Meet Elena, designer behind capsule jewelry collection 🌺

Today, we have a special blog post written by Elena Laswick. In case you hadn’t heard yet, we’re working together for a Capsule Jewelry Collection, and we are so excited for this collaboration.  So we thought we should introduce the lovely lady – so here she is, ready to tell you how she fell in love with textiles and how she came to working with Ixil women of Guatemala in particular.

 

Hi there!

My name is Elena and I’m teaming up with Mari this spring to bring you some new jewelry designs inspired by the textiles of the Ixil region of Guatemala! 

But who am I and why am I posting on Mari’s blog? Well, let me introduce myself. 

I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, a mere 100 km (60 miles) from the Mexican border, where I was surrounded by Mexican culture and immersed in Spanish throughout my childhood. In middle school, I even played the violin and sang in a mariachi band! And in high school, I danced folklorico (Mexican folk dance) in a school club. 

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Elena in high school in her folklórico dress, circa 2007. Photo: John Laswick.

It truly was an upbringing from the borderlands of the U.S. Tucson is also right on the edge of the Navajo Nation, where there are many talented weavers who produce beautiful rugs. My mom’s motto has always been, “Support your local artists,” so a lot of those rugs found their way into my childhood home. It’s no doubt my parents and Tucson are to thank for my affinity for Spanish and textiles.

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Elena’s mom’s current living room setup. Note the Navajo rug hanging on the left-hand wall above the couch. Other textiles featured: On the couch; Pillowcase from Santiago Atitlan, “servilleta” throw from Nebaj, Guatemala. Floor rug: Turkish. On the reclining chair: A Kilim pillow, also Turkish. Wall hangings above/within the mantle: Molas from Panama. On the coffee table: Kuba cloth from the DRC. Under the coffee table: Cat from the local animal shelter. Photo: Elena Laswick.

During and after college, I worked for a few different Central American NGOs and found myself critical of their theories of change. When I initially moved to the Ixil region of Guatemala three years ago, it was to work with a local social enterprise. Although I hoped this model of development would be a breath of fresh air, it too seemed plagued by similar problems as those I had encountered in the NGO world. The true novelty ended up being the wealth of textiles Guatemala had to offer. I soon realized that the only things I cared about spending money on were textiles and artisan-made products in general (not surprising given the type of household I grew up in). The irony was, I was thousands of miles from home and yet once again I found myself living amongst indigenous people with deeply rooted weaving traditions. 

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 Elena’s neighbor and friend in Nebaj, Juana, weaving a new huipil (blouse) for personal use. Photo: Elena Laswick

After I quit my job at the social enterprise, I began researching Guatemalan textile-related brands. In the process, I stumbled on Kakaw Designs’ Instagram, where I eventually learned that Mari, the founder, was studying Sustainable Development in Austria. Before reaching out to Mari about meeting in person when I was traveling through Austria last fall, I tried to familiarize myself more with Kakaw Designs. Besides the beautiful plant-dyed and leather products, what most resonated with me was Mari’s life story. It seemed we had both followed similar trajectories from NGOs to artisans and had ended up returning to our roots as a result. My meeting with Mari confirmed that we are both textile lovers whose theory of change revolves around investing in artisans and trusting them to re-invest in their children and their communities. 

This capsule jewelry collection grew out of our shared desire to invest specifically in rural artisans, who have less access to an international market base. Working with me as an artisan liaison to ethically source textiles directly from weavers in the Ixil region, Kakaw Designs will soon offer a capsule jewelry collection with designs that incorporate the intricate brocade of San Juan Cotzal! I hope that these pieces make you feel connected to a place, to skilled weavers and artisans, and of course that you’ll love to wear them for their own sake as well. 

-Elena
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Who is leading the Textile Travels in August?

Maybe you’ve heard the news – we’re so excited to be launching a new creative travel experience concept this year.Textile Travel announcement

We can’t wait to get into all the weaving, dyeing, experimenting with fun creative ideas, together.  We will be visiting our partner artisan groups with a small group of Makers (we’re thinking only around 6-8 participants for this first trip!).  Can you just imagine all the sharing, learning, laughing we’ll do?

**Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself a Maker – the artisans can benefit from any feedback from consumers, and you’ll have a grand time learning traditional techniques in Guatemala anyway**

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One question we’re getting is…

Who are the leaders?

Well, that’s a fun team!  It will be me and my mother, two generations; like mother, like daughter.  My mom, Aiko Kobayashi, is a career textile artist and the reason why I have grown to love Guatemala so much (oh yeah, and also the reason why I was born in Guatemala to begin with!).  Her passion for all things textiles, her knowledge of rural Guatemala and Maya traditions, plus her personal friendships all over the country makes her an excellent leader of textile tours, which she’s been doing for over 20 years now.  But she’s been wanting to change things up, and I had this idea of creating an idea-exchange opportunity…. so we’ve teamed up to offer you this unique experience!

I’ll be arranging all of the workshops, coordinating everything with our Kakaw Designs partner artisans.  My mother will be bringing her experience leading international groups in Guatemala, her passion for rural travel, and most of all, her friendly relationship connections all over – people are sincerely happy to see her, every time.  After so many years, she’s built strong relationships with people in rural communities, and it’s a treat to be invited into people’s homes, to share family updates, and bring back pictures for locals from the previous trip.  It’s a nice personal touch that only she can provide.

I hope this answers a bit about the leaders of the trip.  Please let me know if you have any questions!  We’re taking reservations for August trips, starting at only $1800.  Let me know if you’d like to save a spot.

<<see the itineraries>>

XOXO,

Mari

mari@kakawdesigns.com

Dye Pot Plants

Supporting traditions with roots as deep as the chocolate tree.

Announcing: Textile Travel 2018

We’re so excited to be branching out (get it, like the cacao tree? 😆) to include a new and exciting way to support our partner artisans further.  Read on!

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I started Kakaw Designs as a way to financially support talented artisans in Guatemala through custom orders, and help continue the beautiful handmade traditions so dear to my heart.  This seemed clear to me: more money for beautiful, valuable work, more likely the arts will survive in this ever-changing world.  I still believe this.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that artisans are also hungry for new ideas, and ideas can be hard to come by.  For rural artisans living in a country where copying is the norm, it’s not easy to “think outside of the box.”  This really hit home for me when I was hosting a few weavers from Cobán at my house in Antigua.  They started to flip through books I had on Guatemalan textiles, and they were so genuinely delighted to see other work from their own country!  You see, Guatemalan textile designs and techniques can vary greatly depending on the region, and they were thrilled to see colors and patterns uncommon in their area.

This is where it gets a little bit complicated as a brand, because while we encourage our artisans to continue building up on these new design ideas, we still need to somewhat protect ourselves as a business.  I find myself in an ethical dilemma that I am uncomfortable with, since the end goal is to support the artisans, and being protective of designs created together does not seem to support that.

<<Read more about these ethical dilemmas I’ve encountered, published on Eco Warrior Princess>>

That’s why I want to encourage more idea exchange.  That’s what this Textile Travel for Makers is all about.

Dyeing together

We’ll be visiting beautiful parts of Guatemala: towns, villages, families, homes.  People I have known for a long time; or rather, people who have known me all my life (through my parents).  We love building up on these life-long connections, and we’re ready to add a twist:

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We will be hosting workshops to exchange ideas.  Of course, there is so much to learn from the traditional artisans: backstrap weaving, dyeing with local plants, making ikat knots, different weaves and embroidery techniques, too.  This is all valuable for the participants, and the artisans are so excited to share their crafts.  But again, we want our partner artisans to benefit in this idea exchange, too – so we’ll be arranging workshops for the participants to share their creativity with the artisans.  Things like different dyeing techniques (think shibori, or wax-resist), or color preferences, new embroidery techniques, or just different products we might use in non-rural settings.  These ideas will be for the artisans to use on their own, if they wish.  I can’t wait to be sharing different textile traditions from around the world, flipping through books and physical samples… and I hope that you’ll join us.

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Let’s have some fun with this.  Let’s get our creative juices flowing together, and support rural artisans in a new way – in a bilateral exchange.  We want everyone to benefit.

Want to learn more? Send me an email at mari@kakawdesigns.com.  We currently have two itineraries, with prices starting at $1800 and possibly even less depending on the final number of participants.  I would love to include you in this new adventure.

 

XOXO,

Mari

Cardigans

A favorite for scarf season

*** Discount code at the very bottom 😘***

We love all our products, but we’re so excited that this chilly season the top favorite has been the newest scarf addition, our Corte Wrap.  It’s beautiful and cozy, but more that that, we are including two different groups of artisans in its production – the weavers who prepare the naturally-dyed cotton thread, and the embroiderers who do all the amazing embroidery work, stitch by stitch ❤️

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Francisca with the naturally-dyed thread her cooperative prepares.  She liked the finished prototype!

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Embroidery master sisters at work!

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Stitch by stitch…

 

And the result is a super soft, cozy scarf ❤️

 

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Kelly from Cardamom Collective snatched one of our prototypes!

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Adrienne shows off her Corte Wrap AND her Quetzal Backpack 😆

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Rachel and Laura both got a hold of these beauties with red stripes… lucky them!

Want your own?  Use discount code SCARFLOVE for $20 off your own Corte Wrap just until January 25, 2017.

 

Why We’re Crowdfunding to Grow our Handmade Business

Note: This post was originally published on Eco Warrior Princess.

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By Mari Gray

Many people have asked me how I first got started with my artisan-made business Kakaw Designs. The short answer is this: through a small Kickstarter project for $2000. That was my way of figuring out if people liked the idea of custom-made boots using traditional Guatemalan textiles. The answer was yes, and we’ve grown so much in the three years since inception.

Now, we’re doing another Kickstarter project (until November 20, 2016) and I want to explain why.  Because clearly, ours is an existing business, not a recently launched one.

And it’s been going really well. So why another crowdfunding campaign? There are three main reasons…

We want to shift our business to work more with women artisans.

We started the business using beautiful repurposed textiles here in Guatemala. But the goal has always been to focus on our work with weavers and embroiderers. Because by working together for new textile designs, we are more directly contributing to supporting these dying traditions.

The downside is that this is more costly both in time and money. There is always trial and error involved, and the cost of making even samples is much higher because we need to prepare an entire loom of the commissioned textile. This all makes sense, it’s fair and that is how it should be, but it is an additional challenge that comes with ethical practices.

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We want to balance both direct sales and wholesale.

This has been a challenge. In order to get into different retailers, we’ve had to increase our final price on some products, and develop new products specifically with wholesale in mind.

Related Post: 4 Most Common Dilemmas of an Artisan Made Brand

So in case this is all new to you, this is how it works: Kakaw Designs sells 10 bags to Boutique A, and this is called “wholesale.” Boutique A then sells those 10 bags at a mark-up (they’re a business too, of course) and so the price generally doubles from wholesale to final retail. But in order to keep our final prices aligned both in stores and online, some adjustments had to be made, which means that we’re probably losing some direct sales beacause of the price increase.

This is a tricky balance that we’re still trying to figure out. How much should we dedicate to wholesale, and how much to direct online sales? We don’t have a clear answer yet, but we do realize that we need to have both things going for us – both wholesale and direct sales.

We want to have our products ready-to-go, which means stocking plenty.

All our bags and accessories are ready for quick shipping both in Guatemala and in the US. We have a shipping person in the US so that our delivery time is reduced. She also ships international orders because it’s just not feasible to ship directly from Guatemala to the UK, for example. We also keep stock here in Guatemala to sell within the country at different retailers, and people come to me directly as well. Word of mouth is a powerful thing!

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This is all great, don’t get me wrong. The business is expanding; we are growing. But again, the extra stocking investment is something we can feel as a small business.

Related Post: What Launching an Ethical Fashion Brand Really Looks Like

That’s why Kickstarter.

We’re using this platform to take pre-orders on our newest products focusing on increasing the impact with the women – for weaving and embroidery. The groups of orders are not even that big (ex. 10 Picnic Blankets), but it just means that we can go into production mode without having to invest in stock first, and wait around for a potential sale. By taking pre-orders, those products already have new homes, and that way we can also reduce our prices per product. We’re also not undercutting any wholesale opportunities because this is a one-time only project, limited-time. The prices will increase once the products make their way to our website. We’ve already developed the new products, and now we’re ready to gear up for production.

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I feel like sometimes there’s so much emphasis placed on the growth of a business, it can seem like a linear, positive progression. I think growth is good, but it does come with its own challenges. Kakaw Designs is at a critical point right now, one that I’m sure many small businesses have experienced as well.

It’s a great, exciting step for us in increasing our social impact and staying true to our mission of working with female artisans here in Guatemala. It’s the perfect opportunity to check our work and make sure that we are on the right path. And joining forces and grouping orders allows us to take that next step with ease.

Want to support the Kakaw Designs on Kickstarter? Check out the Kickstarter campaign here.

Why (another) Kickstarter?

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That’s right, we’ve done this before.  We started what is now Kakaw Designs three years ago with a little $2000 Kickstarter project.  It went well, and that’s how we’re here today.

So… Why another Kickstarter project, you ask?

Excellent question!  Here’s why:

As we’ve grown (in three years we’ve expanded from only boots to now shoes, bags, and accessories), we’ve also felt the effects when it comes to stocking and development of new designs.  Every new product takes trial and error to develop, and we now also maintain stock both in Guatemala and the US, for fast-delivery.  This is all great, but it just means more costs associated with growth.

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This all has made it more challenging to work with artisans from step 1, because it means more investment in trial and error.  But that’s the whole reason why we started Kakaw Designs – to work with artisans.  So we want to jump start the production of our newest products specifically focusing on work with women artisans (for weaving and embroidery) by bunching orders together on the Kickstarter platform.  This allows us to skip the stocking investments and go directly to sales – and that means that we can lower our prices.  It’s truly win-win for everyone.

Indigo Footloom Scarves, Kakaw Designs

Partner weavers Irma and Francisca

With that said, we’ve got so many goodies, make sure to take a look!  And even if you’re not looking to buy anything right now, you can help us by spreading the word.  So please share the project with your friends!  ☺️

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