Online backstrap weaving class with Doña Lidia

Can you believe it? Even from a small town in Guatemala, we figured out how to host online weaving classes. I might be even more impressed than you are 😆

I guess I had set my expectations pretty low, knowing Guatemala and all its quirks. But hey, our trial run went really well and we are excited to launch what we hope will become a series of weaving classes with Doña Lidia over Zoom!

The first class will be held on Saturday, October 10th, from 9-10am Guatemala time. We hope that you’ll join us!

Sign up with only $15, a special introductory price. After the hour-long class, we will hold a live bazaar with handwoven pieces being sold by Doña Lidia and her family.

Custom embroidery with Mujeres de Maíz

We are absolutely in love with the bird embroidery talent over at Mujeres de Maíz from Santiago Atitlán. We had a few special custom orders of embroidered pieces for very special occasions – one for a newborn joining a family, another for an anniversary, and another for a birthday. Take a look at how these sketches have come to embroidered life!

We found these personalized orders to be so sweet, and we think this would be a great option for the holidays also. Since the handmade process takes time, please plan ahead and get in touch with us if a custom embroidery piece interests you. We can also facilitate turning the embroidery piece into a product, but of course every step takes time 🙂

 

Bird embroidery 1

Welcoming a new baby to the family

 

Cardinals embroidery

A wedding anniversary gift

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They turned into beautiful hand-embroidered pieces!

Horned guan pic

From photograph to embroidery…

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For a personalized birthday gift

The best way to get started on your own custom order is to either send us a sketch or a photograph of what you had in  mind, to mari@kakawdesigns.com. We can get the conversation started this way and move on from there.

XOXO,

Mari

2020: The Year of Pivoting

This year’s theme word seems to be “pivot.” It feels like more than ever, the importance of shifting perspectives and priorities is evident. With the arrival of COVID-19 to Guatemala in mid-March and its following restrictions, we’ve been pivoting as much as possible.

Here are six ways we have been shifting, adapting, pivoting:

1. One of a Kind creations online

With our retail stores closed in Antigua, I decided to take products out of stores and try our luck selling one-of-a-kind items on our website. We had been creating products with customizations tailored toward each local store, so the result was that we had many unique variations at hand. In the past, I had dreaded putting in the work to list one-unit variations online, but in this pandemic emergency state, there was no time for complaining. This lead to our One of a Kinds page, where we continue to list unique items online.

two bags

2. Direct sales from our artisan partners

The need for work in our partner artisans’ communities became evident very quickly, as people lost jobs all over, and tourism (both national and international) came to a sudden halt. This inspired us to start our Artisan Direct Pop-up online, and we have been pushing this page most during the pandemic as these items represent products that our partner artisans had already invested time and material into making. These are beauties our friends already had, ready to sell, when the pandemic hit. We do our part in checking quality, taking pictures, and writing down honest details of the work, incorporating techniques used as well as materials and measurements, and take care of all the logistics like payments and shipping. We hope our work creates an atmosphere of transparency and trust that can often be difficult to achieve with online shopping from countries afar.

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3. New work space in Antigua

These two new online sales efforts created a physical challenge in that I found myself without sufficient space to work given COVID-19 restrictions. So, I moved into Xibalba at the center of town, and have been working from there also with the help of Evelyn, who was instrumental in keeping Kakaw Designs going as our Production Manager while I was working on my master’s in Europe. I’m so grateful for the pieces falling into place in order to help us shift and grow our online offerings when it became suddenly necessary to go 100% digital.

4. Online sales in Guatemala

We realized that there was suddenly a market for online local sales within Guatemala, too. That’s why we launched our Kakaw Designs store on the new platform MejorShop. This Etsy-like concept allows us to reach local customers, and we can offer local discounts, too. We’re pretty excited to see where this project goes as online shopping is pretty new here in Guatemala.

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5. Affordable and beautiful cloth masks

Our best-selling item during this pandemic time has by far been the Cloth Masks made by Juan Carlos, which are going for $35 for a variety pack of 10. We’ve sold over 2,000 masks at this point, and the work has incorporated two other families, meaning that these orders have been supporting three families during this pandemic. We went through several changes on these masks as we faced material supply shortages and wanted to incorporate general improvements, like adding a nose wire and creating an opening for optional filters, which we also offer as an add-on. (You can read more about these changes here.)

masks packaging

6. Creative orders in a sheltered time

We’ve been fortunate with custom orders, and we are so grateful for our supporters! Somehow it feels like maybe people everywhere are trying to add color to their lives, to add some joy, and at the same time are doing their best to be conscious about where their money goes, who their purchases support during this challenging time. And maybe the concept of time has shifted too, like all of the sudden it doesn’t feel like a gigantic barrier to wait one month for a custom textile, bag, or a pair of shoes.

 

Next steps:

We’re continuing to pivot in different ways, and right now I’m pretty excited for these beautifully hand-embroidered cloth masks. Not only are they joyful, these masks provide work for our artisan partners in Sumpango, who are able to embroider from home.

 

 

We look forward to where the future takes us, and we hope to be able to shift perspectives to keep up. This year has provided the opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and re-align ourselves to our principal mission of working with rural artisans and facilitating access to markets through design, quality control, and overall enhanced trust. Thank you for joining us on this journey.

 

Mari

mari huipil

Textiles + Jade

A gorgeous tradition-filled combination here in Guatemala, both crafts supporting heritage and artistry.

Scroll down to enjoy some images taken in the beautiful space that is Xibalba, together with original jewelry design by Laura Spillari. We think they go so nicely together.

 

 

Featured:

Three-panel picbil in beige

Two-panel picbil blouse in white, similar to Blusa 20

Handspun organic cotton throw in natural white

All stunning jewelry by Xibalba

Yummy collaborations! Cardamom + Kakaw

This heartfelt writing by Kelly from Cardamom Collective brings tears to my eyes, just reminiscing about how we have both personal and professionally grown over the years of working together on special collaborative projects. Kelly continues to surprise us with her unique color and pattern choices, and it is so refreshing to depart from the local norms. Francisca can tell which orders are Kelly’s at first look of the design, and it’s a wonderful thing to have this creative, inspirational push to try new designs. And hey, this all began as an Instagram friendship, did you know? It’s definitely a real-life in-person friendship now.

Without further ado… Thank you, Kelly, for sharing your thoughts on the years of making beauties together.

XOXO, Mari

 

kelly mural web

Kelly when she came to visit us in Guatemala 💙

It’s hard to encapsulate a friendship that spans years of collaboration and growth, especially one that has unfurled like a dynamic tapestry of travel, voice recordings, written words, coffees on Chicago streets, a shared love of all things ikat (jaspe), chewy corn tortillas in San Juan La Laguna and of course, tastes of chocolate and cardamom wherever we can find them!

Knowing and working with Mari has felt like a Field Notes guide that we’ve packed with ethnographic entries, textile (and bird!) sightings, watercolor pages and postal codes. When I try and synthesize the effect these adventures have had on my life and business, I search for words and struggle to arrive, until my eyes settle on my coat hook. That’s right, so much can be expressed in the entry ways of our homes, the doorways to our spaces and where we spend our time. Mine are infinitely more colorful and thread-rich than they were six years ago.

All the totes

Our coat rack has seven small black hooks, and hanging from each one is at least one (and often more) of the many generations of bags and scarves we have co-conspired in bringing to life. I’ve dragged them to France, Italy and Spain. I’ve stuffed them with wild sage in Montana. They’ve carried my curriculum, spilled coffees, smashed crayons, and the abundance of flotsam and jetsam that comes from being a K-8 Art Teacher for the last four years. When I look over these pieces I see my past and so much potential for the future. I love seeing how the designs have evolved as Mari has helped me to understand the process and many hours (lifetimes of learning actually) that go into each step of each piece. Each time a new item is born I am transported to my last night in Antigua. Walking the cobblestone streets under  the butter yellow arch that bridges the path from the sky and frames Fuego, clutching my prototype like the sacred cloth it was, sharing a platterful of spices and seasoning and making plans over hot terra cotta bowls of Pepián. I recall entering the studios of the master leathersmiths and spending the day with Francisca in San Juan, turning corn tortilla dough in my hand as we waited for our natural dye experiments to come to life in the Lake Atitlan sun.

I love to remember these sensory details and sharing stories is one of my favorite things about designing and understanding textiles. I am sure some of you are asking,  how does it actually work? Typically, I start with an inspiration, a piece of artwork, a color scheme that is speaking to me, a place I have been…it varies. I sort through these ideas via small sketches, typically done in watercolor. Designing textiles has always been rooted in handwork for me, it is where I find the most joy and while I  respect the incredible things that can be done in design programs, it is not how I work. When I have a relatively solid idea, I will send Mari images of these sketches and imaginings and using the natural dye book that she and the weavers sent me, will send color codes. Often we will discuss the colors and possibilities of pattern, which is one of the areas where Mari’s expertise is invaluable. 

 

 

As she has built decades of trust and understanding with the communities where textiles are made in Guatemala and lives there herself, she has a nuanced understanding of the process as well as the ability to communicate both linguistically and through cultural understandings that I do not. I loved my trip to Guatemala and spend time reading and learning about the history, weaving process and customs but I have truly only spent a very small amount of time there. (I hope to return very soon!) When someone lives and works in a place the way Mari does, they are able to act as a bridge between the artisan communities and the designers.

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What is not visible from instagram or social media is the countless hours of conversations, studio visits, travel over  bumpy roads, (and choppy Lake Atilan waves!) dense traffic, and countless other gestures and moments that it really takes to make Kakaw work. In turn, these collaborations are possible with other small businesses like Cardamom Collective. Mari does all of these things and more and does it with integrity, an open and curious mind and a drive to push herself and the other designers she works with to have thoughtful conversations around the work we are creating and who we are creating it with. Guatemala has so many incredible artists. Many families have been weaving, dyeing, and working in leather for generations, and possess a depth of knowledge and experience that is profound. What I have always appreciated about collaborating with Mari is that she works hard to build a community of shared voices and one that creates a space for creative exchange between brands and the artisans, of mutual respect. 

Sketch and necklace

Our collaborative projects have had many iterations, most recently we have ventured into hand carved jade and threads, which has been such an exciting addition to the Cardamom Collective and Kakaw textile “family”! I feel so grateful for years of pushing each other and growing in our shared and individual creative visions!

-Kelly, Cardamom Collective

 

 

 

Handspun Cotton

What does it mean to spin cotton by hand? How is this different from industrial cotton thread?

I’ve been wanting to work with the gorgeous locally-grown handspun cotton for some time now, but hadn’t made the plunge because of the limited supply of the fiber. But now that we’re focusing more on mini batches and even just in one units as on our One of a Kinds page, we’ve gone ahead!

So we want to share with you a little bit about exactly how special this fiber really is.

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Indigo-dyed, natural white cotton, and natural brown ixcaco

There are two different natural cotton varieties that our friends Dominga and Marta work with at Lake Atitlán. They grow the trees, harvest the cotton, and process the fibers as a small mostly family-based group. The spinning of the fiber itself is mostly done by Dominga, the mother of the family, because she is the true expert after years of practice. The natural white variety is what we’re most used to all over, and is easy to dye as in the indigo version above. The fiber is preferred also for industrial spinning because they are longer and so do not break as easily.

The natural brown ixcaco variety, on the other hand, is harder to spin because of the shorter fibers, and because it is already brown in its natural state, is more challenging for dyeing. That’s part of the reason why ixcaco is so rare these days. Its use stopped with industrial spinning and availability of industrial thread, which are both in white cotton. Ixcaco was regarded to be less favorable, and it stopped being grown.

Now, with a small but real resurgence of organic and plant-based processes especially at San Juan la Laguna, the town known for natural dyes, locally-grown cotton is being harvested and processed in small batches in both natural white and ixcaco brown.

dominga beating cotton

The cotton needs to be beat in order to align and compact the fibers before spinning.

Processing the cotton by hand means growing the cotton trees, fertilizing them with a local ant species’ poop (yes, you read right – ant droppings!), harvesting, taking out the seeds, beating the fibers, aligning the fibers, and spinning. All of that before any dyeing and weaving take place. So much work!

We’re so pleased to be supporting these handmade and organic traditions with this group of weavers. The result of all their hard work is notable in the soft cotton that just gets softer with use. While industrial cotton commonly used here is two-ply and spun with lots of tension, we prefer the softness of the natural cottons achieved through hand-spinning.

 

Here are some products made by this group of cotton spinners and weavers, available on our site:

 

 

 

 

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

model

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.

dress

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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chonita

 

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.

mask mari purple

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.

masks with filters

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.

lidia weaving 4

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.

brown tone loom 1

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.

 

brown tone loom 2

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 😬

with weavers Chamelco cropped

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.

coop group shot

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.

weaving together

Backstrap weaving

weaving herlinda back

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.

Margarita in moutains small

 

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