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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.

shawls

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!

5 ORIGINAL IDEAS (ALL UNDER $20) FOR STUFFING THOSE STOCKINGS

stocking

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

tassle
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?

hiking

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.

Catalina

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

HOW DID THE SARTORIUS MUSCLE GET ITS NAME?

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"

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.

Serendipity

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

BATIK

     

BATIK 

How do YOU pronounce this word? Most English speakers say buh-TEEK with emphasis on the second syllable. The word, of Javanese origin, is pronounced BAH-tik in Indonesian, with emphasis on the first syllable. According to some sources the term evolved from Javanese amba (to write) and the Malay word titik (dot). Writing with dots…

Mystique

When I start digging for origins, Indonesia features prominently. (Indonesian batik was internationally recognized when UNESCO added it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2009. Read about it:  UNESCO Cultural Selection.) 

The Indonesian island of Java’s fine batiks were highly sought after by traders from Europe, the Arab world, and India, not long after the middle ages. Yet, it appears the art form was practiced in various ancient cultures. A batik-like linen grave cloth has been unearthed in Egypt, which dates from the 4th century BC. White patterns contrast with an indigo blue background, which could very well have been made by scratching designs into the wax.

Technique

Wax is the keyword here. Hot, liquid wax. Patterns are created by dropping dots and lines with a spouted tool filled with wax onto cloth, or with wax-soaked stamps. Then the cloth is soaked in cold water dye. Everywhere the wax was applied, it resists the dye. When the piece is washed in hot water, the wax melts away, resulting in a two-toned printed piece of cloth. The process can be repeated multiple times with new wax designs applied once the cloth is dry, then dipped into new shades or colors.

Unique

Phew! What a labor-intensive process! One can see why Unique Batik even re-purpose the precious batik fabric cut-offs into beautiful products. For example, check out these earrings or these scrunchies.

Since 1999 when Unique Batik first met a few small artists in West Africa, its own indelible impressions are clearly seen. Over the years trusting relationships with the families have slowly grown, as regular personal visits are made to the workshops. Unique Batik is still a vital link between them and customers on this side of the Atlantic.

               

So, big applause for tremendous and faithful effort is appropriate! And a little pause for reflection:

I was thinking about the singularity of each hand-printed cloth. (The word “unique” has roots in the word “one”.) Have you thought about how we all leave our unique mark in the circles we move, intentionally or not? By our individual choices, we can resist common default reactions to what life throws at us, just like the wax repels the dye, with extraordinary results! Imagine how our environments can be custom decorated by forgiveness instead of bitterness, by thankfulness instead of complaining. Each one of our pièce de résistance a jaw-dropping work of art.

Pique your “Interestique”

If you want to try your hand at the actual process of batik, you can follow this tutorial for a small beginner project: Handprinted Introduction to Batik

To Market with My Basket
Paper or Plastic?

Plastic. The woven kind, standing tall among the reusable choices of our day. Not mass-manufactured, but individually plaited by the delicate fingers of a family I’ve known for two decades.


Come With Me

First, you need to stomach several hours of winding mountain road travel in a crowded minibus from Guatemala City (the subject of another story, another day).

Next, you ascend a precariously steep cement staircase of 144 irregular steps to arrive at our friends’ house in a hamlet clinging to the vertical sides of the San Francisco River Valley. If you still have breath in your lungs at this altitude, you’ll soon lose it to the priceless views of Lake Atitlan from here! (Where in the world?)

Stringed Instruments

Our host comes to the gate to welcome us with a big smile. The walls are hung with loops of colorful plastic wire. Baskets in various stages of completion are sitting on the kitchen table amid open school books. Wooden frames in different sizes are stacked on top of the pantry cabinet. Chickens cluck in their pens and a pot of black beans is gurgling on the wood stove. This, right here, is where the magic happens.

Luisa, her soft-spoken husband and their six beautiful daughters (among them a set of twins) are all involved in the family business. He is a mason by trade and the girls are all in school, but everyone joins in weaving baskets when they have extra time. You can sense the family’s pride in their handiwork and shared excitement when an order comes in from Unique Batik. They are happy to show us how it’s done: each tight wound of the string around the rugged wooden pegs, in and out, over and under, culminating in symphonies of color.

Big baskets take her two days to finish, and the smaller ones are a full day’s work. (Here “hand” is put back in hand-crafted!) Once a week she totes (the pun intended) a collection of her baskets to the local market, where she trades on the sidewalk. The orders for baskets to export come periodically, and they are made the same way and with the same dedication. One by one.

Pack up your Troubles in a Handy Tote and Smile, Smile, Smile

These woven baskets are ubiquitous in Guatemala and I have an assortment myself! In my opinion, they are the most practical option for produce shopping at the farmer’s market, packing a picnic, and transporting or storing all my general and specific paraphernalia. They are durable, easy to clean, and they are just plain pretty.

Our short visit has brought smiles to all. We leave with several purchases, full hearts, and an unforgettable story to share.

That's why I say, choose plastic. Choose Luisa's canastas.*   HERE.

* “Canasta” is what they call a basket in Spanish, from Latin “canistrum”, which originated from earlier usages of “kanna” for “reed”. (You may know a fun card game by that name too.)

Want to explore more about our Guatemalan artisans? Look here: Unique Batik Artisans

 

 

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Reading the Beads, Part 3

As we noted in our two previous posts, beads carry great significance in Ghanaian culture — marking key moments in your journey through life. What’s more, they can signify your status within society. 

A priest, for instance, would wear beads made of organic materials like bone, cowrie shell, or elephant teeth. A queen mother would wear white beads, symbolizing purity, as well as silver and blue beads, aligning her with the moon. A chief would wear bronze beads, plated with gold, and complementary yellow beads. According to our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, these glowing colors represent “fire under control.”

Not surprisingly, beads marking the end of life are especially meaningful. At funerals, mourners usually wear black and white beads to express their grief — but they might also wear red, to show their rage at the loss of a loved one. Beads of creamy red-brown bauxite, exclusive to Ghana, indicate an extremely profound loss.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our discussion of beads and their significance for the people of Ghana. Whenever you wear beaded jewelry, think of the ways different colors and styles can express something about your own journey through life.

Reading the Beads, Part 2

In our last post, we noted the significance that people in Ghana attribute to beads. As we saw, beads can celebrate and commemorate your birth. Here’s how they reflect the later stages of your journey through life:

Waist beads represent an intimate adornment once you reach adulthood. To quote our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, “they should be worn discreetly and not be seen by just anyone.” Beads worn around the wrist, however, can show status and express identity — for everyone to see.

Beads can also designate major landmarks in your journey, such as overcoming an obstacle, surviving an accident, or even giving birth. To make these moments tangible, you might opt for white beads or disk-shaped beads.

In our next post, we’ll talk more about the way beads can communicate social status — and mark the end of life. Be sure to join us!