Embroidered Bird Pillows From Guatemala: It starts with a boat ride

Embroidered Bird Pillows From Guatemala: It starts with a boat ride

Posted by Mary Anne Wise on 9th Oct 2022

We start, naturally, at the beginning. We start with the cloth that hosts the embroiderer’s artistry. And the cloth begins with Francisco who weaves our fabric.

To purchase his supplies to weave his cloth, Francisco makes a day-long trip to thread stores in Salcaja - there’s no such thing as ‘mail ordering’ from yarn shops. Salcaja is known for the best selection of thread stores –stores that supply the country’s weavers and embroiderers. His journey begins on a public ‘launcha,’ a fiber glass boat filled with twenty or more passengers intent on crossing the choppy waters of Lake Atitlan.

A boat ride on Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Next, he makes his way to the main street to catch a bus, about a 15 minute walk from the lakeshore where the launcha deposits all passengers. Before arriving at his destination in Salcaja, he’ll change buses three times. The buses are old American school buses, purchased for around $2,000 and driven across the US border in to Mexico and finally in to Guatemala where they are ‘re-habbed’ and often elaborately painted, too. Passenger’s goods – sometimes including small animals- are tied on top of the bus.

Bus in Salcaia Guatemala

Entering Salcaja, he’ll pass a large statue, Homage to The Migrant, erected by the city in 2010. The monument pays tribute to migrants who pass through the area, heading north in search of a better life. The statue’s arm is raised, bidding farewell to family and countrymen; his backpack contains his scant possessions. For many Guatemalans, the statue is a sad reminder of the dangers migrants face along their route.

There are dozens and dozens of thread stores in Salcaja and Francisco winds his way to his favorite shop, makes his purchases and ties his skeins securely in sturdy plastic bags. Knowing his bags will be tossed onto the rooftop of buses for his return trip, he double checks the ties. He now repeats his trip in reverse, careful to arrive in time to catch the last launcha home, departing at 4 p.m.

Before weaving the cloth, Francisco prepares his threads to dress the loom, a task that cannot be rushed because mistakes in dressing the loom can result in flaws in the fabric.

Once the loom is dressed, or warped, he loads his bobbins, or shuttles, with thread to commence the act of weaving, tossing the bobbins across the warp threads over and over.

Anticipating the availability of Francisco’s cloth, the embroidery artists sketch pillow designs, designs that will be transferred onto the cloth once it’s in-hand.

Color palettes have been considered; soon the stitching begins. The artisans here in Santiago are Tzutijil Maya who favor bird imagery because, as the story goes, birds helped their ancestors win a battle against their neighbors, the Quiche Maya. To this day, embroidered bird imagery is prevalent in their hand made clothing.  

The embroiderers, like Maria, find a bright and sunny spot in their homes and start their work, applying their artistry to the cloth. Their basket of embroidery floss is always nearby, ready to switch colors as their designs takes shape.

With the embroidery completed, the final step is to wash the cloth and ensure the pillow top is clean to remove  all pencil marks.


Next, the pillow tops are delivered to UPAVIM in Guatemala city where the talented sewers will stitch them in to pillows. The mighty women at UPAVIM, who live in one of Guatemala City’s ‘zona rosas’, or red zone, so named because these zones are very dangerous, gang-infested locations, will embellish the pillows with a subtle hand rolled piping and a practical hidden zipper enclosure.

Finally finally finally, the pillows arrive at the shop via DH. On ‘Pillow Day,’ we take a moment to consider how many hands touched this pillow --

and how many people whose lives were impacted earning money each step of the production process… 

As we stuff the new pillows with a luxuriously soft 90/10 feather & down insert, we comment on the women’s artistry.

Voila! Time to photograph these lovely works and get them online for our customers to peruse. Find all our bird embroidered pillows here