When I was just starting up Kakaw Designs around three years ago, I remember getting into an argument with a friend. Driving through a neighborhood full of pacas (literally translated “bales,” which is how leftover second-hand clothes come down to Guatemala from the US and are opened for sale), we agreed that the weaving tradition in Guatemala was in danger. Why would anyone spend so much time weaving when it’s so easy to find a T-shirt for the fraction of the material cost involved? What we didn’t agree on was how much could be done to slow down the process. My friend thought that weaving was going to die anyway, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. On top of that, he thought that it was pointless to try to keep this artisan tradition alive. Death was inevitable.
As a daughter of a weaver, an idealist, and a Guatemalan, this outright pissed me off. I understood this perspective, but to me, it meant a lot to slow down this rate of change. Yes, the weaving tradition was changing. But to slow down that change meant higher likelihood of this culture staying alive in some way. We would be able to give time for the tradition to adapt and evolve.
While I completely believe in what we are doing as Kakaw Designs, this was my first little introduction to the many dilemmas I would face as the founder of an artisanmade brand. It’s been an enlightening journey, and I’d love to share with you the top four dilemmas I’ve encountered:
Dilemma #1: Higher income means more opportunities and incentives to leave the artisan life
Let’s be honest here, artisans in the developing world are not usually part of the royalty. In Guatemala, those who still continue the weaving tradition usually live in villages and speak one of the 22 Mayan languages. Historically, these are marginalized peoples who have not had many opportunities in life. There are always exceptions and hard work can pay off, but there’s no denying that life has been hard for the general rural Guatemalan population.
With increased appreciation in the artisan work from the global market, we are able to show our support for these talented weavers. And the great thing is that women know best how to invest their money in their families and their communities. This means that their children will be better cared for, will go to school for longer, and overall have more opportunities in life. But where will these opportunities lead them? Will their daughters choose to continue the weaving tradition, given other paths in front of them?
My two cents: Some people will probably find their calling in other fields. While it might be a loss in the artisan made industry, I support people doing what they love. In just this way, I also hope that those who truly love weaving in the modern world will be able to continue their tradition and be fairly compensated for their work.
Dilemma #2: Used vs. New textiles
This is a hot topic in Guatemala, where used textiles (handwoven traditional clothing) are readily and cheaply available. But unless you go into a rural village, visiting the people at home, it’s almost impossible to know how the used garments were obtained. It’s typical for the textile pieces to go through several middlemen to reach a market.
Many businesses call these used textiles “vintage” and are sold as “upcycled” products. It’s true that both the textile and the final product can be very beautiful. I see no dilemma here if a business sells these products as part of the fashion industry, but if they say that they are working with weavers, that’s just not true.
Buying used textiles does not in any way ensure that the original weaver (from years ago) gets compensated fairly. We don’t know if the weaver will create another piece after this sale. There is no direct correlation here between buying used textiles and supporting weavers today.
The other option is to commission new woven textiles. By hiring current weavers, the business is more directly contributing to keeping the weaving tradition alive. I don’t think that anyone would argue this, but because of cost and communication/cultural issues, it can be difficult for a small business to pursue this route.
My two cents: If a business is based on upcycling used textiles, just be honest and say that. And whenever possible, add new handmade touches. That is what we do at Kakaw Designs – about half of our textiles are used and the other half is new, with our designs. We’re always thinking of ways to add value to the used textiles by adding new touches with embroidery and leather, making sure that everything is still done by hand.
Dilemma #3: Supporting weavers means changing traditional designs
Certain colors and patterns appeal more to the global market. Beauty is so subjective, and the Maya eye for textile design can be very different from what others are used to. This is true for my brand. Our partner cooperative of weavers produces beautiful textiles using natural dyes, ikat designs, and backstrap weaving. All of these processes are each traditionally Maya, but our combination of designs and colors are not. I have a friend who calls this “dumbing-down” the weaving tradition.
My two cents: It’s true that we are limiting creativity by asking for the weavers to produce our pieces. But we are still supporting the weavers, and they are happy for the work and guidance. It’s important for the artisans to know the value of their work, and the goal is that with the income gained they can still weave pieces for themselves with no restrictions on creativity. Because without income, that would not be a possibility. We’ve also found that weavers can be genuinely curious about other people’s color preferences, and they find it helpful to learn about these details that are foreign to them.
Dilemma #4: Having a brand means protecting your designs
While I like to think that my business has found its own niche, I’m in no way a pioneer in this “artisan-made brand” world. There are many great people out there producing beautiful things, working closely with artisans. These businesses combined create a big force for the artisan world, and it is fantastic.
Needless to say, as a brand you want to keep your designs yours. Other brands should respect that and create original pieces. This is clear and standard, though it is not always the reality in Guatemala, where copying is the norm.
However, we should tread lightly here. At least on the ground here in Guatemala, designers can get carried away “protecting” their designs. While I completely understand and can relate to wanting to keep certain ideas as our own, one of the main selling points for artisanmade businesses is that we work with local artisans, and most of us even use the word “empower” somewhere in our mission statement. If it is indeed true that one of our highest goals is to support artisans, it worries me that we would be so concerned with “our designs” rather than the increased benefit for our artisans. This is very tricky.
My two cents: Many people have mentioned to me that I should copyright my designs. This might be a pretty normal thing to do nowadays in the fashion industry, but let’s think this over for a moment: Did I invent these Maya patterns? Did I come up with backstrap weaving? Did I revolutionize the textile world with these natural dyes? I think not. I may have combined colors and patterns in a way that was not considered “normal” in a certain village, or used a textile in a way that was new for boots of bags, but that’s about it. I don’t pretend to own these ideas, and I don’t like the concept of limiting the artisans – if they see that a certain color sells, go for it, produce more and sell. Be an entrepreneur. I want the artisans to succeed, and figure how to keep their traditions alive. After all, they are their traditions.
There are definitely more dilemmas, but these are my mains ones. I wanted to share these because I think people sometimes believe that I have chosen a journey with rainbows and unicorns. I love what I do, but things are not as clear-cut and perfect as one might think in the artisan-made world.