Thinking critically about used textiles

Every Tuesday and Friday at the fire station in Panajachel at Lake Atitlan, you’ll find a market exclusively for second hand traditional clothing – blouses, skirts, belts and men’s pants. Local indigenous people shop here to find pieces to add to their wardrobe, but you’ll also find many non-indigenous people and foreigners.

Used textile market in Panajachel

You may have seen a number of products made out of traditional clothing from around the world – bags, placemats, pillows, even clothing. I own several myself. But it’s not without some hesitations. These beautiful woven and embroidered clothing pieces most often become available due to the economic situation of women. They fall on tough times and are often left to sell some of their most prized possessions, their own artisan work or that made by a close friend or family member, so that they can receive a little cash. Middlemen then sell them at the market. This is their livelihood – some venders empathize with makers while other are more crass in their sourcing methods. Pieces range from practically new to many years of use. Some find new owners who wear them proudly and some are re-purposed into other products.  

Check out this short video that looks into the practice of using and selling used traditional textiles in Guatemala. 

Instead of viewing this practice as recycling or eco-friendly, I think it’s important to recognize that these pieces weren’t discarded. In most cases, they are not up-cycled by being used in a different product. They hold intrinsic value on their own. Knowing that poverty and sometimes exploitation are the circumstances for how used (and new) traditional textiles are acquired, it’s sad to think about the stories behind these textiles that often go unknown. Given that, I’ve re-thought how I view textile sourcing. I’m wary of labels such as vintage and recycled without contextual information. That’s part of the reason why the textiles for the pillow covers are new fabrics sourced directly from the makers to maximize earnings for the cooperative. But I’ll be honest. I have still bought used huipiles and cortes from markets. I try to be more aware of what I’m buying, by finding out where the textiles are from as well as who the middlemen are. And I think about the multiple hands that the pieces have passed through.

Interior corte binding 

Tucked inside each Kaleido Collection pillow cover is binding made from corte from the department of Quetzaltenango. I hemmed and hawed about using it – I didn’t want to source anything synthetic or factory made, but due to scale I was unable to source truly recycled fabric to bind or line the pillows. So I decided to use corte – it is a fun, beautiful touch on the inside of the covers that literally binds the new and the old, and I hope it serves as a reminder of the stories behind each and every textile piece and that improvement is needed along the supply chain in consumer goods.