Rachel and Averie are two of my favorite beams of light in Guatemala. Our paths crossed while living in Antigua starting our respective textile businesses - me: Thread Caravan, and them: Casa Flor Designs. Whether you're just getting to know Casa Flor on the surface, or are digging deep into the brand's ethos, it's evident Rachel and Averie are doing things RIGHT. From their own personal backgrounds in fashion, to the earth-friendly materials they source and relationships they have with their artisan partners, to their clothing made for all body types and their general work promoting women's rights and inclusion, they are a terrific source of inspiration and knowledge.
I had a chat with the power team to dive deeper into their brand story, hear what they have to say about the impact of textile production in Guatemala and what they think it means to be an ethical clothing brand in today's world.
Why Guatemala -- what made you two decide to settle and start Casa Flor there?
We both came to Guatemala to work with backstrap weavers near Lake Atitlán and Casa Flor was created out of our deep love for artisan textiles. The backstrap weavers we work with taught us not only about weaving techniques, but about the importance of creating and that the process of creating a textile is just as important as the finished product. Being creators ourselves, we felt such a connection to the master weavers who are so proud of their craft. They weave their culture and identity into their pieces of work, and that struck us on a deep level.
We both saw an opportunity to collaborate with the weavers in a way that had not yet been explored in the apparel industry in Guatemala, and the possibilities feel endless! Everyday we come up with new ideas and plans for the future, but we right now we're grateful to be creating in collaboration with weavers here.
Can you tell us a little bit about the role weaving plays in Guatemalan culture and what effect it has on indigenous populations?
Indigenous Maya backstrap looms date back before the colonial period. Mayans do not weave simply to clothe themselves, but to represent their personal history and cultural identity. Each indigenous community in Guatemala has its own specific textile design and the variety in the textiles is incredible! The footloom was introduced in Guatemala in the 15th century and has become a more efficient and popular technique that has dominated indigenous dress as well.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of exploitation of indigenous textiles. The designs are in high demand for their unique pattern combinations and bright colors; however, many people are not educated about the incredible amount of work and skill involved to create them. There are currently many communities trying to raise awareness about the time and importance of these designs and spreading knowledge that they should be valued and fairly compensated for their work.
Each town or region in Guatemala has their own specific textile designs. Can you tell us which is/are your favorite(s) and why?
Averie: My favorite huipiles are from Chichicastenango. The weavers there specialize in brocade which looks like embroidery, but actually involves individually placing each different colored thread during the weaving process. Their designs are extremely complex, geometric, and have wonderful pink tones. I didn't like pink... until I went to Chichicastenango. My favorite cortes are from Zunil, which also use the brocade technique but are made on a footloom.
Rachel: I have too many favorite huipiles -- they are all so beautiful and unique and take so much time and care. I'm constantly attracted to the huipiles from Patsun with the embroidered flower neckline and striped bodice. I love the juxtaposition of florals and stripes- it feels very modern and feminine. My favorite corte is definitely from Chichicastenango. It's a little shorter and has a really thick and colorful randa detail. Again, I love the femininity and modernity of it.
What does "ethical" fashion mean to you? What are some ways you strive for ethics and sustainability in Casa Flor's production?
We have learned that claiming to be ethical can be a tricky business, because there is always something more that you can do. We at Casa Flor are very aware of this and set new ethics goals for each year. We believe ethics effect three main areas we try to focus on: the producers, the planet, and the consumer. We start with paying dignified wages to the artisans we collaborate with. We choose to work with environmentally friendly options (biodegradable bags, recycled paper, recycled/organic threads, natural dyes). Finally, we celebrate the diversity of our customer by offering a wide range of sizes that are not usually offered by ethical brands, and custom sizing as well!
What are some of your favorite Guatemala-based textile businesses?
We produce all of our footloom textiles with Pixan in Xela! They are an incredible cooperative that works with over 150 weavers in the highlands of Guatemala. They specialize in backstrap weaving; however, they also create footloom textiles on the side to help fund their social programs.
We are also huge fans of The New Denim Project in Guatemala City. We are so glad to see such a wonderful example of sustainable textiles growing in Guatemala! We will be sourcing our raw cotton from them for our Spring 2018 collection!
We love the design aesthetics of Coyolja in Santiago Atitlán. Their quality is impeccable and we love their bags so much. They interpret traditional Maya designs in a modern way, resulting in very beautiful pieces.
What are some of your favorite Guatemala-based non-textile businesses?
Our good friends at Gronn are doing incredible work in Zone 3 of Guatemala City, producing beautiful dishware with recycled glass bottles. We've learned so much from them about sustainability and creating stable employment for employees.
We also love UTZ. We rent our studio space at their offices and they also do all of our shipping! They have been such a support to us in our first year of business - we are not sure where we would be without them.
Any advice for people considering starting a textile business in Guatemala?
For both of us, the biggest advice we can give people considering starting a textile business in Guatemala is to come down for an extended period of time to learn from the artisans. After about a year of working alongside weavers every day, we finally felt like we had enough knowledge to move forward with a business. We see a lot of people come in and out of Guatemala for short trips, and we really think that the biggest impact can be made by spending quality time talking to the artisans here, getting to know their families, understanding their craft inside and out and understand the challenges they face living in Guatemala. We believe that if everyone understood the process of creating textiles here better, everyone would be paid fairly, because their work is truly incredible.
We have also learned that at some point you just have to jump in; lets be honest- you'll never be fully ready. There is only so much preparing you can do, especially working here where you have to be on your toes to face unforeseen challenges all the time. When we decided to take the leap, we were super intentional about making as many connections as possible. It is through our support network and not being afraid to ask for help that our first year of business has been so wonderful. Taking each mistake as a lesson for the future, but always pushing forward.