We have the great pleasure of introducing our good friend Kelly as one of the co-leaders of our upcoming Textile Travel in November, 2022. “From Fiber to Fabric” is our favorite week-long itinerary for fiber and textile enthusiasts. Spinners, dyers, weavers, knitters and overall creatives — this trip is for you! And if you’re just getting started on your fiber art journey, you’ll love the introduction to the techniques included in this week.
So, who is Kelly, you ask?
She is a passionate art educator and practitioner who draws inspiration from her extensive travel all over the world:
Kelly has taught in France, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Italy and has attended classes and art workshops in Italy, Sweden, India, Peru and Guatemala. In her graduate work she took a close look at the way we can explore issues of history, place and community through the artistic traditions. She is the owner of Cardamom Collective, which uses the traditions of textiles and craft along the Silk Road to connect and understand the way we have influenced each other throughout history and across continents. For the past six years she has taught K-8 art in Milwaukee Public Schools where she strives to create a dynamic and supportive space rooted in social justice and artistic traditions around the world. She has traveled to nearly thirty countries and believes the best way to understand the world and ourselves is to have authentic conversations with each other and learn from the communities we are fortunate to visit. She loves Guatemala and is thrilled to be co leading this trip!
Last year during our week at Lake Atitlán, Kelly was kind to lead a watercolor workshop for the other participants one afternoon. It was so much fun — and we’re sure to include time for some more painting this year!
This year’s trip is sure to be another week full of artistic exploration rooted in cultural heritage, learning alongside our local Tzutujil teachers at Lake Atitlán. Join us November 20-27th! We are currently taking reservations with a $250 deposit. As this trip is held on Thanksgiving week, we have participants joining us both in solo and family units – it will be a great mix of artistic minds.
While online backstrap weaving classes have made learning and practicing this heritage art form accessible around the world, we’re aware of the unique challenges online learning can pose, especially for beginners. That’s why when I received these questions from a new weaver recently, I thought so many more beginners could benefit.
Take a look below at some of the common beginner questions when it comes to backstrap weaving:
First pic is of my progress. It is very slow especially when I have backtrack because of a mistake. I try to check after each line of weaving but somehow the mistakes showed up afterwards.
It looks great! It looks like you are progressing really well. Good on you for also fixing mistakes, I know that can be frustrating. I like to think of beginner looms/panels are practice pieces, that you can hopefully look back on later and see the improvement in your practice and technique from beginning to end. Likely, you will notice that you are making less mistakes as you progress.
2. This next pic shows the back. After weaving a little I noticed a warp thread that was not incorporated. It’s connected to the top and bottom wood pieces but was not included in the the initial weaving at the top or bottom on the loom. Should I just leave it dangling? Or try to include it somehow?
It’s not uncommon for loose warp threads to appear on the back, especially when they’re the first or last of that color bordering another color. This is not a problem. I would recommend weaving just like you have been, basically ignoring the loose warp. And when you’re done weaving, you can simply cut it off and tie the top end securely. The bottom loose end shouldn’t really move anymore if the rest of the warp has been woven.
3. Last photo is a close up of the wood dowel that is connected to the bottom warp threads. I really have a hard time bringing the bottom threads up to weave and I noticed there is a lot of fibers stuck on the little threads. Am I doing something wrong? Should I remove these thread fibers or just leave them? It seems like the more I weave the more there are. If I need to remove them, what is the best way to do so?
I see the fuzz on the string heddle. This is a common situation for beginner; it still happens to me, too. It happens when the weaver moves the string heddle more than “necessary” — advanced weavers are used to making little movements so that the fuzz doesn’t collect. I would recommend trying to get the fuzz off (without damaging the string heddle). I have used tiny scissors carefully in the past, or a pair of tweezers – I wonder if that might also work for you? I’ve found these fuzz balls are hard to yank off. This also happens because the weavers in San Juan la Laguna who dyed the warp and prepped the loom prefer to work with unmercerized cotton. Communities have different preferences, and in many other areas this problem is avoided (somewhat) by using mercerized cotton. It might be that the unmercerized cotton takes natural dyes better.
4. Not that I’m close to worrying about this …But what happens when I don’t have space to continue. There’s the narrow rod at the very top, the thick rod and the rod with the heddle strings. All the rods and heddles take space plus the sword too.
Good questions, again, on how to “finish” the panel. The loom you’re working on was developed as a “practice loom” with the idea of it turning into a wall-hanging as-is with all the tools attached. That would be my recommendation for your very first loom, but of course whenever you feel finished, you can also release the rope going around both ends of the warp, on the warp bars — and this would allow you to take off the panel. While it is possible on a backstrap loom to have a clean four-selvage weave, I don’t recommend this for your first work because it’s super detailed and incredibly laborious.
If/when you’d like another loom, we’d be happy to make you one, perhaps with a longer warp so that you can make a functional item (Scarf? Table runner?). We could make space for fringes on the ends of the warp. If you feel ready, it would also be possible then to incorporate brocade designs into your next weaving. We produced professional videos to help with that process in high-def.
Do you have other questions? Join the supportive Backstrap Weavers group on Facebook; we’re there to help each other!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
Welcoming a new baby to the family
A wedding anniversary gift
They turned into beautiful hand-embroidered pieces!
From photograph to embroidery…
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 email@example.com. We can get the conversation started this way and move on from there.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Well, it’s been quite some time since writing here on the blog. Here’s an update on our recent happenings.
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.
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?
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.
“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?”
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!
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.
“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! “
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.
“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.