Mujeres de Maíz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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With some of the weavers

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Weavers in Cobán

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

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

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Backstrap weaving

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Herlinda weaves with concentration

Picbil loom

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

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

Xibalba Joyas: elevating jade through design

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

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

 

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

Thank you so much!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

 

Reviews of textile adventure in Guatemala

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“Guatemala has been on my textile travel wish list for years, so when I spotted Mari’s trip I snapped up the opportunity and oh what a treat it turned out to be! Antigua is an absolute delight, but it was extra special being taken off the beaten track by Mari into the rural villages and meeting the wonderful artisans and cooperative groups in their homes. The workshops were a highlight and it was a privilege to spend creative time with the charming and very patient artisans who happened to be great cooks too! An unexpected bonus being treated to their traditional homemade dishes. At all times, I felt totally safe and reassured in Mari’s capable and calm hands plus traveling in a small group was really pleasant. The moment I left, I longed to return, thank you Mari, it was textile heaven! “

-Ricky

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We’re honored that a couple of participants of our Textile Travel from last year shared their experiences with us. Thank you 🙏

This  year’s trip also incorporates new ideas gained from last year’s first adventure, and feedback based on slowing down a little bit to have more time to take in all the beauty and textile techniques, and debrief with more energy in our group setting. Accordingly, we’ve also added new workshops like our pomom and tassel-making at our favorite cozy hotel in Antigua.  Learn more about this year’s trip here.

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“Traveling with Kakaw was such a fantastic experience. I loved that the other participants were as excited as I was about really learning new skills. The individual instructors were master weavers, dye artists, and embroiderers, and being welcomed into their homes for meals and workshops was such a great experience. The whole trip was really thoughtful and well planned. I came away with a few new skills and a pronounced appreciation for the work that goes into the beautiful textiles of Guatemala.”

-Amanda

 

This year we have two itineraries available:

Creative Textile Adventure: August 1-9

The Quetzal Adventure: August 8-14

Sign up in February and receive $150 off as an early-bird offer. Bring a friend, and get $100 off each too 🙂 Email mari@kakawdesigns.com for more information.

 

Xoxo,

Mari

25% Holiday Code is live

Just a note that our 25% off sale is going on! Use code HOLIDAYS2018 for 25% off all orders over $50 until December 31st.

We took a different approach this year. Usually we try to avoid selling out of products, but this year that’s already proven difficult. Some of our newest items are now sold out, but still plenty of other items are in stock for shipping both from US and Guatemala, so don’t worry.

Shop at kakawdesigns.com

 

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Working with artisans – is having a brand the best way?

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.

< Read: 4 Most Common Dilemmas of an Artisan Made Brand >

 

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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.

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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.

Read the blog post by Emmy about her thoughts behind Kaleido Collection >

 

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.

XOXO,

Mari

 

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Finally online… new treasures!

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.

XOXO,

Mari

mari@kakawdesigns.com

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<Find the items in New Arrivals section of our website>

Are you in Guatemala? Join our textile fun, even just one workshop.

We are opening our creative textile workshops during Textile Travels  to those already in Guatemala! Come learn more about the textile traditions of the beautiful Maya country, and practice some of the techniques yourself. Get creative, have fun, exchange ideas to benefit artisans and participants alike.

These workshops also include home-cooked meals and local visits to experience authentic village life. Cultural exchange through shared passions in textiles.

Interested? Let me know! Email mari@kakawdesigns.com

 

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