Mysa: Abigail’s indigo exploration in Guatemala

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.

XOXO, Mari

The Indigo Gang: Mari, Emily, Abigail, and Evelyn (left to right). Oh yeah, and Chorizo.

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.  

Abigail at her home studio

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. 

Working with indigo

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. 

Indigo exploration recipes on the wall

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.

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

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:

 

 

 

 

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

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.

all looms kantha

<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

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.

cappuccino rebozo

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

 

Just Leather Shoes

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.

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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.

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Available online for $185. Choose “Just Leather” option under “Textiles”.

 

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Thank you, Don Julio!

 

mindful morning bundle

December can be a pretty crazy month, full of activities, and maybe added stress. It’s a lovely season, but we understand the hectic nature of modern-day holiday celebrations.

We can relate. We’re makers and sellers, but also teachers, students, wives, friends, sisters… There’s a lot happening in our lives, too.

And by we, I mean: Kelly from Cardamom Collective, Ehren from Hecho, and me (Mari) from Kakaw Designs. This is why we wanted to share with you some of our favorite things, the items that remind us to relax, to take a deep breath, to brew and enjoy a cup of tea. If you think this might be beneficial for you, or if you’d like to gift it to someone you know, just email me at mari@kakawdesigns. We’d be happy to send you a bundle or two.

Mindful Morning One includes:

1 Mini mortar and pestle from Hecho (choose from pink marble and white onyx)

1 Indigo ikat pouch from Cardamom Collective

2 Hand-embroidered coasters from Kakaw Designs

Some kakaw (aka cacao) and cardamom to add to your favorite morning drink

$65 plus shipping, ready in the US.

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Mindful Morning two includes:

1 Mini mortar and pestle from Hecho (choose from pink marble and white onyx)

1 Indigo ikat pouch from Cardamom Collective

2 Hand-embroidered tea towels from Kakaw Designs

Some kakaw (aka cacao) and cardamom to add to your favorite morning drink

$85 plus shipping, ready in the US.

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A special bundle for you and your best friend 🐶

collars both colors

Announcing…. a  limited-time bundle for our furry friends and their humans 🐶💁🏻‍♀️ We’ve come together with our friends at El Chucho Feliz for this fun bundle. We love collaborating with other makers out there, supporting talented artisans in Guatemala. We’re only one small brand, but together with other socially-minded businesses, we can support a bigger movement that stands for ethical production practices and support for traditional crafts.

Order by Nov 29th and your shipping is only $7.50 within US for each bundle 💙 That’s because we have a friend taking these to the US herself (Thanks, Lea!). International shipping from Guatemala to US is not cheap, so we are happy to be able to reduce the final price this way for you. Shipping to other countries is also much cheaper from the US. Email me at mari@kakawdesigns.com to put in your order.

Scarf + Bark Bundle includes a dog collar made with naturally-dyed and handwoven ikat textile and genuine leather, made by El Chucho Feliz. We have the lucky pup’s human friend covered also with a naturally-dyed and handwoven scarf by Kakaw Designs.

Choose from Pretty in Pink and Indigo Ikat

The Pink hue for both the scarf and collar is from the natural dye cochineal. The footloom scarf is a new design, which means it’s not available anywhere else. The navy blues are, you guessed it, from natural Indigo. These naturally-dyed textiles are all dyed and handwoven by hand. The Corte Wraps are a little different because they are made with repurposed traditional cortes, and then are decorated with plant-dyed indigo cotton threads along the edges and the fringes. The collar might look more green than blue, which is because this ikat design has two colors: indigo and turmeric (blue + yellow = green).

Indigo fringe Kelly 1

Collar sizes:

S (11″-13″ / 28cm-33cm)

L (14″-16″ / 35cm-40cm)

XL (16″-21.5 / 40cm-53cm)

XXL (14.5”-20.5” / 35cm-50cm)

Scarf size:

Humans are so much easier, one size fits all when it comes to scarves.

Width: 20 in / 51 cm
Length: 90 in /230 cm

Price: $80 plus $7.50 shipping within US. Put your order in by November 29th, for this reduced special shipping price.

Normal combined retail price ranges from $110-$135. (That’s a savings of $30 – $55 per bundle!)

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Curious about ikat designs, and the whole weaving process in general? Take a look at our video.

XOXO,

Mari