bundle with Cappuccino Sets

XOXO,

Mari

 

Guatemala Update: on the virus and traveling

Well, it’s been quite some time since writing here on the blog. Here’s an update on our recent happenings.

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COVID-19 has hit Guatemala. And on the day the very first positive virus test result was found, we were meant to start our Textile Travels. What a timing, huh? While we had a few cancellations, there were two participants who were already in the country, along with my mom. We had a good talk together, and we decided to continue with our itinerary to Lake Atitlán. I’m glad we did, as we had a wonderful time there.

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But on the day we were scheduled to come back to Antigua, it became more dire to do so, and quickly, because a public transport ban had been announced the night before. While I didn’t think that our private minivan would fall under this category, I was wrong – something about the licensing for transport of that size fits under the same category as the big refurbished school buses we like to call Chicken Buses. At that point, we did decide to cancel the rest of the trip, and hang out in Antigua.

I’d just like to put it out there that although these measures have been strict and drastic (we now have a shelter-in-place curfew at 4pm), I really can’t complain. I think these are good steps for trying to control the virus. And perhaps more than that, these are good measures for controlling the panic that can arise, especially in rural communities. For me personally, the potential chaos arising as well as the antagonizing of foreigners (because COVID-19 is coming from outside the country), have been more worrisome, especially when responsible for a small group of foreigners. Misinformation and at times flat out lies can spread as fast as the virus itself in areas where access to reliable information and the education to be able to weed through such rumors are lacking.

But, we made it. Everything went fine. We cancelled two of our workshops that were planned in surrounding areas of Antigua, and the whole portion going to Cobán. That’s okay. We still had a great trip, an adventure hopefully never to be repeated, but still a pleasant adventure together. What we couldn’t fit in were textile markets – unfortunately, they had been shut down by the day we were meant to rummage through vintage collections of handmade beauties. Well, there’s something left for next time, then. We always have to leave something for next time. Right?

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I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy wherever they are. All the internationals from our travels have gone home now. I am still here in Guatemala, hanging out at home with Berry. It’s going to be a challenging time for small businesses and local artisans, so I’ll be pushing online sales, starting with a One of a Kind Sale on our website this Sunday, March 29th.

 

XOXO,

Mari

 

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