We’re often asked about the meaning behind brocade patterns found in Guatemala, woven row by row on backstrap looms, probably most noted on traditional huipiles. Some figures and patterns are specific to regions or towns, and others such as geometric figures seem to appear in many areas. Specific techniques used (Yes, there are many variations to brocade!) and color choices may differ, but certain repetitive patterns like diamonds, crosses, and zigzags are widely used.
But just because a figure might be “common” doesn’t mean it’s simple to decipher the symbolism behind them. Beliefs are often regional, and interpretations of similar figures can vary so much depending on who you ask. And just like other cultural aspects, these beliefs have probably shifted over time, adapting, mixing, evolving.
In this post, we’ll focus on just some (eight, to be exact) of the more prevalent traditional brocade figures currently found and used in San Juan Cotzal. These explanations were prepared by the cooperative of weavers from the same town that we work with, the ones whose work we feature here on our Artisan Direct page. Translation from Spanish to English is done by me (Mari) and I’ll also note the name of each figure in Ixil as the weavers have written them.
Can you spot some of the same figures in the beautiful huipil? (Pssst it’s available for sale by the same weavers! Find it here.)
When the pandemic hit Guatemala this March, we started selling cloth masks that one of our partner artisans was making. Abigail reached out to me during this time, interested in a few colorful masks for her own use, as wearing a mask had become mandatory rather quickly in the country. We met up on the side of a small street in Santa Ana, Antigua, me walking Berry and she walking to meet us. We ended up taking for over an hour there, on the sidewalk, masked and keeping our distance. This is how our friendship began.
Somehow, this collaboration is different from any other we’ve worked on before, simply because we didn’t have a business agenda. What began as a quarantine creative activity for four friends, dyeing together in Abigail’s indigo vat babies, was meant for us. Not for anyone else, but just for us, friends figuring out how to live in a pandemic world with strict regulations. We took refuge in this small but meaning way.
And now, we’re ready to share a little bit of this joy with you in the form of these indigo-dipped earrings made with handspun local organic cotton. For this, we have our supporters to thank, who have encouraged us even from afar on our social media accounts to do something with the indigo fun. Muchas gracias.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Abigail and her craft in this little Q and A we put together for you.
1. What’s the story behind your brand name, Mysa?
Mysa is a Swedish word that refers to a state of comfort or contentedness with something. One online resource gave a definition I particularly like: “To smile (with only slight movement of the mouth), particularly as a sign of contentedness or comfort.” I imagine in Swedish the definition is a bit more stoic than my interpretation. But I like the idea of a small, knowing smile because you’re remaining playful in the face of challenge, and finding joy within life’s responsibilities. Perhaps you are carrying around a morsel of glee in your pocket while wading through some grim practicalities. It is there, with that morsel in your pocket, that you find contentedness. It’s a bit sneaky and very beautiful. That’s Mysa.
2. Were you always interested in natural dyes? How did you get started?
Actually, no, I can’t say I have been interested in natural dyes for very long. Living in Oaxaca, Mexico I learned about cochineal, which is a captivating dye, but I hadn’t ever thought about working with it. My indigo journey started about one year ago in the textile museum in Oaxaca. An exhibition on indigo detailed the plants used to make the dye and showcased indigo textiles from all around the world. The most interesting part for me was a video they showed of men in Niltepec, Oaxaca oxygenating a large tank of water that was turning more and more blue—they were making indigo! The men pushed the water over and over for hours with broom-like tools, and the water would sloosh against the concrete wall of the tank. The repetition of the sound and the movement of the water fascinated me. I wanted to see it in person. I wanted to be in that tank and feel my arms tire as I moved with the water, watching it change color.
3. Do you also work with other dyes, or focus specifically on indigo? Why?
The process of getting indigo dye from a plant is fascinating, as is dyeing with indigo. Oxygen, either removing it or adding it, is key to work with this particular natural dye. So, you’re working with air, water, and earth (a plant), and there is something very rooting about that.
Too, indigo is a storyteller, and working with indigo is a practice. Each time I visit with my vats I give them all my attention, and then I ruminate on what they’ve taught me. If I started working with other natural dyes, I think I would feel pulled in different directions, and what was once interesting would become frustrating due to my own impatience for things to “work.” For me, the most important thing in my indigo practice is that I feel joy in it. So I keep it simple, and that keeps me engaged. Indigo still has many stories left to tell me, and really, I’m all ears.
4. What has it been like to start up your indigo exploration during the pandemic in Guatemala?
I feel very fortunate that I was able to take advantage of a time of lockdowns, curfews, and limited human interaction to focus on a craft. Indigo gave me purpose when I was without work, in a different country, and unsure of where I was headed. I was able to take the time and space to start my work with indigo and get it wedged into my life enough that now—as uncertainty continues, but life moves on—I carry my craft with me.
5. What are you working on these days? Can you share a little bit about your projects?
My main and on-going project for myself is dyeing threads. I focus on threads because I love the idea of my threads being woven into people’s ideas. I think I enjoy being the source of some secret, behind-the-scenes magic, and helping someone create something beautiful (like our earring collab!) is utterly gleeful.
In addition, I’m leaving myself space to respond to others’ interest in indigo which has put me in a kind of exploration-facilitation role. I’m involved in two projects now. One I see as helping a local brand find out if working with her own indigo vat is a good fit for her. Everyone loves the magic of indigo, but that beautiful blue comes with costs, both financial and energy, so it’s not a right fit for everyone. I’ll also be co-teaching with a fellow indigo enthusiast (both a teacher and a life-long learner herself) a group of dyers who have limited access to indigo resources. This is a fun challenge for me—learning how to start and maintain vats using locally accessible materials. I hope both of these ventures lead to better understanding how local (Guatemalan) artisans might more easily pick up the lost practice of indigo.
We’ve hosted several online backstrap weaving classes with Doña Lidia now, and thought it might be helpful to share some questions we’ve received. We’re really learning a lot through these online offerings, and are enjoying being able to facilitate connections between international creatives and master weaver Doña Lidia ❤️
Do I need to know Spanish to take this class?
No, you don’t! Doña Lidia speaks great English (as well as Kakchikel and Spanish), and I’m also online to help translate, narrate, and overall facilitate the experiential learning (Mari). We always have one more helper actively involved on the ground, too, as we are sharing the weaving action on two different devices always – one computer view for a larger view and one cell phone view for a more detailed close-up.
2. How much weaving experience do I need?
For a beginner class, nothing. If you’ve never practiced backstrap weaving before, we recommend taking a look at this short blog post with videos before the class (we’ll also send you more info to prep a few days before the class).
For a more advanced class, we do recommend some relevant experience. Please check each course description in our Experiences section to choose the right one for you.
3. Do I need a physical backstrap loom to take the class?
While not an absolute requirement, we do recommend having a loom either for the class or shortly after, so you can practice your learnings. Need a loom? We have three options prepared by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán and Doña Lidia’s family for you.
4. Will the class be recorded?
Yes! The speaker view will be recorded and the link will be sent to participants after class.
If you would like to record the session in your screen view, please make sure to log in with a compatible device, and we can give you permission so you can record it directly.
5. Do you have any documents to guide us with weaving?
Yes, we do! Doña Lidia has shared with us some handouts that she has in the past used for her in-person backstrap weaving workshops around the world, and we’ve also created our own PDF guide with pictures and video links to help facilitate your weaving journey.
We also started this Facebook group for backstrap weavers to share their progress and challenges. We hope to build a community supporting and helping each other. If you have any questions, you can share them there!
6. How do you know Doña Lidia?
Actually, she’s known me (Mari) since I was a little girl. Our connection is even originally from our parents- Doña Lidia’s mother Doña Margarita was a master brocade weaver also, and my mother’s friend ( Aiko Kobayashi).
7. Where does Doña Lidia live?
She lives in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, just 15 minutes out of Antigua, Guatemala. The online classes are hosted from the open patio of her home.
8. What is that strange noise we heard in the background?
That was probably Tikal, the beloved family parrot. He gets a bit talkative sometimes — saying things like “Hola!” and “Tikalito” 😆
9. I’d like to request a special topic class with Doña Lidia, Is this possible?
Yes, this is how we first got started with the classes! Doña Lidia is a wealth of knowledge and we would be happy to facilitate either a private or a special topic group session for you. Please write to Mari at firstname.lastname@example.org to set this up.
10. When are your next classes?
We will keep updating our Experiences section with new class offerings. Please check there.
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 🙂
Welcoming a new baby to the family
A wedding anniversary gift
They turned into beautiful hand-embroidered pieces!
From photograph to embroidery…
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 email@example.com. We can get the conversation started this way and move on from there.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
Ever since we started Kakaw Designs with custom-made boots, we’ve gotten requests from people wanting simple designs with just leather, no textile. I’ve been resisting against this for some time, just because I’ve always wanted our focus to be textile over leather.
But… you know what? I was wrong. I love these Quetzal Shoes in Just Leather, and it’s always a pleasure to support Don Julio’s cobbler business. And through these sales, we can also invest more in textile prototypes and pursue new designs. So really, it’s win-win.
I’m sorry I was narrow-minded and it took me so long to incorporate Just Leather shoes. But now, they’re here. I hope you like them too, I’m loving mine.
Available online for $185. Choose “Just Leather” option under “Textiles”.
To tell you the truth, I struggle with this concept of working with artisans as a brand. Maybe I didn’t think it through when I started the business (and by maybe, I mean definitely). I chose to start a brand because I love designing things, working with artisans, and I thought that I could add something special through new ideas and high-quality details.
I definitely don’t regret it, because it has been an amazing experience and I have been able to build relationships with local artisan groups, textile lovers all over the world, boutique stores focused on quality, and similarly-minded designers. And I have learned so much. Also, I just don’t think I would’ve known any other way, these thoughts are the result of years of experience, and seeing some loopholes in the logic of artisanmade brands.
And maybe it’s because I am away now, in Europe studying Sustainable Development, and this distance of course makes it challenging to work with rural artisans even more. We’re only able to manage this because of our wonderful Production Manager back in Antigua, Evelyn.
But it’s got me thinking for other ways to support the talented artisans we work with. This was the root of our Textile Travels this past August, inspired by idea-exchange through textile workshops, to benefit both international participants and local artisans alike. This way, I thought, the artisans could get new ideas, maybe some feedback on existing products, and continue to improve on their own. Sometimes that’s all it takes, a spark of a new idea, encouragement from other textile lovers.
Now, we’re trying out another way to increase impact. I’m so excited to share a different brand with you: Kaleido Collection actually works with the same talented weavers specializing in natural dyes and ikat patterns at Lake Atitlán. The founder is Emmy, a good friend from our time in Antigua, Guatemala. She’s been able to create gorgeous cushion covers together with the partner weavers and a talented seamstress she’s known for years. I can tell you from experience that one of the hardest parts about production in Guatemala is the actual sewing, especially when zippers are involved. But Elvia is truly a pro! These cushion covers are so beautiful, and I’m so impressed by Emmy’s sincere way of writing and story-telling. It took me a lot longer to understand how important the sharing of stories really is.
We invite you to take a look at the limited-time listing. Our goal is to increase impact for these talented rural artisans we work with, and it’s always a good thing for the artisans to diversify and work with other brands and try out different designs.
It’s no secret that designing and producing new items is more challenging when far, far, away from the talented artisans we work with. I’ve been outside of Guatemala for the better part of a whole year now, and this is one of the things I miss most about being in Guatemala: the ability to try new things with artisans, this sort of “trial and error” process that every new product needs. I can still sketch anywhere I am, and of course I’ve gotten new ideas for products as a student in Europe – new product needs, new patterns, new colors, new aesthetics, new weather needs, too ❄️. But the conversations with artisans, and physically feeling textures and seeing colors… these are things very challenging to accomplish while so far away.
All this to say that I’m extra pleased to announce the addition of these items, finally online and available for shipping from the US.
I’d like to add a special note here to say that these items would not have been possible to make come true without the existing relationships with the talented artisan groups we partner with in Guatemala. I think over the years we’ve gotten to know each other’s strengths, and have been able to figure out what kind of beauties we can make together. It must be extremely challenging for them to also communicate with me via email and messages, they’ve done a wonderful job and I am so grateful.
It felt great to be back and lead the first Textile Travels in August. I’m thinking about doing another trip in the summer of 2019, let me know if you’re interested in hearing more. Photos below were taken in Chichicastenango by Leander Khil.