Finding Maker Magic in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala. Surrounded by three large volcanoes—the proud Volcan de Agua to the south, Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego to the west—Antigua is nestled into a land of pressure and release.

A city whose resilience is woven into the very threads of its people. The ancient Mayans, Spanish conquistadors, colonizers, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods have carved this city’s history—allowing it to thrive with a culture as rich as its soil.

I had the pleasure of attending New World Crafts in Antigua with our friends at Powered by People. NWC is one of the most important trade shows in Guatemala and greater Central America, bringing together artisans and makers of all backgrounds to celebrate heritage craft. Over the course of two days, the show features over 100 textile weavers, carpenters, ceramicists, glassblowers, welders, fashion designers, and so much more.

As a prelude to NWC, Powered by People hosted a group of 25 on a Makers Tour in and around Antigua. Our group consisted of small business owners, buyers, designers, and stylists hungry to soak in the culture and craft of the beautiful country of Guatemala. And let me tell you, the passion and talent of these artisans was palpable in every single room, workshop, and warehouse we entered. These makers radiated a rare kind of hospitality, an eagerness to draw us in and share the techniques and traditions that make their work so special.

Carpentry: Visiting the “House of Giants”

Our first stop was Casa de Los Gigantes, “House of Giants,” a carpentry workshop and warehouse. The name is a nod to the 17th-century legend of the same name, which you can read about here. Our group piled in as we were greeted by Chilean-born owner, Siggy. Siggy took over Casa de Los Gigantes in 1995 when the original owner decided to retire and has been at the helm ever since. Their team of 13 collaborates with hundreds of artisans and partners from all over Guatemala, providing a range of home décor, lifestyle, and fashion accessories.

During our time here, we were able to see their carpentry process in action for wood products like butcher blocks and charcuterie boards. Sourcing teak from Guatemalan forests, Casa de Los Gigantes is NEST-certified, which measures ethical compliance against a matrix of over 100 metrics. NEST’s training-first program is tailored to address the wide degree of variation in decentralized supply chains, which may result from factors such as multiple layers of subcontracting, migrant labor forces, and broad geographical dispersal. This light-filled workshop was full of templates, prototypes, works-in-progress, and finished products ready to adorn the homes of lucky buyers. The rich smell of teak and fresh sawdust awakened our senses, preparing us for the day ahead.

Weaving: Experiencing a rare craft

The next stop on our tour was the studio and workshop of Eladio Chiroy, one of the oldest foot loom weaving operations in Antigua. Threatened by technology, the art and tradition of this weaving technique are at risk of being left behind.

Eladio Chiroy, age 82, is still proudly weaving textiles and is passionate about passing down his knowledge to the next generation. His natural proclivity for hospitality and his pride in sharing his craft with us was, quite frankly, electric.

Eladio demonstrated each step of the weaving process, beginning with winding bobbins of thread, which would later be wound around a large reel to create the warp, which is the foundation of the textile.

Next, the warp is relocated to the foot loom, where the threads are carefully aligned and secured to maintain proper tension. Working the foot pedals, known as treadles, the height of the thread levels shifts up and down, and a shuttle is repeatedly passed through the warp threads. This action creates the weft, which gives the textile color, structure, and pattern.

At one point in Eladio’s demonstration, he called one of his employees from across the room, asking them to retrieve a book for him. He went on to share his family history, recalling stories of his father weaving on a traditional handloom and his mother selling textiles from door to door. The book he held in his hands, on which he is proudly featured on the cover, was written by his daughter to preserve their family history and craft.

Ceramics: Meeting with a master

The last stop on our tour was Mayu’s ceramics workshop at Finca San Jose, a beautiful open-air studio located on a coffee finca (farm). Mayu is a women-owned company that offers a variety of tableware, home décor, and fashion accessories that are all handmade to preserve the heritage of Guatemalan design.

The master ceramicist, Vidal, walked us through the process of sun-drying clay to encourage malleability. We watched as he demonstrated spreading the wet clay across the table of white stones, with the lush greens of coffee trees in the background. Next, Vidal showed us the hand-made molds used to cast vessels of various shapes and sizes and the kiln used to fire them.

The visit ended with a demonstration on the potter’s wheel, which Vidal performed with a grace and skill that can only be explained by a natural talent that flows through his veins.

Magic: Celebrating Antigua’s story

The rest of my week in Antigua consisted of soaking in the sights, the sounds, and the vibrant energy of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wandered cobblestone streets and explored alleys bookended by ancient ruins.

The sizzling of pupusas, the sounds of bicycle bells and tuk-tuks hurriedly making their way through imperfect cobblestone streets. Stray dogs sunbathing in doorways that lead to lush courtyards. Fruiting coffee trees nestled between giant monstera and palm leaves. Candy-colored Baroque churches whose tympanums mirror the geometry of the towering volcanoes that frame the sky above them.

It truly is no surprise that a city with such mystery and magic sustains a community of makers, masters, and storytellers. A city whose every corner reveals a story, a step back in time, and a clue to what came before. While Antigua has sought to preserve its history, it simultaneously continues to forge a rich future through its dedication to craft, culture, and creativity. A future we should all be so lucky to participate in and hold near.