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Following the Threads As We Launch a New Project

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Of all the Guatemalan textile techniques, I fell in love with embroidery first. I was captivated by the exquisite hand embroidered men’s pantalone panels, alive with delicate birds, or the thick, colorful seams embellishing women’s skirts. In the clothing of the culture, embroidery is everywhere in Guatemala.

Before founding Cultural Cloth, Jody and I worked with Jose, an embroidery artist from Santiago, Guatemala. I met Jose through Jody, who became friends with him as a volunteer with Farmer to Farmer, a non-profit. Jose, I learned, didn’t have an opportunity to attend school beyond the 4th grade. Yet I was struck by his extraordinary talent- and by his poverty, too, which seemed almost in proportion to his artistry.

To help Jose earn a better living from his artistry, we co-created home textiles with designs that retain cultural identity. Curtain panels, yardage, pillows, satchels and purses are his signature pieces. Through perseverance and hard work, Jose’s oldest daughter now attends University.

Looking back through the lens of ten years, it’s clear: working with Jose is where the idea of a test kitchen emerged, a metaphor that drives our work at Cultural Cloth. A test-kitchen where we experiment with ingredients to cook up opportunities for the talented artists whose work we’ve come to deeply admire.

We started the Guatemalan Rug Hooking Project about a year later. An initial ‘how to hook rugs’ workshop led to developing a curriculum where literacy and numeracy were not a prerequisite for participation. Reflecting upon their rug hooking artistry, we hear the women remark over and over again: “I never knew I had this in me”.

Today, seven years in to the Project, income earned by the now 63 rug hookers has paid off loans, bought school supplies, medicine, windows, roofs, a potable water pipe and even dentures. Perhaps the biggest pay off is the self-esteem earned by mastering a new skill, becoming a role model for your family, and making money. A few of the rug hookers have travelled to the US to represent their fellow rug hookers at the International Folk Art Market. While in the US they’ve taught workshops and lectured at rug exhibitions. Returning to Guatemala, the women carry their experiences back home, their sense of possibilities expanded, their lives enriched through travel abroad.

Witnessing women access opportunities and alter the trajectory of their lives inspires us every day. In fact, it’s motivated us to cook up a new project. I’m travelling to Guatemala later this month to work alongside our dedicated Multicolores team to launch a project with embroidery artists. The classes will focus on skill enhancement and we’ll work with women from several different communities whose mastery varies from expert to beginner.

We recognize the arc of this project extends well into the future, perhaps five years. Although the classes will be conducted over a year, proving the ‘recipe’ – developing markets and on going opportunities - takes time. In thinking about the scope of the Embroidery Project we’ll use a recipe similar to the Rug Hooking Project and we’ll be ready to respond with new ingredients as needed. Watch for periodic reports from our test kitchen.

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