Over the past few years I’ve watched my mom work tirelessly to offer more ethical and sustainable jewelry, accessories and gifts to people who want to make a difference in the world. I’ve watched her passionately educate countless customers on the merits of Fair Trade and the impact it has on the marginalized women who make the products. As her son, I’ve helped out over the years when she’s needed some extra hands, but I could never quite understand where she finds the inspiration and motivation to pour so much time into Women’s Peace Collection. This past February, I decided it was time to find out for myself; so I made a trip to Guatemala to meet with some of our artisan partners in the villages around Lake Atitlan. It didn’t take long for me to see what all the fuss was about.
One of our partner cooperatives around the lake is Asociación Maya. Tucked away in the back of a small alley in the small town of Sololá I found around 20 indigenous Mayan women preparing yarn to make scarves out of bamboo. Twenty women work full time in the building I visited dyeing and preparing the yarn, and another 150 women work out of their homes weaving the yarn into gorgeous scarves. When I first heard of bamboo scarves, I assumed they’d be really tough and fibrous like the plant itself. On the contrary, these are some of the most luxuriously soft scarves I’ve ever felt! The women buy the yarn in large white rolls, and then use a hand-cranked machine to unravel it.
Natural dyes are then prepared in buckets of hot water and sections of yarn are left to soak in them for a time. Depending on the desired color pattern of the scarf, sections of the same yarn could be died several different colors.
After the dying process is complete, the yarn is hung out to dry on clotheslines in the sun, and the resulting mosaic of sun-lit colors and textures creates a feast for the eyes.
After the yarn is thoroughly dry, a group of women smooth it out into an even untangled thread and organize it in neat bunches for the weavers to use.
The weavers then use the yarn on traditional back-strap looms in their homes to create incredible works of art. When we then buy these wearable works of art, we support the 170 women involved in the cooperative and their aspirations for a brighter future. And supporting these women is very different from supporting an individually-owned business. They are a producer cooperative, which implies that they have collective ownership of the business. As a community of owners, they’re able to ensure they receive fair compensation for their work and pool resources in order to maximize earnings. With these earnings, they’re then able to provide for their families and invest in their communities as a group. It’s a model that everyone can feel good about.
As I was taking photos of the women and their craft, everyone was all smiles and giggles, especially because of my apparent awkwardness as a photographer. I then handed them my phone and they started taking photos of me! We had so much fun laughing about the photos and the humor of the whole situation that I found myself not wanting to leave. The air was saturated with joy. I left feeling a much deeper connection to them than I ever could have anticipated. There’s something very touching about people from different cultures working together towards a brighter future.
After this visit, I began to feel how enriching it is to be able help my mom run a business that directly benefits the women I connected with. I started to see why she’s so dedicated to her work, especially when I considered that she is helping women prosper all over the world! And while the impact of Fair Trade is greatest at the level of the producer, the consumer also gets the gift of a handmade work of art that they can feel good about. In a world of standardized mass production, there’s great fulfillment in owning something that connects us with the individual hands that spent hours or days carefully crafting it. It’s rare to be a part of something that benefits everyone involved.
As for the women of Asociación Maya, we hope to be part of their enriching journey as it unfolds far into the future. And if you feel so inspired, their scarves are available in our online store.