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​First Report: Embroidery Project, One Stitch at a Time to Support Families

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dsc-9693.jpegAt Cultural Cloth a crucial part of our mission is to help our sister artisans around the world develop better ways to support their families.

Over the years we’ve talked about our rug-hooking project in Guatemala which began with a single weekend long workshop in 2009. Believing in the economic potential of this technique we co-founded Multicolores, a Guatemalan based non-profit now working with more than 60 women to develop their rug hooking artistry. 

Multicolores offers technical, design and remedial training to Mayan rug hookers and although the results were not immediate, we are now able to see tangible affects rug hooking income has had upon the women’s households: a dirt floor has been replaced by poured concrete, a wall in one of the rug hookers home with cut-outs shapes for windows is now covered with glass and potable water pipes have been installed in some of the rug hookers homes.

Perhaps the greatest affect has been the shift in self-perception as the women now see themselves as capable of success. Remarking upon their artistry, they’ve told us: “I never knew I had this in me.”

Along the way, Cultural Cloth has been committed to helping test the market for their rugs, access exhibition opportunities and more. Click here to see rugs online.

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“Our mission is not to turn the rug hookers into production workers. We don’t dictate the end product,” explained Cultural Cloth Co-founder Mary Anne Wise. “We teach technical skills and a challenging design curriculum where literacy and numeracy are not a prerequisite for participation. The framework is the women learn how to translate their woven and community traditions into highly original one-of-a-kind hooked rugs that are unique in the marketplace.”

Witnessing the transformative affects of rug hooking, Mary Anne said: “We began to think about applying the same curriculum to a different medium. Embroidery, like rug hooking, is free form and was the obvious choice”.

Late last month in Panajachel, Guatemala, Mary Anne teamed up with Reyna Pretzantzin, Multicolores president, to launch the new project. Mary Anne said “for a fresh perspective we extended an invitation to Sarah Brown, founder of Stitch St Luce to join the teaching team and were thrilled when she accepted. Sarah has the technical expertise and extraordinary track record of working with women in Madagascar. We’re excited about the possibilities- although we all understand September’s workshop was the first step in a thousand mile journey.”

The curriculum will be taught during 3 additional sessions over the next year. Each session has numerous object lessons designed to forge skills along 3 parallel tracks: expanded knowledge of stitches, design, and product development. “By the conclusion of the curriculum, the tracks will hopefully have merged”, says Mary Anne, lead design teacher for the new project.

The class is comprised of 15 women ranging in ages from 20-56 years old from five highland communities. One participant has some college experience, but most of the participants have had very little access to formal education. Two of the women do not read. None of the participants have worked with women from outside their village. Their embroidery skills vary, too. Five are skilled embroiderers, most have some embroidery experience and a few are rank beginners.

Mary Anne is not an embroiderer and is struggling to learn the stitches alongside the beginners.At the conclusion of the workshop Reyna invited Roxana, a rug hooker, to present a motivational talk to the new group. (Roxana, age 32, had never participated in the rug hooking classes: she learned the art form from others, a mark of the program’s success, says Mary Anne, where participants teach others.) In addressing the embroiderers, Roxana urged members of the new group to persevere. She spoke of her struggles to stay motivated while mastering rug hooking and the new design information, too. 

Her family urged her to drop out because rug hooking was taking too much time away from her household duties. Roxana said “I don’t know how I did it, because there were times when I wanted to drop out. But I didn’t, and now I am so happy.” Within Multicolore’s artisan community, Roxana has emerged as a rising leader for she is warm, funny, and self-effacing. “People in my community noticed my family’s circumstances were improving. They saw what I’ve accomplished with rug hooking and thought I must be really smart.  They wondered how much school I had completed and I felt embarrassed to tell them I’d only graduated the 4 th grade. So I’ve decided to go back to school and I’ve just completed my 6 th grade studies. I now want to go on to high school,” explained Roxana.

“It’s impossible to predict who will emerge as the next ‘Roxana’, Mary Anne said, observing the new class of embroidery students, "but if we succeed at coalescing as a group and if we teach as a team. I feel very excited about the potential.”

Request: For session #2 Mary Anne is presenting a global survey of contemporary and historical embroidery practises. She invites submissions for inclusion in her lecture. Email photos or links to info@culturalcloth.com

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