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Daily Inspiration: Meet Katie Leary Sebastian

Today we’d like to introduce you to Katie Leary Sebastian.

Hi Katie, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself. How did you get to where you are today?

I am the director, designer, do-pretty-much-all jobs person & one of the co-founders of ixöq (ee-sh-auk), a small business that operates out of Takoma Park, MD & Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. At ixöq, which means woman in the Mayan dialects, Kaqchikel and Tzutujil, we work with local artisans from Guatemala to create unique, sustainably created, handcrafted, fair trade textiles, totes and decorative containers.

I, along with a friend & neighbor Rebecca Smith from Takoma Park, founded ixöq in late 2017 as a way of highlighting the craft and helping support the livelihoods of artisans we met in Guatemala. We saw beauty in their products and value in sharing their cultural heritage with an audience broader than those fortunate enough to travel to Central America. Our focus was on collaborating with & providing sustainable employment to the artisans while respecting their craft & culture. We wanted to share beautiful & useful products & have a direct connection to the artisans who make them.

We began working with two different women’s groups who create handwoven textiles. but our eyes were always on the cestas (totes), woven using recycled plastic cord, that we’d seen & used in the market & that we love. These take a unique skill that is only practiced in a few areas of Guatemala so we started researching & looking for the ideal group to produce these. Through a few obscure connections, we found a group who work & live in the Totonicapán region & we slowly established a working relationship.

We began with some simple designs based on the traditional market tote but we wanted to follow color trends & designs here so I started designing new cestas using a selection of colors, sizes & patterns that were possible with the materials available in Guatemala. To add to the cestas functionality, we also created a removable lining using locally sourced up-cycled fabrics & we collaborated with a second artisan group to produce these. After much trial and error & hard work on standardization, we sold our first custom cesta tote in the fall of 2018. ixöq’s primary focus quickly became our cesta tote collection and in 2019 & 2020, we added a number of storage containers & planters, also woven from recycled plastic cord. Designing & adding new products has allowed us, in partnership with the artisans, to truly define ixöq as a creator of unique, functional products that we are proud to call our own.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Ha. Struggles. There have been many but I view them all as part of the process.

I’d say the biggest challenge right now is the cost & time needed for shipping & the limitation this puts on growth. Our totes in particular are light but not small and since the cost of international shipping is based on volumetric weight and we have to move them across different regions of Guatemala, getting them to us can be a challenge. I often ask myself why I didn’t go into jewelry making! But we’re slowly perfecting the process and the artisans are working on their end to find the most efficient & economical way to get things to us. So it may not be getting cheaper but the process is getting better.

Overall there was the struggle of truly having no clue what we were doing when we started & having to learn everything along the way & to constantly wear A LOT of different hats but this is also what makes it so fun. My career before ixöq was using GIS to research food security & poverty in developing nations. It is what started my interest in working internationally but it is a far cry from running a small business! That said, all of the other creators & makers & small business owners I’ve met along the way have been amazing. I’ve learned so much & built so many new relationships & feel lucky to have people I can turn to when there are hiccups or challenges or just basic questions that are part of the journey.

Tell us more about what you do. What are you known for? What do you specialize in?
I’ve always enjoyed creating & have found different ways to incorporate some kind of artistry throughout my life. I studied color theory in college as an elective and loved learning how colors work and blend together & how you can tell a story with a color palette. I carried this into my GIS (Geographic Information Systems) work where I learned to use color in making maps in order to convey different themes and trends. It was a fun way to add some creativity to an interesting but fairly mundane research job & I loved that part of my work.

When we decided to start ixöq & work with artisans in Guatemala, it was in part because of our great appreciation of their craft & creations which combine a lot of colors into vibrant & meaningful patterns. I knew that I wanted to be a part of the creative process & I began looking for inspirations in diverse use of color that I could apply to a tote or planter. This is by far the most fun part of the work … creating a new design & then having the artisans bring it to life. And the best part is that no matter the design it always results in an extremely useful product!

What does success mean to you?
ixöq’s mission is to honor the traditions of and provide support to women artisans of Guatemala through a partnership focused on the design, production and sale of sustainably sourced, fair trade, handmade goods. So in terms of ixöq, I define success as continued production that allows us to maintain relationships with and sustainable employment for the artisans.

More personally, I define success as creating and existing in a community full of clever people creating clever products or doing clever things to help others. I consider the supportive community of small businesses & creators plus our relationship with the artisans in Guatemala to be a perfect sign of success.

From an economics perspective, I define success as sustainability and growth that leads to security but that does not require you to compromise your ideals.

Pricing:

  • Cesta totes ~ woven from recycled plastic cord: $84-$98
  • Planters ~ woven from recycled plastic cord: $18-$45
  • Storage containers ~ woven from recycled plastic cord: $28-$70
  • Handwoven scarves & kitchen textiles ~ $24-$60

Contact Info:


Image Credits

Ana Isabel Photography, Katie Ford Flowers, Katie Leary Sebastian

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