The Custom Design Process

It’s been a fulfilling process for me personally to work as a facilitator for custom orders, connecting creatives abroad and local artisans this way. I asked Rita from Wild Shade Designs to write a little about the process of working with me to provide the client’s perspective. Read on below to see what she said.

These orders are helpful in collectively increasing work for our artisan partners. But more than that, they also get to try new design concepts, learning, growing, and creating new paths in a competitive artisanmade industry.

Right now with the COVID-19 situation, our artisan partners don’t have the normal access to sales – whether that be a small coop storefront, a stall at the artisan market, or orders for other local stores. These sales are all paused, until further notice. So custom orders are especially helpful at the moment, as we are also experiencing challenges as a small business, and worry about keeping steady production for our artisan partners.

If you feel inspired to create something in collaboration with us, please shoot me an email at mari@kakawdesigns.com to get the conversation started.

XOXO,

Mari


Review of the custom design process by Rita:

Designing my own textile and having it produced into products was something I wanted to do for a long time, but it seemed like something that would be cost prohibitive for a small maker like myself.  I sell naturally dyed scarves, and I wanted to try something new and more diverse to grow my shop, but I was concerned that the number of units required to produce a custom product would make it impossible for me.  After a lot of back and forth in my mind, I sketched out a design and e-mailed it to Mari at Kakaw Designs.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was surprised to find the minimum order was very reasonable and not an issue.  I am not a professional designer, so I was also a bit concerned that my sketches wouldn’t be adequate, but the sketches turned out to be just fine for the process.

I was also concerned that producing custom products in another country without being on the ground there would be almost impossible, but it is actually quite easy.  I send the design to Mari, and she handles the rest.  She communicates with the weavers and leatherworkers, gets the products packaged and shipped, and does all the legwork for you.  The process is much easier than I had imagined in the beginning, and it is truly magical to carry something made by talented artisans using your design!

My first design was pretty simple, so I wanted to try something a bit more complex for the next order.  I created a sketch and sent it to Mari, who then consulted the weaving cooperative to get feedback on the design.  After consulting the weavers, we adjusted the design to better fit the limitations of the dying and weaving process.  The process requires flexibility and exchange of ideas, and I really feel it is a collaborative process between designer and artisan.  In my mind, that makes the textile even more special.

 

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I am so glad I started this process with Kakaw Designs.  The custom design process has allowed me to expand my micro-business and develop an outlet for creative expression I would not have had otherwise.  In addition to the scarves and bags we have previously worked on, I am now working with Mari to expand into custom blouses as well.  If you’ve been thinking about the custom order process, but haven’t quite made up your mind, I recommend you give it a try.  It’s amazing fun to create your own custom designs, and once you get started, you realize just how infinite the possibilities are!

-Rita, Wild Shade Designs

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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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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.

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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.

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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:

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Ceramic Bundle with Cappuccino Sets

XOXO,

Mari

 

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>

Collab Art Totes

We are loving these Art Totes, designed by Kelly from Cardamom Collective ❤️ We worked on the textile colors and the general bag concept together, and the end result is so beautiful! These totes have been such a hit that we have now produced the design in a variety of naturally-dyed tones for Kelly. Take a look!

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We always enjoy collaborations, but with Kelly it’s especially fun because we dream up new color schemes together. And these gorgeous hues are used as part of our original products as Kakaw Designs as well.  Like our Duffel:

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(Side note: do you notice a certain familiarity here with the beautiful model? She’s Kelly’s cousin Lily of course! 😆)

Coming up next: rich hot pink tones – can you believe these colors come from natural dyes?

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Do you have artisanmade design dreams? Let me know, we’d love to help you. Our artisan partners are talented natural dyers, weavers, embroiderers, leather workers, and even a silversmith. Together, we’ve been able to create a wide range of unique high-quality products. Email me at mari@kakawdesigns.com to get the conversation started.

 

XOXO,

Mari

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

Announcing: Spring Capsule Collaboration

While we were able to restructure ourselves and have for the most part figured out how to keep the business going while I work on my master’s in Sustainable Development in Europe, there are certain aspects that have been difficult to keep up from so far away.  Product design is one of these things.

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Mari with partner weavers at Lake Atitlán

So when Elena wrote to me when she happened to be traveling through Austria last year, I was missing Guatemala so much – the colors, the weather, the people – and I was delighted by the surprise connection made through Instagram, and the opportunity to feel connected to Guatemala again, even for just an afternoon.

We got to talking, and it was clear that Elena and I had some common passions and concerns about the textile tradition and weavers in Guatemala.  We talked about the role of private brands and designers; the pros and cons associated with western influence.  At this point, she was just exploring the idea of being an Artisan Liaison, someone who would connect textile artisans in the Ixil region to different buyers, including designers.  I told her I thought that was a great idea, especially since I had been away from Guatemala for the first time since starting the business, and was feeling first-hand the importance of being on the ground, next to artisans, in order to develop new products.

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Elena in traditional handwoven outfit from Nebaj, Ixil region in Guatemala

Well, we are excited to be teaming up for a small spring capsule jewelry collection featuring handwoven textiles from San Juan Cotzal, in the Ixil region of Guatemala.  This is a very rural area, and while I had admired their brocade designs for years, had not seriously considered working with the group due the geographic distance.  It’s hard to communicate new designs, and to make sure the designs come out the way they should. In the almost 5 years of Kakaw Designs, we have never developed a perfect product on the first try.  Trial and error are just part of the process, tweaking the details to make things better.  There is also plenty of room for misunderstandings when working with real people, and things just take a bit longer in the handmade world.  That’s why I wasn’t willing to take on that risk with a group so far away… until now, and that’s because we’re really counting on Elena.  Without an Artisan Liaison, we would not be able to work with such a remote group.

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Santos works on a prototype.  Photo by Elena Laswick

We’re so excited to be sharing more with you, SOON.

The capsule jewelry collection will be released along with spring/summer blouses, cardigans, and bags.  All in happy tones – because this has been such a cold winter in Europe, I just need more color in my life!

<Want to learn about other collaborations? Find some here.>

<Interested in the complex reality of ethical dilemmas working with artisans? Find it published on Eco Warrior Princess.>

XOXO,

Mari

Featured on The Maker Journal!

Take a look at this beautiful website full of narratives about artisan traditions and slow fashion practices around the world.  I love this online community feel of people who believe in the value of handmade beauties.

Our upcoming Textile Travels was featured!  Take a look at the whole piece here.

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I’ve found myself in a little pickle as the founder of Kakaw Designs, a small artisanmade brand based in Guatemala, and now also a master’s student in Sustainable Development in Europe.  It seems to me that conscious consumers are more and more focused on the environmental side of fashion, pushing for locally-made products and a general reduction in consumption.  While I am a big supporter of these movements and personally believe that More is not always Better, these trends lead me to wonder about the social and economic side effects for the small-scale producers that I’ve worked with for years now in Guatemala.

We are so excited for all the possibilities to come this summer.  Time to explore new creative ideas, together with our artisan partners.  Want to know more?  As always, just email me at: mari@kakawdesigns.com.

XOXO,

Mari

SCARFSEASON celebrate with 20% off!

It’s getting chilly these days… are you feeling the beautiful autumn breeze, too?

This is one of my favorite seasons, one that I’ve missed in Guatemala since it’s always spring there (really, that’s not a complaint – I love spring, too!).  This year, I’m in Austria working on my master’s in Sustainable Development, and I’m so glad I brought along a few scarves.  I’m a little worried for winter, I’m sure it will be the coldest in my life yet.  I will definitely be carrying around my handwoven + naturally-dyed scarves with me, all the time 🙂

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Are you feeling chilly, too? Take 20% off all scarves with code SCARFSEASON until Sunday, October 22nd.  Order two and we’ll include a handmade Luggage Tag as a gift 😉

Some of my favorites this season:

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Rebozo del Lago, a wide and cozy shawl dyed with plants.  Handwoven + intricate ikat designs. (Retail $200)

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Naturally-dyed footloom scarves in Indigo and Plum. (Retail $75)

<<See more of our ethical scarves>>

 

I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful change of seasons, the trees changing colors, losing leaves, the fresh breeze but still some warm sunshine peeking through, too.

XOXO,

Mari