House of Birds

Honoring traditional embroidery skills and culture

“The House of Birds” is a new cooperative of embroiderers who live in Santiago, a village on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Traditionally, the women have decorated their huipiles, woven tops, with colorful bird designs.  This is to commemorate a battle their village won with the help of birds, or so the story goes.

Mary Anne Wise, who has helped establish this cooperative, describes her first visit to Santiago.  “You step off the launch in Santiago and you are immediately immersed in an embroidered world. It's everywhere: on bags, in all the street stalls, and the locals are all wearing it. Almost too much to take in—and the details of certain pieces can be exquisite, some of the work will send you over the moon.”

There are eighteen sewers in the group, most of them women, but one of the three men is Jose Tzina who does free-style embroidery with a sewing machine.  He started out decorating coin purses but—under the auspices of Cultural Cloth, a store owned by Mary Anne and Jody Slocum in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin—he’s now moved on to coverlets, table runners, satchels, and more.  He has taught his oldest daughter machine embroidery and she is now able to put herself through university, while Jose only went as far as fourth grade.

The idea for the group started when Jody took Mary Anne to Guatemala in 2006 and she was amazed at the embroidered pieces, buying some unusual ones for her personal collection.  On this trip she met Jose and asked him if he would be interested in working on some products.  He was game.

One of his latest projects for Cultural Cloth was yardage of handwoven cotton fabric embroidered with birds.  The cloth was used as floor-length curtains in a Minnesota house, which was featured in the New York Times.  Soon after, they sold out of the fabric, but more is in production.

They’re also working with a weaver to make the cotton fabric for these products. The cotton cloth they’re now producing –after building their own wide loom- has a linen-like hand, and is 50" wide, perfect for pillows, coverlets, and other products.

Another beautiful coverlet was inspired by Panajachel street posts, which were decorated with flowers and Spanish words like “integridad” and “honestidad.”  The birds and flowers are embroidered by sewing machine and the words are done by hand.  The hand embroidery allows for more work for more people.

In working with this cooperative in Santiago, Mary Anne and Jody are clear that “the goal is to honor their traditional skills and cultural knowledge by co-creating  products for a wider market, products that retain cultural identity.”

New embroidered pieces keep appearing on the shelves of Cultural Cloth.  “We use the shop at Cultural Cloth as the 'test kitchen' to sample market reaction. If the response is positive chances are we have a winner that can find an audience anywhere.”

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