Earlier this month, a group of seven knitters from the knitting cooperative of Rumira joined Giulia and Natalie of our Monitoring and Evaluation team to talk about the role of women in their community, empowerment, and Awamaki’s mission.
For this empowerment workshop, we started right away with a big question: Why is it that Awamaki only works with women? At first, the answers we got were pretty straightforward. The women responded that there are very few jobs for women, and Awamaki provides them with jobs. While this is correct, we wanted to dig deeper: why do we only work with women?
Empowerment workshops like this one provide Awamaki with crucial insight to how our mission is perceived by the women artisans we serve. These workshops are also a great opportunity to evaluate our impact, and the women’s perception of our work, through their responses to questions and activities.
The idea of empowerment is a foreign concept in our cooperatives’ communities. The women of Rumira had heard of empowerment but none could confidently explain what it is. This was a critical part of the discussion because themes of empowerment are so central to Awamaki’s mission of enabling the women to create change in their communities.
To illustrate the theme of empowerment, we used women’s purchasing power and social change in the community as a starting point.
Knitter Rosa gave the example of a woman making purchasing decisions as a form of empowerment. “Women didn’t make these choices in the past,” she said when discussing changes in her community over the last decade. Now, she told us, women make the majority of household decisions and participate in community meetings. Along with the additional income that they earn with Awamaki, these changes are empowering them to improve their community.
This month’s workshop was also hugely beneficial to our organizational learning as we refine our capacity-building curriculum. We found our basic and interactive approach to this complex topic proved to be very successful. The women of our Rumira Cooperative gained understanding of empowerment in the context of their lives.
However, in the past we have only given this workshop in more rural communities that are further from town, schools and jobs. Rumira, on the other hand, is only minutes from the main town. We found that the Rumira women’s discussion was far more productive, and moved much more quickly, than the discussion had in previous rural communities. In those communities, we had started with a high expectation for women’s understanding of our mission, and found we needed to drill down to basics. Adapting that curriculum to Rumira, we approached the group with basic concepts, and quickly found that they were eager for a more advanced discussion!
This was a great lesson for us as we improve our curriculum so that we can better adapt it to each group’s education level and better carry out our mission of building business and leadership capacity in rural Andean women.
Though most of their formal training is in teaching Spanish, the Spanish teachers are increasingly applying their language instruction skills to Quechua, their native language.
Awamaki’s own volunteers make up most of the demand for these classes so far. Quechua is much less widely spoken than Spanish, but still very common in homes and rural communities where the volunteers spend much of their time.
The teachers have begun offering beginning Quechua classes in conjunction with Spanish lessons. They see an opportunity to teach their native language and share their culture. Volunteers take the classes in order to communicate better with the women with whom Awamaki works. With a totally new and different sentence and grammatical structure to learn, learning Quechua is very difficult! But the students agree it adds a dimension to their visit that they would not have been able to experience otherwise.
Erika, who took Quechua classes for 3 years in the United States before coming to Peru to volunteer at Awamaki, explains, “I learned a tremendous amount of culture in my Quechua classes, both at school and here in Peru. You have to, because so much of the language is based in the things that Quechua people see and use every day.”
“I’m working with local women and sometimes you need to know some Quechua words to communicate with them,” explains Simone, a Sustainable Tourism volunteer who elected to take several Quechua classes to help her bring tourists to the weavers’ communities so they can learn about weaving and purchase directly from the weavers. “My job as a tour guide got a lot easier when I learned some key words in Quechua!”
Teaching Quechua is rewarding for the teachers as well. “I have to be creative because it is very different than teaching Spanish,” says Ruth. “was at first surprised so many volunteers wanted to learn it.” But, she says, she has always known how to speak it and so she can teach it to them.
On the last GlobalGiving Bonus Day, we were asking our GlobalGiving donors to help fund our very first drum carder for our Huillloc spinning cooperative. We are excited to report that after your generous donations, we were finally able to purchase this valuable machine.
A drum carder combs raw textile fibers to make it easier to spin them into yarn. To learn more about why Awamaki’s first drum carder was such an important purchase, I sat down with our head designer and self-proclaimed “wool nerd”, Kate Mitchell.
“This is the obvious next step in our efforts to improve quality control,” explained Kate. There are two major challenges when turning natural alpaca fiber into high-quality yarn: getting the sheared fibers clean, and getting the colors consistent. The spinners have been having problems thoroughly cleaning their fibers, and some of their finished products still have bits of grass in them. Likewise, they have been having issues with color consistency too. The drum carder is helping solve these problems.
Washing the fiber in soap and warm water helps get the dirt out, but other stuff like grass has to be picked out by hand. “The drum carder combs through the fibers and makes it easier to separate out these impurities,” according to Kate.
In the below photo, you can see cardered vs. uncardered black alpaca wool fiber. Cardered fiber results in higher quality yarn because the combing aligns the fibers, making it easier to spin.
A drum carder will also allow the spinners to create more consistent colors in their yarns. In Peru, there are 52 official shades of natural alpaca. Awamaki spinners make 4 of these shades in wholesale yarn. Kate explains that the trouble is, a single alpaca may have three or four different shades of fiber in their coat. As the carder combs through the natural material, it mixes and blends fibers to create a more consistent yarn color.
This process works the same for dyed fibers. One batch of natural dye may produce several different colors on the raw fibers, as demonstrated in the photo below. When this batch is combed through the drum carder, the different shades that occur naturally will be blended together, resulting in a more consistent color throughout the resulting yarn. Additionally, we can also hand-pick different colors we choose to blend in the drum carder. This gives the women a wider color palette to work with for our yarns and finished products.
As you can see in the pictures of pink yarn, when fiber from a single alpaca is dyed at the same time in the same batch, the resulting color isn’t always even throughout the fiber. Putting this through a drum carder will blend the different shades together to produce a consistent color throughout the resulting yarn.
Our new drum carder will also save our artisans a lot of time. Kate explains that the amount of alpaca fiber that used to take an hour to clean now can be cleaned in 10 minutes. This massive time-saver allows for an increase in production, taking us one step closer to our goal of adding a line of yarns available to our wholesale customers.
We’re excited about the new drum carder, but no new change in production is without its challenges. The drum carder is currently being kept in Awamaki’s office in Ollantaytambo. We hope to soon get it out to our Huilloc cooperative where it will be much more accessible to our women artisans, but first we are working with the women to help them come up with a plan for where to keep it. It is possible that it may travel from house to house, but this is not ideal due to the size and weight of the machine. Eventually the women in Huilloc will build their own crafts center, but we are working on finding a safe, permanent home for the equipment until they have their own central space.
The Awamaki team sends a huge THANK YOU to everyone who helped us achieve our goal of purchasing a drum carder. We’re working hard to make sure the women with whom we work have the tools and training they need to make high quality products, and we appreciate your help along the way!