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Flights of Imagination
Flights of Imagination

The Bird-Inspired Artistry of Santiago

The artisans of Santiago, Guatemala have a deep, abiding affinity with nature. Their distinctive creations, from textiles to beadwork, celebrate the flora and fauna surrounding them.

Birds, in particular, inspire their vibrant designs, with depictions both abstract and realistic. There's a fascinating story behind the artistry and symbolism of these designs -- a story we're delighted to share with you!

Why Birds?

Bird species were abundant in the ancient Tzutujil Kingdom, which once encompassed Santiago. As a matter of fact, the Tzutujil people knew the area around Lake Atitlan as the Tz’ikin Jay, or Bird House. Not surprisingly, their great appreciation for birds found expression in their cultural traditions.

Embroidered Birds

The influence of the ancient Tzutujil people can still be felt -- literally. When you explore Santiago today, you can't help but notice the traditional fabrics and avian motifs. These consist of intricate embroidery, used to embellish pants and the blouses known as huipiles. Clearly, the modern-day practice of embroidering birds is a testament to Santiago's history and identity as part of the Bird House.


Beaded Birds

Beadwork is another craft that showcases the Tzutujil reverence for birds. In the process of stringing beads together, artisans work to represent a wide variety of species. Often, they refer to bird books to find inspiration and ensure accurate depictions. This dedication to accuracy is one more sign of the love that birds inspire in Santiago.


Within the region, you'll find styles as diverse as birds themselves. Techniques and designs vary from one area to another, even one family to another. When you explore these variations, you get a better understanding of an age-old cultural tapestry, reflecting the natural beauty of Santiago. What's more, you come to feel a passion shared by artisans and enthusiasts -- a passion for preserving regional traditions, so bird-inspired artistry will continue to soar.

We invite you to share your thoughts and questions about the avian artistry of Santiago. The more we learn about these traditions, the more they continue to enchant -- for generations to come!

Reply in the comments below!

The Do-Re-Me Standard for Shoppers
The Do-Re-Me Standard for Shoppers

We in the developed world live in a privileged economy. Most of us have excess resources for and access to surplus choices in the “managing of our households”. (Economy is borrowed from the Greek word oikonomia which means just that: management of household). These luxuries make us ideal targets for advertisements. We are bombarded with them everywhere we look and listen. 

The questions I propose will be a pain to execute. Careful regulation of our commerce will cost us in time and energy, yet the wide range of gains will be profoundly motivational.

Are you ready to tip the scale?

3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Buy (I made it as easy to remember as do-re-me.)

1 DO... DO I have one?

Is there already one of these in my household? Is it still acceptably useful, fulfilling its function? 

The staggering statistic of annual textile waste in the USA, 100 pounds per person, is Exhibit A of the frequency and ease with which we shop for clothes. When I lived in Guatemala, “paca” shops stuffed with the overflow from thrift stores in the States were viable businesses. What resulted in a welcome resource for the locals also displayed the shocking reality of dissipation up north.

We easily get tired of our old stuff, and the “lure of the latest” is real and strong. Instead of discarding, consider creative up-cycling or re-purposing for a fresh look. Recognize and value what you have, add to it, reconstruct it, or re-imagine a way to increase its life. A de-cluttered closet will only enhance your sense of well-being. Guaranteed.

corte tote

This bag was once a blouse.

My Eco Closet shared some useful suggestions on the theme of sustainable shopping. 

2 RE... Did I REsearch the seller?

Ethical vs Fast Fashion

Since the year 2000, twice the amount of clothes are manufactured worldwide. An average person today buys 60% more clothes than fifteen years ago. Because clothing is replaced faster, the production rates increase to keep up with demand. This affects the accelerating negative impact on our environment. 92 million tons of textile waste per year! Read up on Fast Fashion statistics here.

The resulting low quality of Fast Fashion creates the need for replenishment, increasing demand, so the evil cycle continues. I spoke to an 84-year-old lady this week, who said she still wears clothes she made twenty years ago. I wonder if any of us still fit in our 90s outfits!

Consider too the cost to human lives in the fast fashion industry. Atrocious conditions in factories and low wages of workers are well-documented. Find a list of 12 films about fast fashion that may quickly cure your shopping compulsions here.  

ethical fashion

The definition of ethics clashes with the popular philosophy of relativity in the third millennium: Ethics is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the meaning as “relating to beliefs about what is morally right and wrong.” If we propose an ethical attitude to shopping, we must “conform to accepted standards of conduct, involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval” (Merriam-Webster). 

As much as we can know the facts about a company, let us make informed decisions about where we drop our dollars. Burying our heads in the sand, as ostriches do, won’t make the evil go away. Do the work: research and stop supporting the exploitation of vulnerable people and our beautiful earth.

As a seasoned fair trade partner, Unique Batik has earned its place on the ethical shopping platform. Up-cycled garments form a large chunk of the items we offer. The stories of its decades-long personal relationships with the artisans are told in previous blog posts. These individuals are not faceless numbers to us.

3 ME...Does this MEet my budget?


Is this purchase within my budget limits? Advertisers specialize in appealing to our innate greed by offering credit – buy now & pay later campaigns. The sale and discount aisles lie littered with the fallen! “My heart never beats as fast as it does when I see a 'reduced by 50 percent' sign,” admits Rebecca Bloomwood in Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. (How I do relate!)

The strong link between debt and poor mental health is widely known. The distressed mind chooses the temporary excitement of a new purchase, overspends, and so starts another cycle that is harder to escape from.

Stop and assess the benefits compared to the costs. Be wise.

The Sugar Boycott

Late in the 18th Century British and American Quakers launched a public campaign against purchasing products made by slaves. Brutal working conditions and inhumane treatment on Caribbean sugar plantations caused a high rate of mortality in slave populations. About 300,000 protesters participated in the two-year-long sugar boycott. The campaign, along with the tireless efforts of people like William Wilberforce, resulted in an effective end to British involvement in the slave trade.

Change will happen much slower and harder than singing Do-Re-Me. But as a friend of mine constantly reminded us, “If you change nothing, nothing will change."

What one thing can you change that will turn the tide? 

Living in High Cotton
Living in High Cotton

Living in High Cotton

That is us, living in the 21st century. “Pretty cushy lives” compared to the limited choices our primitive forbears suffered, specifically when you consider clothing.

The various raw materials woven into the fabrics we use every day are a fascinating discovery for those who care to check labels. Natural or synthetic, and blends of these. Fibers from organic cotton or recycled soda bottles. Claims of astonishing versatility and benefits to your skin, to reassuring protection of endangered species.

cotton field
For our conversation today, we are looking at cotton, the most widely used natural fiber cloth.

The Plant and Process

Gossypium, a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae, is native to tropical and subtropical climates. The plant develops short-lived white blossoms about three months after planting. In their place appear green triangular pods, which are called bolls. During the next two months, seeds and seed hair (or cotton fiber) develop inside the bolls. Once mature, the bolls burst into white fluffs, each containing about ten seeds embedded in the mass of seed fibers.

The opened bolls are harvested by hand or machine. In most underdeveloped nations, cotton is still hand-picked – a labor-intensive, tiresome, and costly process. It takes about eight hours to pick a pound of cotton! However, this method generally produces cleaner cotton due to the selective capability of humans.

cotton gin
In ancient times, the seeds were also tediously removed by hand. The invention of the cotton gin (short for engine) in 1793 by the American Eli Whitney lowered cost and allowed the removal of the seeds fifty times faster than the manual process. Modern gins operate on the same principle as the rudimentary contraption Eli developed: the harvested cotton passes over a cylinder covered in sharp teeth that grabs the fiber and pulls them into narrow openings, separating the seeds from the fiber strands. 
The seedless fibers are cleaned from debris, packed into bales, and shipped off to be spun into yarn and eventually woven into cotton cloth. Watch a demonstration of the original cotton gin here.

Cotton is a zero-waste product. Linters (shorter strands stuck on the removed seeds) provide cellulose for manufacturing plastics, explosives, paper products, and padding for mattresses. The crushed seeds become cooking oil, livestock feed, fertilizer, and high-protein concentrate in some food products. The stalks and leaves of the plant get plowed into the soil.

cotton or wool

The History

Ancient civilizations in the Americas, Africa, and Asia cultivated cotton and made cloth from the strands. The fabric made its way to the Middle East and was eventually traded by Arab merchants around 800AD in Italy and Spain. In Britain, wool was king of the fabrics. Compared to cotton, wool was easier and cheaper to produce. Wealthy English were so drawn to the exotic new cloth from the tropics that the wool industry suffered economic losses. So much so that in the late 17th century, the wool barons pressured the British Parliament into signing several laws against cotton imported from India. But, the tide could not be stemmed for long. Trendy cotton quickly became how the growing middle class could display their wealth and status.

The word cotton originates from the Arabic qutun, describing any fine textile. (I love the German word for cotton: baumwolle = tree wool.) Calico, our word for plain-woven textile from unbleached cotton, got its name from Calicut, the city in India where the fabric was traditionally woven, dyed, and printed in bright colors.

The Quality

Cotton quality depends on how long the fiber strands are after ginning. The longer the thread, the finer the cotton.

The many beneficial properties of cotton products led to its mass adoption globally. Cotton cloth is durable and tear-resistant due to the plant's strong cell structure. It is soft on the skin, comfortable, and static-free. Its absorbent nature makes it a breathable fabric and an unwelcome environment for lingering bacteria.

cotton seal

The well-known cotton seal was designed 50 years ago. It is still a powerful influence on designers and an effective sales builder. When age-old cotton is compared to modern synthetic fibers so popular these days, it seems the verdict is still out on which fiber is superior in texture and sustainability. What do you say? Is Cotton King? For me, it is an easy yes when choosing clothes and linens.  I'm very happy I live in an age where I have buying options and free access to information about the process and production of what ends up in my shopping cart. 

This month Unique Batik is highlighting a wide variety of cotton garments from Thailand. Explore our wide range of comfortable flowy tops, bottoms, and dresses. And choose cotton!

Further reading: 




What's Your Favorite Color?
What's Your Favorite Color?

Most people love BLUE. Claimed to have soothing effects on humans, the color blue often evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. Blue is also the most common clothing color. Think the ubiquitous blue jean.

Blue Jeans

Genoa, Italy, was known for producing a hard-wearing cotton cloth, which became known as jeane, named for the city. Attempting to replicate this fabric, weavers in Nimes, France, developed a unique and sturdy fabric using a twill weave. They dyed the warp thread blue with indigo and left the waft thread white and called it Serge de Nimes, which became de Nimes and then denim. Read about it here

indigo 1

King of dyes

Indigo blue is one of the seven primary colors in the color wheel and the rainbow. Natural indigo dye is an extract from the leaves of Indigofera, a tropical genus. Because the dye acts by attaching and wrapping its molecules to and around each string of fabric, it protects the fabric in a way that makes it last longer. And so they call indigo the King of Dyes.

The name means “from India” since India was the primary supplier to Europe between 30 BC and 400 AD. But the origin of this fascinating natural dye goes back even further in time and to the other side of the world. Archaeologists discovered an indigo-dyed cloth in Peru and dated it at 6,000 years. 

Widely used among all the major ancient civilizations in the Americas, the Spanish started exporting Maya Blue in the sixteenth century from the region that is now Guatemala. France and England eventually joined the lucrative trade, and two centuries later, indigo was successfully cultivated in Mexico, Venezuela, and the Caribbean.

Blue Gold

Eliza Lucas Pinckney, born in the Caribbean, was sent to the family’s Charleston plantations as a teenager, along with her mother and sisters. Passionate about and naturally skilled in botany, she started experimenting with indigo cultivation and processing. Persisting for years, despite setbacks and ridicule from her peers, she finally succeeded in growing enough to begin dye production in 1774.

Indigo became a major export crop of the Atlantic economy, its profits fast outnumbering sugar and cotton. The colonists even used indigo dye bars as currency during the Revolutionary War!

The Indigo Girl, by Natasha Boyd, is a delightful re-telling of this remarkable person, the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.

Green leaves to blue dye

Turning leaf into coloring agent is complicated, involving many chemical reactions. The green basil-like leaves are immediately submerged in water after being harvested, to initiate fermentation. They are left to soak for at least a day, after which the leaves are removed and used as a rich nitrogen fertilizer. The liquid in the tank is still lemon green with a purple-blue floating froth. Vigorous whisking for an hour oxidizes the water. Only during this phase does the green water turn reddish blue. Skilled artisans often taste the brew, ascertaining its potency and readiness. The final product, dye cakes or powder, is achieved after several additional processes. Indigo in this format is what a fabric dyer uses, adding only water and a reducing agent such as natural fructose or chemicals.

indigo 2

We source indigo-dyed products from Thailand, where traditional indigo dyeing has been going on for generations. The Indigofera plant is called hom in Thai. The women artisans of northern Thailand demonstrate an unusual emotional relationship with their dye vats. They believe their brews are alive, of “having souls” needing loving care beyond maintaining the chemical balance. They often sing to their vats as they “feed” them, and the vats are kept alive by vigilant care and supervision.

The Thai dye never dies.

Links to more:

The rich indigo tradition in India: India's Blue Gold

For more about Thailand's indigo Guardians: Culture Trip

Curious to try your hand at dying with indigo: Banana Vat Dye

Shop at Unique Batik for featured indigo wear this month: 

indigo bag

Mystic Indigo Bag

indigo shirt

Indigo cap sleeve shirt


Arrive and Thrive
Arrive and Thrive

I always get excited when I see the Arrivals sign at the airport: the sense of joyful anticipation in watching for specific faces in the crowds emerging, the delight of reunions. Up in the air, the passengers have started to gather their things, freshen up, and fasten their seat belts in preparation for landing.

Arrival. Destination reached.

Here at Unique Batik, the arrival of new merchandise from Guatemala and elsewhere always causes great excitement as well! The journey of our garments, bags, and jewelry, from the artisans to Raleigh, is a road strewn with obstacles. Anything from roadblocks or road washouts to volcanoes erupting or bureaucratic hurdles can be expected.

At this point of our calendar year, we are entering the season of Advent. 

advent candle

The word "advent" means to arrive and is generally used to signify the arrival of an event. In Christian circles around the world, Advent refers to a four-week season celebrating the arrival of Jesus Christ on earth many centuries ago.

Advent is also a season to focus on four topics, one per week leading up to Christmas: Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy. Four Advent candles are lit in Advent wreaths as the countdown raises enthusiasm and longing.

Our unique holiday traditions are handed down from one generation to another. The specific customs around festivals are simultaneously the distinguishing and unifying elements in families and cultures.

christmas tree deco

One such practice in America is decorating an evergreen tree the week after Thanksgiving. The boxes of tinsel and lights come down from the attic, and many memories are revisited as each item is unwrapped. The rich history of this tradition is a fascinating read. 

Take a look at these magnificent decorations from Unique Batik:


super starangel

“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition, and myth frame our response.” (Arthur M. Schlesinger)

Indeed. Our emotions fray as we speed to the conclusion of 2023. And I am aware of the dread these holidays can conjure. However, helpful traditions can frame healthier responses. Think about your family's holiday customs for a minute. Do they draw your attention to deeper realities than the commercial overload this season often induces? (Feel free to share any in the comments below.)

Dread is the opposite of expectancy.

Jeff Hutchings shares a fresh insight by connecting the upcoming holidays: “Thanksgiving is like an appetizer for Advent... Thankfulness is the perfect soil for expectancy.” Read the article here.

Here is how you connect the dots: Reflect on the past ten months. Remember. Count the gifts. Give thanks. Share gifts. Fill up on hope.

A way to let off the pressure as we descend onto the tarmac.


What Does Weaving Have to Do with Algorithms?
What Does Weaving Have to Do with Algorithms?

We weave in and out of traffic. Stories are experiences woven together. Long hair, baskets, and dough are braided. Knitting and crocheting are basically weaving with yarns.

But when we speak about weaving here, it's in the context of textiles, the interlacing of fibrous threads to create fabric. Every piece of clothing on your body is woven fabric. The sheets you sleep on, bath towels and dishtowels, rugs, curtains, table linens. Living as we do in the modern age, most of us are oblivious to the intricate processes involved in manufacturing the items we daily use and enjoy.


Fabric is one such article commonly utilized and taken for granted.

Imagine yourself in 6000 BC, in need of a blanket or shirt. After planting and harvesting, you spin natural fibers like cotton or flax into threads. Or you twist sheared sheep wool or manipulate silkworms to obtain yarn. If you are feeling creative, you dye some of the threads with plant or insect extracts in order to incorporate a design in the weaving. For the next few days or weeks, you patiently insert the transverse weft yarn over and under the tightly stretched lengthwise warp yarn. Back and forth. Painstakingly slow. Mesmerizingly meditative.

egyptian weaving

Due to the use of fragile organic materials, we have no samples of these early woven pieces, as we do of ancient pottery shards. Tombs in Egypt unveiled fragments of woven textile, preserved in the dry climate of the sandy desert, as well as a 5000-year-old terracotta plate depicting women weaving on a vertical loom.

The basic need for cover meant that a loom featured prominently in households everywhere, and the skill was passed on to each new generation. As an art form woven pieces also communicated cultural values, traditions, and personal emblems. The care, skill, and time it took to create a weaving enhanced its value, affording extra income or means of trade. Weaving remained the unique product of time-consuming manual operation for centuries.

Similar to what happened with most “cottage industries” during the Industrial Revolution, the demand for mass production required the mechanization of looms. Thus, in 1786, the first power loom was introduced. This machine enabled a faster weaving process and larger output but came with certain limitations. One important feature, the weaving of complicated designs and textured fabric, remained a manual operation.



Several decades later, French entrepreneur JM Jacquard, built an attachment to the loom that used interchangeable perforated cards to guide the warp threads automatically. A desired pattern could be woven by simply changing the cards, effectively automatizing even complex weaving.

jacquard loom

An English inventor, Charles Babbage, adopted the idea of punch cards in 1837 to store programs in his “Analytical Engine”, a proposed general-purpose computer. Mathematician Ada Lovelace recognized the symbol-manipulating potential of Babbage’s computational machine. "We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves," she noted. Before the same century ended, an American inventor designed a tabulating machine to input data for the 1890 US Census. Punch cards were used in digital computing for close to another 100 years until electronic devices replaced them.


Mayan weaving

While punch cards and antique looms populate museum exhibits in fast-paced modern societies, manual weaving is still widely practiced as it has been for millennia in many cultures. In these places, everyday garments and house linens are still exclusively made with fabric woven on traditional looms.

The rhythmic sound of the wooden treadle
The muted thud of reed against breast beam
The soft claps of hands shaping tortillas
The daily symphony in a Mayan household.

As part of their traditional outfit, the Mayan women of Guatemala wear a skirt known as a “corte”. It is similar to a wrap-around skirt, except three times as much fabric is involved. It is generally the work of men to weave the 7-meter-long piece on bulky treadle looms. In dressing, the women wrap the fabric around, around, and around the lower half of the body and secure it with a decorative girdle. The final ensemble resembles a long, straight pencil skirt, which you can imagine being very restrictive. Till you encounter the same women in traditional dress on a steep mountain trail: sure-footed, graceful, and confident like a mountain goat!

mayan women on trail

The quality of these woven skirts is undeniable. Even used and discarded pieces are highly valued and repurposed. If you think of the hours that went into handwoven textiles, prolonging their lifespan in every possible format is a way to honor the ancient craft of weaving.

Here are some of our unique re-creations of Mayan "corte":


Sustainable Corte overalls  Buy here

explorer bag

Explorer bag from repurposed corte  Buy here

tourist bag

Corte turned Tourist Bag!  Buy here


Keep up with what “looms ahead” in the textile world.

More on the history of weaving:

To see the fascinating connection between weaving and algorithms:

The artist Ahree Lee, in an exhibit called Pattern:Code, connects the history of women in crafts to their role in computing. Worth a look here:

Who's Going Back to School?
Who's Going Back to School?

Can you remember your first day in kindergarten? Your first class in college?

I was six years old on my first day in a formal school setting.


sub a

Those days first grade was called Sub A in South Africa. Three front teeth missing, two braids, a brand-new uniform a few sizes too big, an empty bookcase (the boxy kind), and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in wax paper. Me being the firstborn, this was a well-photographed threshold in my development, and everyone in the family was equally excited. Our house was across the street from the primary school. My mom walked with me to the classroom on the hill, where many of the little faces were tear-stained as the new students clung to their mothers' legs in trepidation of the looming separation.

Not me.

“You can leave now, Mommy. I’m not a crybaby.” (My mom was quite offended by my declaration of independence that day.)



Twelve years later, an immature 18-year-old emerged, again without tears because I was happy to be “free”.  For a long time, I was ignorant of the benefits I gained by my enrollment year after year. Only after I met young people from different backgrounds for whom formal education was an impossible dream did I realize the extraordinary bonus of having parents and teachers investing in me. The necessary skills for learning that attending school equipped me with, like reading, concentration, and endurance, continue to bear fruit today. 

However imperfectly a traditional school system performs, the mere access to a world of knowledge and opportunities for growth that they provide justifies its vital existence in our communities. We often remember and talk about the positive influence of dedicated teachers in our formative years. 


So, who is going BACK to school these days?

Most to be admired and cheered are the individuals who return to college as adults in their second half of life. A friend of mine went to nursing school as a single mom in her late 30s, graduated, and celebrated with a backpacking trip in Europe! 

Distance learning became necessary during the lockdowns of the last few years and continues gaining momentum. The number of learners enrolling in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) increased from 300,000 to 220 million in the decade between 2011 and 2021. Even so, most students will get on the bus or a bicycle, walk, drive, or be driven to a schoolhouse this month.

We have heard,  “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  Yet we know that filling bags with textbooks and computers is the reality all students deal with daily. At Unique Batik we offer a range of bags for this very purpose. Buying your bags here will enable a Guatemalan student to plan on going back to school too!



Approximately 5% of high school students in the US do not graduate, and the drop-out rate for college students is around 40%.  In striking contrast, the financial limitations and a general lack of motivation in Guatemala mean that 41% of teenagers (aged 13-18) do not attend school. Only 10% of youth enroll in college education.  Fortunately, several non-profits in Guatemala are focusing on changing this trend.  I have interacted with some of these organizations and have seen firsthand the impact of mentorship and practical friendship. Forging My Tomorrow is the brainchild of a dynamic Mayan couple in Panajachel. This leadership and mentoring program has been the instrument of breaking cycles of poverty and ignorance for many families in rural Guatemala. Read about their work here.


“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” (Sydney, J Harris, American journalist for the Chicago Daily News)

And that is what any worthwhile education will do: develop the skills to see. To peer through to the expansive beyond, instead of fixating on the smallness of self.

To Tote, To Lug, Or To Shoulder. That Is the Question.
To Tote, To Lug, Or To Shoulder. That Is the Question.

These days you can explore virtually any place on Earth or under the oceans without getting up from your couch. Travel vlogs and blogs abound. Google Earth can zoom you to even the remotest locations for a 3D view, a street view, or a bird’s eye view.  Very little is left for the imagination.  Minimal risk and expense. Zero suffering.



Yet, as many who wander agree, virtual experiences pale against the thrill of live encounters in foreign contexts. To have your own adventure, to overcome the fear of the unknown, to live to tell the story – this is why we get up and go.  For us, new friendships and firsthand knowledge far outweigh any awkward discomforts or hair-raising challenges. Adventure, fortune, chance, risk, and wonder - these words all share the same root. The same sense of momentum lurks in the word Advent as well.  Advent on the Christian calendar celebrates the arrival of Christ.

An anonymous 16th-century Danish educator wrote, "Go, my sons. Burn your books. Get away to the mountains, the valleys, the shores of the seas, the deserts, and the deepest recesses of the earth.  In this way and no other, will you find true knowledge of things and their properties."



When you do head out for the open road, you very well need to consider luggage to transport your essentials. (Evidently, the word originates from a Middle English word which meant to pull by the hair or ear!)

mary poppins

Long before suitcases on wheels enabled us to conveniently drag or pull our stuff around airports, carpet bags were the common carryalls of travelers. Does anyone remember Mary Poppins’ ever-present wondrous bag?  “The carpet bag was invented as a type of inexpensive personal baggage, light enough for a passenger to carry, like a duffel bag, as opposed to a large rigid wooden or metal trunk, which required the assistance of porters.”  ( Often these decorative bags were made from cut-off pieces of oriental rugs, and depending on the design, could also open flat and serve as a blanket.



After the Civil War, many opportunistic Northerners traveled to the South seeking private financial or political gain. People in the South feared exploitation and referred to them as carpetbaggers because they typically arrived with their belongings in carpetbags. Today the term stands for political candidates who seek elections where they have no local connections.

The exploitation of artisans in developing countries is still a matter of deep concern. This is why, as a registered fair trade company, Unique Batik is committed to operating in a manner that guarantees a sustained welcome on both sides. Our relationships with the artisans in Guatemala, Ghana, and Thailand have morphed into the dearest friendships over decades of trade.

The various travel bags we sell resemble the carpetbag tradition. Woven and embroidered cloth pieces are made into fashionable luggage, with styles and sizes for every kind of passenger.



Which bag do you grab when packing for a trip?

Our bag contest is on!  

Of the four styles depicted below, do you have a go-to?  Click on each picture to see the bags we offer in that style. Then, in the space for comments at the end of this blog, write the word sling, tote, backpack, or messenger. 

On August 31, we'll draw three lucky responders, each of whom will win a bag in the style of their vote.

tricolor sling bag


wild blossom embroidered tote bag


zunil cotton backpack


trashy messenger bag


Independence: What's It to You?
Independence: What's It to You?

A holiday means you can sleep in today. Or not.

Ear-shattering machine-gun-like percussion jerks you from slumber before the day breaks. Incessant whistle blows, and cheering over a megaphone follows. Torch-runners arrive in the village after running all night. The annual celebration of Guatemala’s independence from Spain is in full swing.

Across the Atlantic in West Africa, the national flag flies high on March 6th as our Ghanaian friends tune their trumpets and guitars in preparation for the parades and carnival to commemorate their country’s freedom, the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence (1957). The family gathers to enjoy traditional food like waakye (rice & beans) and kenkey (sourdough dumplings).

And if you happen to wake up in Thailand on December 5th, a gentle prayer ceremony followed by renditions of the national anthem announces their independence festivities. The rest of the day is loud with flamboyant and ostentatious pageantry.


And what of fireworks? A standard crowd-pleaser everywhere in the world, no expense is spared to light up the sky when celebrating freedom. (They say the first fireworks were bamboo stalks that the Chinese threw in the fire, which exploded loudly as the hollow air pockets heated up.)

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” So Emma Lazarus’ words ring out over the Hudson.


What is this yearning? Do you recognize it? What would you give up for it?

INDEPENDENCE literally means “not hanging from.” The idea invokes sentiments of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and autonomy. Liberty.

(Pendere is the root meaning to weigh, estimate, or pay, from which we get words like pendant, pending, and appendage.)

A strong desire for freedom is evident in all of us from a young age. Have you ever observed toddlers testing the boundaries and exerting their will forcefully as soon as they can sit up? A reach for self-determination seems wired into our DNA. And, especially in America, this freedom is highly valued and encouraged.

The reality, though, for countless individuals worldwide, is quite the opposite. Economic and political restraints leave them “hanging” year after year. Dependence on handouts leaves people stuck in suffocating patterns. Their self-determination weakens, and their creativity suffers.


“For everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” (Albert Einstein)

That is why the stories of the artisans with whom Unique Batik does business are worth celebrating. They have reached beyond their grasp, attaining levels of financial independence that were unimaginable to their parents. This achievement is especially significant where women entrepreneurs succeed in places where their contributions have been strictly limited traditionally. Read about Diego, Carmelita, and Luisa.


We watch them emerge as rulers, as per their original design.

us flag

It was a woman who created the first Star-Spangled Banner. Mary Pickersgill took up flag-making when she became a widow at a young age. Her business eventually supported a household of women whom she trained as seamstresses.

It is important to note that these artists-heroes didn’t drift into freedom. Similarly, our treasured American rights would have remained a hollow dream if it wasn’t for the risks and sacrifices of individuals and communities. By disciplined choices, sustained efforts, and stubborn endurance, they were able to create a fulfilling life for themselves and their families. Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher, claimed,


“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Furthermore, to gain freedom, reliance on multiple networks and the community is paramount. In other words, independence is not individualism.

Which fact connects you, the customer, in a beautiful symbiosis with the families of artists around the globe.

The words in the Declaration of Independence adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776, which takes 18 minutes to read, were a bold line in the sand. A unanimous decision to stand against what the colonists perceived and experienced as oppression and tyranny. They did it TOGETHER, fully informed of the RISKS.

So, on this day, savor every free breath you take and tip your hat to our celebrated heroes, past and present. Then, consider your inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – yours and your neighbors. And vote with your feet.

Freedom is never free.
Respect our liberty.
Enjoy its many rights.
Expect it may cause fights.
Democracy survives,
Only if backed with lives.
May we not let it die.
(Bartholomew Williams)

What Makes a Bird a Bird?
What Makes a Bird a Bird?

Ubiquitous and radiant, birds are true wildlife anyone can observe without flying to remote jungles. Since their presence is so commonplace, it is easy to be unaware of their magic. Yet they have the potential to mesmerize anyone sitting still long enough.


Stop and marvel

I only started paying attention when I lived on a forested hill in Guatemala in my forties. (Guatemala boasts more than 700 bird species.) Trills and choruses, flashes of vibrant colors, and leafy branches alive with feasting flocks were a compelling distraction right outside my windows. My curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know their names, to get closer looks through binoculars, and to keep a journal of my “sightings.” Fortunately, I knew the phone number of a phenomenal local guide, who graciously helped me with the correct identifications. Few moments in my life match the breathless awe I experienced the first time I saw the elusive Resplendent Quetzal in an impressive courting display on the slopes of the Atitlan volcano. Spiraling and plunging with his long tail feathers rippling like ribbons: the sight brought me to tears!


Find out more about Guatemala's national bird, including audio of its distinct call here.



This is what distinguishes birds from other vertebrates. Feathers are fundamental to many aspects of a bird’s life. They function as insulation, aerodynamic power for flying, communication, as well as camouflage. 

Their colorful feathers are what inspire the women of Guatemala to embroider their blouses with bird images.

The town of Santiago Atitlan’s original Mayan name is Tz’Kin Jay, House of the Birds. It follows then that the characteristic patterns on traditional textiles here are of birds. Long ago geometric designs of herons, ducks, two-headed eagles, people, and corn plants were popular.

modern Atitlan

Over time, their embroidery developed to include finer details of birds. These days women tend to pay more attention to their surroundings when they pick coffee in the mountains, especially noticing the rich bird life among the trees. The embroidered great blue herons, painted buntings, and summer tanagers on their blouses would win all the blue ribbons at county fairs, in my opinion.


Example of modern-day designs.


Try embroidering this bird of paradise (an actual bird for which the plant is named!) Download a free pattern here. Bird of Paradise pattern 

The “House of Birds” in Guatemala also produces many of the beaded items we offer, among them hummingbirds and owls. 

Here is Mercedes at her craft, stringing beads to create the bright hummingbird ornaments.


Mercedes  hummingbird

Order beaded hummingbirds here


South Africans are equally skilled with beads, although the style is significantly different. They usually combine wire and beads, while the Guatemalans use thread to string beads for their figurines. Compare this unique hoopoe bead birdie which strikingly resembles the real deal. Their name mimics their call: “oop-oop”. 


hoopoe hoopoe

Order this unmistakeable ornament here: hoopoe



In contrast, our patchwork Gooney bird from Thailand is a playful rendition of the black-footed albatross. Gooney is its informal name. (You can pick different colors and order one to hang on your doorknob right here.)

 During World War 2 the aircraft C-47 was nicknamed the “Gooney Bird” due to its similarity to the giant albatross in size and shape. The plane's role in supporting operations has been described as vital to the Allied victory. 

So, if it is FEATHERS that make the bird, what makes me a birder?  Birders are amateurs. We enthusiastically engage in the study of birds for the love of it, without calling it a profession. Yet.