MayaBags is where high-end fashion meets fair trade artistry at the end of a dusty road off the air strip in Punta Gorda, Belize. Shoppers approaching the combination workshop and store might encounter a Maya woman in a pastel colored dress weaving on the front porch, working steadily on hand made details with an artist’s eye passed down from her ancestors for millennia, creating beautiful purses that have been sold in Barney’s department stores for seven years and recommended by style icon Rachel Zoe.
Judy Bergsma, owner and founder of MayaBags, and a Texas native and New York resident, decided to turn her background in visual design into an effort to help liftMaya families in southern Belize out of poverty and to develop an income generating alternative to slash and burn farming, one purse at a time.
Ms. Bergsma, spoke with us via email about finding inspiration in the rain forest, a typical day in the life of a modern Maya woman, and the bus schedule in Belize.
How would you describe MayaBags?
The purpose of MayaBags® is to create handmade, design-driven accessories, inspired by nature and finely crafted with the artisanal skills and spirit of the Maya. To keep our collection focused, fresh, unique, purposeful—and to proudly serve our customers as well as care for our artisans MayaBags® has four fundamental principles: to preserve and celebrate rainforest-inspired and ancient Maya textile and graphic design to integrate contemporary design concepts with traditional and exquisite Maya hand-craftsmanship to infuse each product with the inspiration of a symbolic Maya story or the Maya spirit of harmony with nature and finally, to nourish the Maya culture, keeping vanishing artisanal skills alive and flourishing, while supporting Maya families and their children.
Why were you drawn to Belize and the Maya people?
As a child, I had the opportunity to visit a Navajo reservation where I spent the day with the family of an elderly Navajo chief my father had met. They were so kind and so interesting that this one experience set off a lifetime fascination for me with indigenous people.
A Maya woman named Jovita Sho who, after a weekend I spent with her sister’s family, gave me the most beautifully embroidered butterfly I had ever seen. That was my “ah ha” moment when I realized something could and should be done to highlight and preserve the traditional hand skills of embroidery, basketry, and back strap looming these talented artisans had held onto. That experience combined with a long hike through recently burned land for Maya farms and then into the hills where the jungle still flourished made me realize how quickly the jungle was disappearing and how much beauty, biodiversity and long term human health was at risk if this continued. All these factors combined set the stage for the beginning of MayaBags®.
Who is your average customer?
The MayaBags® customer of today is defined as someone who loves to travel the world, is upbeat and loves life, is a secure shopper who has her own look, is most probably a millennial, is well educated, and likes the fact that her purchases make a difference in the world.
What makes MayaBags unique? What materials do you use that are found in Belize?
MayaBags are unique because each of our bag styles combines Maya traditional skills of back strap looming, embroidery and sometimes basketry with modern bag designs and details. Each bag demonstrates an unexpected combination.
We work hard to use materials we can source either in a local market or in the rainforest itself. For example, the leather we use on our bags comes from a group of Maya men who process leather using only water and tree bark. Mirroring the same process the Maasai of Africa use, the leather is truly eco leather as it is processed with no chemicals that harm the environment.
We also use two fibers produced by two local plants to either produce basketry, woven textiles or drawstrings or tassels for our bags. The first fiber is called Jippy Jappa by the Maya and comes from plants often found along rivers running through the rainforest. However, we’ve encouraged local farmers to grow the plant, and now we buy the fiber from farmers as opposed to having the people gather their own along the rivers. This has helped provide more sources of income and made the basket weaving process more efficient.
The second fiber is called “eke” by the Maya and comes from a large genus of the agave cactus. The men either bury the large fibrous arms of the agave in the ground until the arms begin to rot or they roast the arms until the skins begins to peal away from the fibers. Then, the men remove the fibers with their hands, wash them in the river and then create the thickness of rope they want by rubbing individual fibers together using ash on a wooden, rounded, plank. The resulting rope is beautiful and gives us an alternative way of making shoulder or across the body straps, as well as drawstrings for purses that require them.
We also buy our yarn locally, although we think the yarn is manufactured in Guatemala. The Maya glyph which means “It will happen” and is attached to all our bags, is also hand carved by a Maya artisan on small chips of slate which come from a local slate river.
Of course, our hand woven fabrics and the embroidery are done locally by the Maya women. From the rainforest, bag details like buttons or closures are either made out of coconut shell or local hard woods.
Do your customers choose MayaBags because of the indigenous artisan angle or are they coming for something else? What?
Since the retailers who carry our bags are very selective about the styles they select for their stores and because they have never aggressively promoted MayaBags’® mission of lifting Maya women and their families out of poverty, I think most customers buy the bags for their style...for the unique look they offer in an otherwise fairly predictable market of purses. When most customers choose to spend two or three hundred dollars for one of our bags, I don’t think they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, they have to really like the bag.
However, I do think customers are changing, especially the group that falls into the category of millennials. This younger group is beginning to think about the morality behind their purchases. They like to use their buying power to affect positive change. As such, hopefully in the not so distant future, one of the larger retail stores that buys our bags will begin to emphasize not only the bags’ style but what they do for Maya women. I can imagine our becoming the Toms (Shoes) of the purse business.
From start to finish, how long does it take to complete a hand-woven Hobo bag?
If we have the yarn in stock for an order, it takes a day to put together the packages of yarn for each of the weavers. Then, the team leader for the village where the weavers will weave the bag travels into our workshop to pick up the yarn. Since buses only run Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she can only travel one of the three days. Once she has the yarn, she distributes it to the weavers with exact design instructions. From that point, now about four days into the process, the weavers begin.
Depending on the size of the finished textile, it can take two to five days to weave, but the women don’t spend all that time just on the weaving. They also have their children and spouses to cook for, their laundry to do at the river, and dishes to be washed. Once all the weavers have finished with their weaving, the team leader now brings the weavings to our office for review and payment.
Then, the fabric has to be cut and sewn which can take another day or so. From beginning to end, an ideal time frame is three weeks, although sometimes deadlines require a faster turnaround.
Where do you find inspiration for the bags? Are there any designers you admire?
I find inspiration for the bags from elements of the Maya culture. For example, our way ib (Dreaming Places) Handbag was inspired by a traditional Maya earring. We also are introducing a new bag called the mam (Ancestor) Oversized Clutch. This was inspired by the Maya ancient cross-stitch clan embroidery often seen on their shirts. We also look to the colors of the rainforest and of the sea to inspire weaving patterns and bag details.
I like the designs of Henri Cuir and Carlos Falchi . It’s because they create unique pieces and use color. Their pieces show off handwork, and the bags feel like they have a heritage. I am not a Chanel kind of gal. I do not like a totally polished look.
Your products have been recommended by Rachel Zoe and sold in Barneys. What does that mean to the men and women who make the bags?
While we show the women the articles and while I think they really take pride in the fact that their work is getting recognition, they don’t really understand the impact articles like these have. Most of these wonderful Maya women have not traveled beyond the borders of the Toledo District where they live and, if they have traveled, it has been by bus to places like Belize City. They have never been exposed to the world of fashion, have never been in a US department store, and have only glimpsed at fashion magazines I have taken from NY to the Belize office from time to time. In reality, they haven’t lived in a way or have had experiences that might help them relate to the world of fashion.
Any recommendations for people visiting Belize?
Belize is a wonderful place to travel because the people are so warm and friendly, the biodiversity is amazing, for diving or snorkeling, the ocean offers endless possibilities, and the Maya ruins are fascinating. In the southern part of Belize where we are based, if you want to stay in town near the market place and to do some shopping in our workshop/store, I would recommend Coral House. *Writer’s note: if a flight to Belize isn’t in your near future, the bags are available online at http://www.mayabags.org/.