Since ancient times, the women of Guatemala’s indigenous communities in the western highlands have used hand-dyed thread to made clothes on back strap looms. Now, they are using those same techniques to make clothes and accessories for Nordstrom, J. Crew and other mainstream brands.
Yolanda Calgua Morales, 45, leads a group of weavers is the remote mountain community of Quiejel, near Chichicastenango.
Growing demand for traditional handmade textiles has changed Morales’ life. She’s been able to build a house and educate her two children.
Morales learned to weave when she was seven. She has taught her daughter, nieces and cousins.
“I teach them to weave because I don’t want them to lose the culture,” Morales says. “I love the work and I don’t want it to disappear.”
Morales says her grandmother passed down designs using four colors. Now, the Quieiel community uses 12 colors and new designs, many of them created by Morales. “I always think about what needs to change and how to improve,” she says. “When it’s ready I give it to the group; that’s why they call me the representative.”
Morales and the other Quiejel weavers work with a non-profit organization called Maya Traditions, which helps them sell their work for a fair price.
“We’re providing a product people want to buy with a story they support,” says Alison Wandschneider, director of sales and marketing for Maya Traditions.
Maya Traditions works with about 120 weavers from six areas in Guatemala, including Quiejel. There are many nonprofits like it, especially in Panajachel, a beautiful and touristic town of about 12,000 that anchors the indigenous villages around Lake Atitlán.
The nonprofit organizations court customers like Piece & Co., a Chicago-based for-profit company with a mission to improve artisans’ lives around the world “by partnering with leading fashion and retail brands,” according to its website.
“We’re the link between the artisan groups and these mainstream brands,” says Danielle Huffaker, the company’s Guatemala representative. “There’s all sort of expectations that brands have that artisan groups may not be accustomed to working with.”
On a recent Monday, Huffaker brought her laptop to the offices of Maya Traditions. She had a long list of questions Piece &Co. uses to vet artisan groups all over the world. Among them: How often do you meet with your artisans? How old are they? What is your bank? How do you define living wage? How many Guatemalans are on staff? How do you certify dyes are chemical-free?
Maya Traditions has answers to many of the questions, but some still need to be figured out. For instance, the industry talks about fabric in yards. But what comes off a back strap loom is not a yard. It’s the width of the weaver’s waist; more like 20 inches than 36. It’s called a lienzo. As Huffaker looks at the intricate product samples from Maya Traditions, she thinks out loud:
“There’s advantage to us in the sizes being in yards so we can compare prices between different countries,” she says. “We can definitely do this in lienzos as long as it’s really clear what unit we’re measuring so we can do conversions on our end.”
The women say shoppers want fair trade products in mainstream stores. And consumer demand is driving both retailers and artisans to change the way they do business. For Piece & Co.’s customers, the goal is predictable high-quality supply. Sellers like Maya Traditions want to get a fair price and keep traditional ways while growing an export business.
“We have had a lot of tough conversations and missed some deadlines,” Wandschneider says. “But I think it’s all at this very interesting point of tension and out of it will come something really awesome.”
Back in Quiejel, Marisol Morales Calel, program coordinator with Maya Traditions, is explaining this year’s contract to 18 weavers in K’iche, an indigenous language. Some weavers don’t speak Spanish, some will sign with a thumb print. The deal spells out deadlines and deliverables; it promise fair pay and benefits. It may turn out to be a binding agreement between the past and the future.
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