What do these figures represent?

We’re often asked about the meaning behind brocade patterns found in Guatemala, woven row by row on backstrap looms, probably most noted on traditional huipiles. Some figures and patterns are specific to regions or towns, and others such as geometric figures seem to appear in many areas. Specific techniques used (Yes, there are many variations to brocade!) and color choices may differ, but certain repetitive patterns like diamonds, crosses, and zigzags are widely used.

But just because a figure might be “common” doesn’t mean it’s simple to decipher the symbolism behind them. Beliefs are often regional, and interpretations of similar figures can vary so much depending on who you ask. And just like other cultural aspects, these beliefs have probably shifted over time, adapting, mixing, evolving.

In this post, we’ll focus on just some (eight, to be exact) of the more prevalent traditional brocade figures currently found and used in San Juan Cotzal. These explanations were prepared by the cooperative of weavers from the same town that we work with, the ones whose work we feature here on our Artisan Direct page. Translation from Spanish to English is done by me (Mari) and I’ll also note the name of each figure in Ixil as the weavers have written them.

Can you spot some of the same figures in the beautiful huipil? (Pssst it’s available for sale by the same weavers! Find it here.)

  • 1. The Money Bird
“Tzichin – The Money Bird // This bird symbolizes the luck in having money, and having this figure is said to attract financial fortune wherever we go.”
  • 2. The Glass
“Ukab’al – The Glass // The cup or glass symbolizes home life and time spent with family; the warmth of a home. The glass is used to serve water, and represents good health and nutrition.”
  • 3. The Volcanoes
“Mam Munte – The Volcanoes // This figure stands for all volcanoes and mountains in the world, all much bigger than we are.”
  • 4. Family
“Ku Tzuk Ku B’aal – Family // This figure features a father, mother, and in the middle, a child. It represents humans, their unity and how parents take care of their children. Wearing this figure brings luck to the one’s family. “
  • 5. The Four Corners of the Earth
“Kaa Paq’ Il Txava’ – The Four Corners of the Earth // Represents Earth, where we live. Also known as the four cardinal points.”
  • 6. The Deer
“Mazat – The Deer // Because of the strength of this animal, it represents fathers as protectors of families.”
  • 7. The Corn Field Bird
“Toxokopil K’om – The Corn Field Bird // This figure shows the bird that feeds on corn, the greens of nature. It symbolizes life itself.”
  • 8. The Traveling Bird
“Xaol – The Traveling Bird // This Traveling Bird existed in years past. It would travel to the other side of the mountain, and when it rained, they all went up to the heavens. They would sing every afternoon from the clouds. This is the figure that represents human beings, and it protects people who travel to other towns, even countries.”

The cooperative of weavers from San Juan Cotzal, all proudly wearing handwoven huipiles that likely feature many of the above traditional brocade figures. Find their creations for sale here.

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.

Custom embroidery with Mujeres de Maíz

We are absolutely in love with the bird embroidery talent over at Mujeres de Maíz from Santiago Atitlán. We had a few special custom orders of embroidered pieces for very special occasions – one for a newborn joining a family, another for an anniversary, and another for a birthday. Take a look at how these sketches have come to embroidered life!

We found these personalized orders to be so sweet, and we think this would be a great option for the holidays also. Since the handmade process takes time, please plan ahead and get in touch with us if a custom embroidery piece interests you. We can also facilitate turning the embroidery piece into a product, but of course every step takes time 🙂

 

Bird embroidery 1

Welcoming a new baby to the family

 

Cardinals embroidery

A wedding anniversary gift

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They turned into beautiful hand-embroidered pieces!

Horned guan pic

From photograph to embroidery…

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For a personalized birthday gift

The best way to get started on your own custom order is to either send us a sketch or a photograph of what you had in  mind, to mari@kakawdesigns.com. We can get the conversation started this way and move on from there.

XOXO,

Mari

2020: The Year of Pivoting

This year’s theme word seems to be “pivot.” It feels like more than ever, the importance of shifting perspectives and priorities is evident. With the arrival of COVID-19 to Guatemala in mid-March and its following restrictions, we’ve been pivoting as much as possible.

Here are six ways we have been shifting, adapting, pivoting:

1. One of a Kind creations online

With our retail stores closed in Antigua, I decided to take products out of stores and try our luck selling one-of-a-kind items on our website. We had been creating products with customizations tailored toward each local store, so the result was that we had many unique variations at hand. In the past, I had dreaded putting in the work to list one-unit variations online, but in this pandemic emergency state, there was no time for complaining. This lead to our One of a Kinds page, where we continue to list unique items online.

two bags

2. Direct sales from our artisan partners

The need for work in our partner artisans’ communities became evident very quickly, as people lost jobs all over, and tourism (both national and international) came to a sudden halt. This inspired us to start our Artisan Direct Pop-up online, and we have been pushing this page most during the pandemic as these items represent products that our partner artisans had already invested time and material into making. These are beauties our friends already had, ready to sell, when the pandemic hit. We do our part in checking quality, taking pictures, and writing down honest details of the work, incorporating techniques used as well as materials and measurements, and take care of all the logistics like payments and shipping. We hope our work creates an atmosphere of transparency and trust that can often be difficult to achieve with online shopping from countries afar.

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3. New work space in Antigua

These two new online sales efforts created a physical challenge in that I found myself without sufficient space to work given COVID-19 restrictions. So, I moved into Xibalba at the center of town, and have been working from there also with the help of Evelyn, who was instrumental in keeping Kakaw Designs going as our Production Manager while I was working on my master’s in Europe. I’m so grateful for the pieces falling into place in order to help us shift and grow our online offerings when it became suddenly necessary to go 100% digital.

4. Online sales in Guatemala

We realized that there was suddenly a market for online local sales within Guatemala, too. That’s why we launched our Kakaw Designs store on the new platform MejorShop. This Etsy-like concept allows us to reach local customers, and we can offer local discounts, too. We’re pretty excited to see where this project goes as online shopping is pretty new here in Guatemala.

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5. Affordable and beautiful cloth masks

Our best-selling item during this pandemic time has by far been the Cloth Masks made by Juan Carlos, which are going for $35 for a variety pack of 10. We’ve sold over 2,000 masks at this point, and the work has incorporated two other families, meaning that these orders have been supporting three families during this pandemic. We went through several changes on these masks as we faced material supply shortages and wanted to incorporate general improvements, like adding a nose wire and creating an opening for optional filters, which we also offer as an add-on. (You can read more about these changes here.)

masks packaging

6. Creative orders in a sheltered time

We’ve been fortunate with custom orders, and we are so grateful for our supporters! Somehow it feels like maybe people everywhere are trying to add color to their lives, to add some joy, and at the same time are doing their best to be conscious about where their money goes, who their purchases support during this challenging time. And maybe the concept of time has shifted too, like all of the sudden it doesn’t feel like a gigantic barrier to wait one month for a custom textile, bag, or a pair of shoes.

 

Next steps:

We’re continuing to pivot in different ways, and right now I’m pretty excited for these beautifully hand-embroidered cloth masks. Not only are they joyful, these masks provide work for our artisan partners in Sumpango, who are able to embroider from home.

 

 

We look forward to where the future takes us, and we hope to be able to shift perspectives to keep up. This year has provided the opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and re-align ourselves to our principal mission of working with rural artisans and facilitating access to markets through design, quality control, and overall enhanced trust. Thank you for joining us on this journey.

 

Mari

mari huipil

Guatemala Update: on the virus and traveling

Well, it’s been quite some time since writing here on the blog. Here’s an update on our recent happenings.

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COVID-19 has hit Guatemala. And on the day the very first positive virus test result was found, we were meant to start our Textile Travels. What a timing, huh? While we had a few cancellations, there were two participants who were already in the country, along with my mom. We had a good talk together, and we decided to continue with our itinerary to Lake Atitlán. I’m glad we did, as we had a wonderful time there.

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But on the day we were scheduled to come back to Antigua, it became more dire to do so, and quickly, because a public transport ban had been announced the night before. While I didn’t think that our private minivan would fall under this category, I was wrong – something about the licensing for transport of that size fits under the same category as the big refurbished school buses we like to call Chicken Buses. At that point, we did decide to cancel the rest of the trip, and hang out in Antigua.

I’d just like to put it out there that although these measures have been strict and drastic (we now have a shelter-in-place curfew at 4pm), I really can’t complain. I think these are good steps for trying to control the virus. And perhaps more than that, these are good measures for controlling the panic that can arise, especially in rural communities. For me personally, the potential chaos arising as well as the antagonizing of foreigners (because COVID-19 is coming from outside the country), have been more worrisome, especially when responsible for a small group of foreigners. Misinformation and at times flat out lies can spread as fast as the virus itself in areas where access to reliable information and the education to be able to weed through such rumors are lacking.

But, we made it. Everything went fine. We cancelled two of our workshops that were planned in surrounding areas of Antigua, and the whole portion going to Cobán. That’s okay. We still had a great trip, an adventure hopefully never to be repeated, but still a pleasant adventure together. What we couldn’t fit in were textile markets – unfortunately, they had been shut down by the day we were meant to rummage through vintage collections of handmade beauties. Well, there’s something left for next time, then. We always have to leave something for next time. Right?

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I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy wherever they are. All the internationals from our travels have gone home now. I am still here in Guatemala, hanging out at home with Berry. It’s going to be a challenging time for small businesses and local artisans, so I’ll be pushing online sales, starting with a One of a Kind Sale on our website this Sunday, March 29th.

 

XOXO,

Mari

 

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Q&A feature on Birds of a Thread

“How great would it be if we could come together and share our textile experiences and practices together, further strengthening bonds and supporting rural artisans to pursue innovative designs on their own?”

<Read more on Birds of a Thread>

That’s the inspiration behind our Textile Travels concept. As a small brand, we facilitate the reaching of new markets internationally through our unique designs. We work closely with talented artisans to make this happen while honoring their traditions. But if the artisan groups have their own storefronts or access to other stores/buyers, really the best case scenario as far as impact would be for them to be able to run with new designs on their own. Unfortunately, as a brand, we have to ask them to be respectful to our unique designs, meaning that they should not copy exactly what we have designed together. This hurts my heart a little every time!

with Francisca and Diego.jpg

Thus… we’re off to creating a safe space of sharing creative ideas and having fun – among international textile lovers with unique experiences and backgrounds and rural artisans thirsty for new ideas. It’s win-win for everyone.

<Read more on Birds of a Thread>

XOXO,

Mari

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Indigo San Juan

Shibori scarves

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mari with indigo shibori

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

Textile Travels Recap

Though it’s been over a month now since we said our goodbyes to our friends from our very first Textile Travels, I feel like I’m still processing the experience, there is just so much to take in.

 

First off, I’d like to say that we had a wonderful trip. It was a small group, which was great considering this was the first trip of its kind that I’ve organized, full of workshops with artisans for the goal of collaborative idea exchange. It’s a new concept for me and our partner artisans, so this was a trial run – a successful one at that.

Amanda indigo scarf

Amanda shows off her shibori work at Lake Atitlán

My favorite part was probably dyeing with Francisca and her cooperative of dyers and weavers. Indigo was especially fun, and I feel like where we were able to explore different designs and ideas well, since we all had a bit of experience with the magical dye, and had at least seen (some had even made) intricate shibori designs. I even stuck my jeans in the vat, and by the end of the day there was a whole line of indigo-dyed jeans, all from the weavers and their family members.  I loved that they  liked the idea!

Indigo Jeans

Line-up of jeans dyed in indigo

Shibori scarves

Indigo beauties, trying new things with the weavers

We also organized workshops for embroidery, ikat, backstrap brocade weaving, as well as many visits to observe other techniques. It was a packed itinerary, but we squeezed in down time whenever we could. I would personally prefer a slower-paced trip, but it’s hard when there are so many beautiful places to visit, so many textile workshops to participate in… and not everyone has the luxury of taking part in a longer itinerary.

 

I have some new ideas on how to improve the trip – how to encourage even more idea exchange, prepare the participants better for them, and make sure the artisans get as much out of the workshops as possible (and not just the travel participants). I’m excited.

Margarita in moutains

Rural travel is beautiful in more ways than just textiles

And now, looking at 2019, I’m wondering if people have any requests on the time of the year. This first trip took place in August, which was meant to be helpful for those busy during the school year. Though we got very lucky with the weather, it’s possibly not the ideal month for travel because it is still during the rainy season. October/November are usually better weather-wise.

 

With that said, please let me know if you would like to receive more information about the next trip, or if you have any particular requests.

 

XOXO,

Mari

mari@kakawdesigns.com

Brocade weaving class

Brocade weaving class

Brocade loom and threads

ikat on floor

Ikat + Indigo

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

 

Brocade backstrap weaving workshop2

Textile discovery embroidery class1

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