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What makes a bird a bird?


Ubiquitous and radiant, birds are true wildlife anyone can observe without flying to remote jungles. Since their presence is so commonplace it is easy to be unaware of their magic. Yet they have the potential to mesmerize anyone sitting still long enough.


Stop and marvel

I only started paying attention when I lived on a forested hill in Guatemala in my forties. (Guatemala boasts more than 700 bird species.) Trills and choruses, flashes of vibrant colors, and leafy branches alive with feasting flocks were a compelling distraction right outside my windows. My curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know their names, to get closer looks through binoculars, and to keep a journal of my “sightings”. Fortunately, I knew the phone number of a phenomenal local guide, who graciously helped me with the correct identifications. Few moments in my life match the breathless awe I experienced the first time I saw the elusive resplendent quetzal in an impressive courting display on the slopes of the Atitlan volcano. Spiraling and plunging with his long tail feathers rippling like ribbons: the sight brought me to tears!


Find out more about Guatemala's national bird, including audio of its distinct call here.



This is what distinguishes birds from other vertebrates. Feathers are fundamental to many aspects of a bird’s life. They function as insulation, aerodynamic power for flying, communication, as well as camouflage. 

Their colorful feathers are what inspire the women of Guatemala to embroider their blouses with bird images.

The town of Santiago Atitlan’s original Mayan name is Tz’Kin Jay, House of the Birds. It follows then that the characteristic patterns on traditional textiles here are of birds. Long ago geometric designs of herons, ducks, two-headed eagles, people, and corn plants were popular.

modern Atitlan

Over time their embroidery developed to include finer details of birds. These days women tend to pay more attention to their surroundings when they pick coffee in the mountains, especially noticing the rich bird life among the trees. The embroidered great blue herons, painted buntings, and summer tanagers on their blouses would win all the blue ribbons at county fairs, in my opinion. 


Example of modern-day designs.

Try embroidering this bird of paradise (an actual bird for which the plant is named!) Download a free pattern here. Bird of Paradise pattern 

The “House of Birds” in Guatemala also produces many of the beaded items we offer, among them hummingbirds and owls. 

Here is Mercedes at her craft, stringing beads to create the bright hummingbird ornaments.

Mercedes  hummingbird

Order beaded hummingbirds here

South Africans are equally skilled with beads, although the style is significantly different. They usually combine wire and beads, while the Guatemalans use thread to string beads for their figurines. Compare this unique hoopoe bead birdie which strikingly resembles the real deal. Their name mimics their call: “oop-oop”. 

hoopoe hoopoe

Order this unmistakeable ornament here hoopoe


In contrast, our patchwork Gooney bird from Thailand is a playful rendition of the black-footed albatross. Gooney is its informal name. (You can pick different colors and order one to hang on your doorknob right here.)

 During World War 2 the aircraft C-47 was nicknamed the “Gooney Bird” due to its similarity to the giant albatross in size and shape. The plane's role in supporting operations has been described as vital to the Allied victory. 

So, if it is FEATHERS that make the bird, what makes me a birder?  Birders are amateurs. We enthusiastically engage in the study of birds for the love of it, without calling it a profession. Yet. 

Our May Campaign for Prenatal & Postnatal Health Care

During the month of May, you can help us support one of our favorite programs: “Healthy Mommy & Me.” Based in Guatemala, this program provides mothers and babies from rural communities with prenatal and postnatal health care, health education, family planning, vitamins, supplements, and food vouchers.

In honor of Mother’s Day, we’re running a month-long campaign to promote the program, which is administered by the Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya (ODIM). Specifically, we’ll be donating 10% of our net sales in May.

According to Arely Juárez, Volunteer Coordinator for ODIM, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. In the rural communities where ODIM works, 8 out of 10 children are malnourished. ODIM fights this by bolstering nutrition, education, and health practices from conception to a child’s second birthday.

“Each year, we enroll about 120 mothers and babies in the program,” says Juárez. “You can be a part of this great effort!"

We’re proud to lend our support, and we hope that you will, too!

Who's Catching Dreams on the Slopes of Volcanoes?

volcano view

On a blue sky day, high up on the Atitlan volcano, under the quiet canopy of giant old growth, Guillermo sits and stares. Observes. Admires. The contemplative artist. A dreamer. This is his happy place.

Here he discovers ideas for designing his skillful weavings: outside, in western Guatemala’s verdant nature where he grew up.


Somebody showed him how to weave and embroider when he was only 8. His playmates were happy to receive his first colorful bracelets and this motivated him to keep at his craft into his teenage years. After a day of hard work in the fields, he would come home and make bracelets till the sun went down since his house had no electricity.

Encouraged by the positive reception his bracelets generated, our dream catcher took his wares to the streets, where tourist shop owners quickly started buying up all he carried. Soon the demand for his work became too great for this one-man operation, leading Guillermo to search for helpers. He found a few able women in his village whom he trained carefully, and today his growing business provides for several more households than his own.

dream mujeres

His product line is always expanding, and his designs are ever-changing to demonstrate the unique patterns that set them apart from what is commonly found in the markets. Take a look at his complex beaded dream catchers here. Or these fancy bracelets here.

dream catcherbracelet

Guillermo’s unusual curiosity and joie de vivre attract irresistibly like a magnet. One remembers a visit to his studio with great delight for a long time. His dad is turning 101 in a few months. We hope Guillermo also continues well into old age, catching dreams and weaving them into fine art.

101 years old

This is his dad at almost 101, dressed in the traditional outfit of the Tzʼutujil.

  young Guillermo

This is Guillermo as a young man, also dressed in his people's traditional dress, high on a rock hunting dreams.






The Not-so-Nutty Nut

palm tree

One way of describing a botanical nut is to say it’s a hard, round shell with something valuable or delicious inside. Not unlike a human head. And that is how the phrase “to be nuts about someone” came to mean thoughts about that person are filling one’s head, possibly driving one crazy.

Allow me to dazzle you with the extraordinary coconut while I introduce you to someone in the tropics whose dedication to his craft spans three decades.

coconut face

Coconuts (not truly nuts but drupes, as any botanist would tell you) grow high on slender palm trees. Ubiquitous on tropical beaches, where the salt spray and sandy soil limit the growth of most other trees, a mature coconut palm tree can produce up to 75 fruits per year. The word coconut derives from an old Portuguese word, “coco”, meaning head or skull. This is probably due to the three “holes” resembling two eyes and a mouth on its side. The holes are germination pores; a new shoot will emerge from one of these to start a new tree. The shell is softer at the holes and easily punctured to access the delicious water inside.

Apart from its culinary benefits, the shell and husk of coconut have proved functional in various ways: as fuel, as a source of carbon, as an abrasive to buff floors, or in making buttons, dishes, and musical instruments.

In Guatemala you can drink hot chocolate from a coconut cup while watching a local artisan cut intricate designs in small coconut disks, creating earrings or pendants.

Rafael     hand saw
Amilcar Rafael Chocoj Jimenez has perfected this art with a tiny handsaw. Most artisans use laser these days to cut out the patterns, while Rafael takes two hours to gently carve the shell till the image appears in relief. He is a perfectionist. Painstakingly so. His work's quality stands out when compared to mass-produced copies elsewhere on display. Rafael gets serious about the general decline in quality as the demand for cheaper substitutes increases.

Like many artists in Panajachel, he used to trade from a foldable table on the main street, but recently the town’s authorities have demanded all vendors have permanent and formal points of sale. This daily challenge has brought his goal of having a proper showroom to the forefront of his mind. He talks about wanting to demonstrate to his family and friends how art grows and that you can be successful when you strive for excellence in your work.

Family is a core element of Rafael’s story. His wife, Lesly Marisol, weaves the macrame bracelets, working alongside him. They have three beautiful children. He insists the whole household is integral to what he does and proudly shows them off.

Rafael and family

Because of widespread construction on Guatemala’s coast, obtaining his raw material is becoming increasingly complex and costly. Bamboo is an alternative he considers. We know he will continue to find a way.

Rafael’s unique creations:

earrings   necklace   bracelet

They’re stunning, they’re light, they float, and they were once drupes!

Order yours here today!

2022 IS A WRAP

As they say in Hollywood upon completion of a scene, “It’s a wrap.”

Last year’s story was filmed, edited, and released. We have before us a new scene and a clean storyboard. It can feel fresh and exciting to imagine all the possible connections, adventures, and growth that can unfold this year. For some, the uncertainty can have an immobilizing effect. In reality, 2023 is only a sequel or the next chapter of the grand story of our individual lives. Many of the scenarios will look the same, yet we get to choose our costumes.

This brings me to the timeless and versatile scarf.


Audrey Hepburn supposedly claimed, “When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitively like a woman, a beautiful woman.” Shawls. Scarves. Shrugs. Mantles. Stoles. Capes. Ponchos. Pashminas. Rebozos. Let’s call them wraps. They have the potential to add chic and elegance to any outfit.

Although the desire to enhance our image with feminine flair is why we tie a scarf around our necks, waists, wrists, or purses, they beautifully serve various additional purposes. We sometimes opt wearing a scarf or wrap for added warmth in place of a jacket or coat. Shawls feature widely in religious ceremonies, and some cultures require women’s heads and bodies to be covered with large mantles while in public. I have also seen women carrying babies or vegetables in a woven cloth, the next moment using the same shawl as a picnic blanket, or keeping their heads dry in a sudden downpour.

Even the etymology of the word “scarf” suggests utility. The Old French root escarpe means “sash or sling, a pilgrim’s purse suspended from the neck.” Old Norse had a word with similar letters denoting a small bag or satchel, and Medieval Latin’s scripa meant a bag woven of rushes.

(A weaving of rushes sounds a bit scratchy to me. Instead, head on over to Unique Batik’s collection of comfy, soft scarves here )

Style and usefulness aside, wearing a shawl can be a challenge. I’ve had my set of frustrations attempting a classy look while constantly having to re-drape. Fortunately, we have free access to countless experts online.
 You can also turn your shawl into a vest. ( Demo shawl to vest

Time to wrap it up.

Whatever the challenges ahead, let’s dress up for it!



The story goes that St. Nicholas knew of a poor family whose three daughters stood no chance of marriage without a dowry. He secretly slipped some gold coins into their stockings hung by the fireplace to dry, thus infusing their hearts with hope. Earlier European traditions hold that kids left straw out in their shoes for Odin’s horses, and discovered treats the next morning, which he left in exchange.

Today we hang large, custom-decorated stockings up in our living rooms in expectation of them being filled on Christmas morning with fun treats, and what I consider to be teaser gifts. They usually bulge and overflow like a cornucopia! In my grandma’s house, we hung an empty pillowcase by the foot of the bed on Christmas Eve. Father Christmas would come while we slept and drop his gifts into our sacks.

Whatever the size and type of your traditional receptacle, we offer a few unique Guatemalan options to surprise your family or guests of any age or gender. This good cheer will certainly spill over into the homes of our artisans, filling their hearts with hope much like St. Nick’s gold coins did long ago.

1. Star Tassel $18

Hang it on a doorknob or backpack. It is made of hand-embroidered felt, with a bright cotton tassel and a braided cotton loop for hanging.
order tassel here

2. Beaded Pen and Pencil Cover $14

pen cover
A brightly beaded cover featuring cool geometric designs and a topper with dangling stars
order pen cover here

3. Doggie Pouch $16

doggy pouch
Handy to keep doggy treats when you’re out on a walk, this small drawstring pouch hangs conveniently from a nylon hip belt and is great for carrying plastic bags as well.
order doggy pouch here

4. Huipil Coin Purse $5

coin purse
Embroidered cloth with zipper, perfect to stash coins or small items.
order coin purse here

5. Hackey Sacks $3

hackey sacks
This fun little ball is made of crocheted cotton, and filled with plastic pellets. They come in assorted colors and patterns. You can toss it around or use it as a stress ball.
order hackey sacks here

What's in your coin purse?


I always carry a coin purse in my hiking bag. Inside the small zippered pouch I store some cash, my lip balm, tissues, band-aids, and bubblegum. I find it easier and more pleasant locating the coin purse, than rummaging for a single band-aid, for example, among the flotsam that inevitably fills up the space inside a pack.   

 It turns out humans have found small pouches handy for centuries.

A glacier mummy (presumably 5,000 years old), discovered in 1991, had a small purse attached to his hip, containing knives, flint, and bits of food! In ancient Greece and Rome, simple drawstring leather purses were commonly attached to people’s belts or hidden in the folds of their clothes, in which they carried jewels, coins, or paper notes.

Once paper bills also counted as currency, wallets became the primary mode of carrying purchase power, as it still does today. But in my experience, a small pouch, with my essentials within easy reach, is still indispensable when I hit the streets or the trails.

Unique Batik offers a wide selection of coin purses: sewn from fabric or beads delicately woven into luxurious pouches. Catalina Felipe, from San Jorge la Laguna in Guatemala, is one of the artisans whose retro-style beaded purses are available to purchase here.


As it is the case with most artists, Catalina is barely getting by with the income her art generates. Sales are sporadic, and the market is frequently saturated with similar items. However, unlike many artists elsewhere, she does not have the option of earning extras by bussing tables or serving coffee. Apart from her husband’s salary as a welder, the ten-strong household subsists on the sales of her crafts and the periodic employment of her teenage sons as day laborers. They all live happily in a two-room house in this village of closely constructed buildings. She counts her family as precious blessings, but she wishes they had more space, specifically for planting a vegetable garden.

I wonder what Catalina’s coin purse holds?

How about filling hers today by ordering yours here? (They make perfect stocking stuffers, by the way.)

coin purse


It’s the longest muscle in your body, running obliquely across the front of your thigh. It engages when you fold your legs to sit cross-legged, helping the leg rotate into position.

Before I share the etymology of the name, I want to take you with me on another virtual visit to Guatemala. Walk with me through the backstreets of Panajachel as motorcycles and three-wheel taxis whiz by us. The sidewalk is narrow if present. The walls of businesses and houses come right to the street, and the open doors allow us to peep inside as we stroll by. A frequent scenario we observe is a male tailor bent over his sewing machine, the floor covered in bright scraps of woven cloth, and the radio tuned to a gospel station.

Let’s stop for a chat with one of them, shall we?

Francisco Panajachel tailor

Francisco has been sewing bags and packs for Unique Batik for many years. His workshop is at his house, where he lives with his wife, children, and in-laws. Here is a man who finds great delight in his work! If a piece takes 3 hours or more to finish, he still smiles, because, he says, “It takes time to make something you love.” He enjoys seeing the “puzzle” come together, each bag a unique combination of patterns and colors, and finds sweet satisfaction in his finished creations.

Love work

“It takes time to make something you love.” 

Pocket pack

Order Francisco's pocket pack

adventure pack

Order Francisco's adventure pack

zunil backpack

Order Francisco's Zunil Backpack

The friendships he formed through his trade is something he deeply treasures. Over the hum of the sewing machine, he shares with us his gratitude for the help of friends in making his childhood dream a reality, i.e., owning his own business. This has provided a way for him to maintain a roof over the heads of his family, and he hopes it will continue to ensure a steady income for him and his wife even in their old age. When sales are down, his main concern is that he can keep up with the school fees for his sons, because their education is a high priority. He would love to see his son’s goal of becoming a medical doctor through to completion.

How does he feel about our rapidly changing world? On the negative side, he experiences increasingly elevated costs for his raw material, which the buyers do not always consider when negotiating prices for his products. The new online platforms on which he can promote and sell his work he sees as a positive aspect of modern times, albeit challenging to learn and navigate.

We have poked enough. Let the man get on with his business. Three hoorays to Francisco, “Sastre de Excelencia” of Panajachel!

Francisco and his wife

This is where we arrive at the story behind naming our longest muscle “sartorius”. “Sastre” is Spanish for “tailor”. It comes from a Catalan word (“sartre”) that grew on the Latin root “sarcire”, which means to sew, patch, or mend. The muscle in focus, also known as the “tailor’s muscle”, is so called because of the typical cross-legged positions in which tailors once sat to do their work. We find pictures or drawings dating back to the 15th century demonstrating them sitting on tables in front of big windows. (You can read about this tradition and see some illustrations here)


I Made My Own "Bootstraps"


Diego was a baby when his dad was kidnapped during Guatemala’s thirty-year-long civil war.

They never heard from him again.

Little Diego had to do his part to help the family survive without the income and protection of a father. His work was to collect firewood from the forested slopes of the Atitlan volcano bordering their village.

What kind of a future can a young boy imagine for himself in such traumatic and desperate circumstances?

(Put on his sandals for a moment: what are your chances of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps"?)

Diego’s new destiny was set in motion when he found a job at an American jewelry workshop down the street from his house. Still just a teenager, he learned the craft of turning seed beads into stunning fashion accessories. After working there for eight years, he ventured out on his own, making jewelry at home. He’d walk down to the docks and peddle his creations to tourists as they stepped off the boats.

That was his first bold move on the path upwards.

His integrity and talent were soon recognized by foreign buyers. Unique Batik made his acquaintance almost a decade ago and has happily kept him busy ever since. Today he employs 35 of his people, the Tjutujil of Santiago Atitlan, as well as a few family members.

He says his art is his passion...

and his happiness is beads!

These days orders arrive from as far away as Canada. Quite often he is commissioned by interest groups to set their logos in a brooch or pin. This requires time and effort to get the colors just right, but the results are strikingly satisfying.

What Diego likes best about his job is the moment an order is shipped and he receives his payment. Ka-ching! (Don’t we all?) It’s not just he and his 75-year-old mother who is thriving. The blessing extends to all 35 households involved in filling orders.

Yes, he pulled himself up, one strand of beads at a time. His current goal is to open a boutique studio on the main street of his town, where his creations will be on elegant display.

We salute you, Diego!

Check out samples of Diego’s popular creations below:

crystal bracelet 

  Kensington Crystal bracelet

three strand necklace   

Savannah Three Strands Necklace           


  beaded pen case

Beaded Pen Case


hummingbird earrings  

Hummingbird Earrings

  moon flower earrings

Moonflower Earrings


How this woman finally attended school at the age of 33

Joy in beading

She could only dream of learning to read and write as a little girl. As one of fourteen children, Carmelita had responsibilities in the household from an early age. She took care of younger siblings and sold handicrafts to tourists on the streets. There were no resources, time, or hope for sending her to school. Watching her dream for education slowly fade as she grew up, she hoped that her own children one day would be afforded the opportunity.

Next generation

When she was old enough, her sister taught her how to weave seed beads into jewelry. Her skills and dedication paid off as she successfully traded these delicate creations in the subsequent years. So much so, that she has been able to support all six of her children through high school! Seeing them established in the professional careers they studied for is her pride and joy.


A kind foreigner whom she met while selling on the street one day, heard of her childhood dream and connected her with a tutor. This is how, at age 33, Carmelita was finally taught to read and write. This experience emboldened her to enroll in primary school, and eventually, she finished sixth grade along with the twelve-year-old students.

weaving with beads

Rainbows, flowers, trees

Inspired by the dramatic beauty and vivid colors of nature around her Guatemalan village, she designs and crafts intricate pieces, which you can view and buy here: bracelets, rings, chokers, badge holders, and eyeglass holders. What she appreciates about modern times are the technological advances that made communication much easier between her and the customers. Because Carmelita delights in getting orders and filling them on time! Finding the right colors for specific orders is sometimes a challenge. A challenge she doggedly accepts. She says her husband is her greatest support.

Faith seeds

And now Carmelita has a new dream: she wants to buy a car. Reality check: the percentage of car owners in Guatemala’s population is the same as the percentage of the US population who do not own cars (8%). In other words, this is a big ambition! Her children smile and tease her, but she has seen a few preposterous dreams dusted off and come to life already. The little seed beads strung into jewelry are called “mostacillas”, a word related to “mostaza”, which is Spanish for “mustard.” This reminds me of the familiar “faith like a mustard seed” challenge. With her sincere and indefatigable trust, I daresay she will yet see mountains move!

seed beads