Hello dear supporters! We have some exciting news to share, and just in time for Bonus Day today! Our new collection for 2015 includes leather features to complement the handwoven textiles in our bags and totes. Our seamstresses are learning new skills and making higher value items that can fetch higher prices.
But there is one little detail. The machines that you all so generously helped us purchase a few years ago just aren't equipped to sew leather. The material is hard on the machines, and the seamstresses struggle to create strong, straight seams that look professional. As Justa explains,
"The leather is thick and makes the needle jump. Sometimes, we have to force it through, and it does damage on the underside of the faric. That is why our work isn't as pretty when we are sewing leather on the machine."
With our current machines, our leather goods still look a little homemade. While that is of course very charming, it limits the clients for the bags to smaller stores and individual purchases. We think our artisans' bags are so beautiful that they belong in bigger stores all over the U.S., but we can't get there without a leather sewing machine.
Today, we are trying to raise $1500 for a leather machine, and we would love your help! Please donate so that we can purchase this essential equipment for the seamstresses. Expanding our collection to leather will allow them to learn new skills while supporting more weavers and generating increased income for these artisan women so that they can lead their communities out of poverty.
This summer, two Awamaki staff represented over 100 female artisans on the west coast of the United States for two gift shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. These shows allowed Awamaki to increase our artisans’ market access to west coast markets. During these shows, our staff managed to create over 15 new relationships with west coast retailers who will begin carrying our products this autumn.
The most popular items at the shows were baby accessories, our lace scarf, and a new hand woven scarf, all designed by our volunteers and in-house designers in collaboration with the artisans. Trade shows are also a learning opportunity for us as we work to enter international markets. At these shows, the new iPad case we brought didn't do as well as we hoped, so our lead designer is working with the seamstresses to re-envision it, perhaps as a clutch. Feedback like this from customers, as well as the relationships we can build with stores that care about fair trade and ethical sourcing, make trade shows like this invaluable to us as we connect more women artisans to global markets.
Sales Manager Callie was one of the staff members representing Awamaki artisans at the shows. "We have been working hard to build our wholesale partnerships. When our current retailers and new clients see our booth, they get to meet a sales manager who works with the women on a daily basis; this is so rare at trade shows," she said. "Most times, they have been in frequent contact with me and are excited to see a friendly face. This improves our visibility, builds trust in our quality, and most importantly, increases the orders that our cooperatives rely on.”
Seamstresses Justa and Estella weighed in on how the quality of Awamaki products has improved since we have started going to trade shows. “The drawings and colors are clear and of a higher quality,” Estella said. Justa added “The quality of the work has improved, especially with the new designs.”
Your continuing generosity will allow us to further gain entry into new markets and thus help the amazing women in our cooperatives. We are very enthusiastic about the progress of this project and are excited to see how our women and Lab evolve!
This month, GlobalGiving has invited us to submit #FailForward stories. Since we have enough failure stories to easily fill 12 project reports per year, we thought we’d take the opportunity to share one with you! Here is our major #FailForward from the past year.
Rewind to nearly six years ago. Awamaki was brand new. We were a couple of committed volunteers and ten weavers with the idea to sell weavings in our tourist town so the women could earn an income. We didn’t have much money, but we spent every sol we had to build a weaving center with the women, who called their group the Songuillay cooperative. The center would be a place to hold trainings and meetings, and importantly, it also served as picturesque destination for tourists who paid us a (whopping!) $10/head to take them up to visit the women and learn about weaving. Over the years, Awamaki brought on 90 more artisans in four other communities, but the center remained the face of Awamaki, a retreat-like setting filled with traditionally-dressed artisans, crawling babies, and colorful weavings.
Earlier this year, the husband of one of our artisans came into our office and introduced himself as the president of the Songuillay cooperative. It is an understatement to say this came as a shock. Women’s leadership and economic empowerment are the principles behind every program we run and every decision we make. Thanks to a U.S. State Department grant, we had been running intensive capacity-building in women’s leadership with this cooperative for eight months. How had they elected a man president of the women’s cooperative? Had they just been tuning us out for five years? It was one of those not-so-fun moments that makes you question the point of your existence.
What we learned was worrisome. When we built the center, the husband of one of the weavers donated the land for its construction. We learned that over the years, as the cooperative became more financially successful, he had increasingly attempted to influence the cooperative so that his family members benefitted more than others. He told the women that he was the legal president of the group, and that Awamaki had built the center on his land and thus worked through him. He influenced who received weaving orders and who attended tourists’ visits. The women artisans are mostly illiterate and few have been to school. They don’t know their legal rights and couldn’t read their association's bylaws. In Peru, it is common for institutions to say one thing and do another. They feared that while Awamaki paid lip service to women’s empowerment, we knew and approved of the situation and this husband's control.
While we talked about women’s leadership, the women were being intimidated by a man we had inadvertently empowered. As a rule, we try to stay out of community politics as much as possible. However, this situation threatened the women’s progress and the popular tourism program, right in the middle of high season during which thousands of visitors come to the Sacred Valley. We had dozens of tours scheduled, a center in contention, and the cooperative dividing into factions.
Through lots of hard work, the situation has improved. We phased out the center, and the women have found a new space. We will be able to bring much of our furniture and equipment with us, so our investment in the old center isn’t lost. We brought a Quechua-speaking lawyer to meet with them and explain their options. It turned out they hadn’t tuned out the skills-building; in fact, the women have been much more assertive in using those skills since we helped them restructure their leadership and made our values clear.
This was a learning moment for us at Awamaki. When we started working with Songuillay, we didn’t realize how important it was that the women fully understand their constitution and bylaws. We also didn’t require that the women take strong leadership in their cooperative business. In fact, it was our new emphasis on these principles with Songuillay that resulted in the airing of some of these issues. We already require more active leadership and responsibility from all our cooperatives. When our knitters approached us about building a center last year, we required that they obtain the land in the legal name of their association. They organized fundraisers, took out a bank loan, and bought a small plot of land to build their center. We are sure that no one will ever convince them it isn’t theirs.