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Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru

by Awamaki
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru
Alejandra and two of our partner artisans
Alejandra and two of our partner artisans

Once upon a time, in the early stages of Awamaki’s development, we sold only textiles; we carried none of the bags, pillowcases, or other finished products that line our shelves today. While the raw textiles were beautiful, we wondered if they could be better showcased with modern silhouettes created explicitly for traditional-style textiles. Enter Awamaki Lab, an experimental initiative begun in 2010 to connect artisans with different international designers to create modern pieces with our partner artisans.

These designers implemented their vision throughout a 4-12 month residency to create products that would resonate with a global market. Many of the donors to this project helped us get that project off the ground, providing funding for sewing machines, materials, design training and other startup essentials. We will be forever indebted to you for those contributions, as without them, and without you, we wouldn’t have been able to begin to transform traditional textiles into the contemporary Andean products that provide our artisans with their livelihood today.

However, while Awamaki Lab helped Awamaki get closer to our current style and state, the rapid turnover of designers left something wanting: consistency and time to build a strong relationship between designer and artisans.

Realizing the importance of a strong relationship to effective artisan collaboration, Awamaki decided to hire one head designer for a longer period of time in 2017: Alejandra Carrillo-Muñoz. Today, we can take volunteer designers who work with Alejandra under her vision, cultivating a stronger collaborative process, challenging our partner cooperatives with new techniques that will take them far, and better incorporating traditional Andean techniques and symbols into products. Alejandra has been working with us for 3 years now and we can see the expansion in our collections, the quality of the products, and the engagement of our partner artisans as they are now ever more able to sustain their families through the income earned with Awamaki. 

For this report we wanted to share an interview we did with Alejandra, in which she expresses her passions, challenges and the design choices that take place in the realm of artisan collaboration. We hope to inform you about the current state of our project as we come close to being a self-sustaining project for which product sales can cover the cost of operation--as has been the goal all along. 

Veronica: When you first began working with Awamaki, what were some of the challenges you encountered?

Alejandra: A very common challenge amongst this type of work is understanding that to respectfully approximate yourself to the communities, it takes time; time to learn from the women, to allow them to learn from you, for trust to be built, for a relationship to be formed. 

Veronica: Please describe how your relationship with the artisans has grown over time. How important is it to develop a strong relationship, and how has that affected the design process?

Alejandra: I knew going in that not knowing Quechua would be a challenge when it came to communicating and exchanging ideas with the artisans. However, very human interactions of maybe even attempting the language, sharing a few laughs together, being present in the communities when it came time to crafting the textiles, or simply spending time together in general just builds strong bonds.  In doing so, we really did create a shared space in which to experiment with creative techniques where we combined contemporary concepts using the extensive knowledge and experience they possess as weavers. We’re really proud of that and we think it shows in our designs! 

Veronica: How do you think being able to work long-term with the artisans has affected the design process?

Alejandra: What has been revolutionary for our designs has been to involve the artisans in the creative process.  Our most recent 2019 Kay Pacha collection is an example of this. The process began with a concept that originates in the artisan communities and it’s through the artisan communities that we then retrieved the design elements we chose to work with. 

Veronica: What are some of the ways you’ve been able to incorporate traditional Andean symbols and techniques into modern designs? Could you expand a little about some of these designs and their significance?

Alejandra: We strive for a design process that starts and ends in the very communities we work with.  I often find myself studying textiles that the artisans have woven and then inquire as to the significance of the symbols and the findings are amazing.  My favorite was a piece that looked so modern and contemporary that I was surprised to find it represented steps or stairs. This ancient textile design inspired the concept for the 2018 Cielo y Tierra collection and was included in some of our key pieces.

Veronica: What are some of the most memorable things you have learned from the artisans while working with them?

Alejandra: I’m continually in awe of their innate talent.  I enjoy nothing more than being in the communities and seeing the designs come to life; from a strand of yarn to a knitted product or a woven textile. These artisans are mathematicians, engineers, creators and makers! Seeing them in action is everything!

Veronica: What are some of the outcomes that emerged from a collaborative process in terms of design choices?

Alejandra: The best example is from the most recent Kay Pacha collection. In this case, the artisans were asked to interpret a prized symbol, the ‘chakana’. The interpretations varied from community to community and from artisan to artisan.  This was a way of visually collecting information as to their perception of the symbol and also, a way of including their creative interpretations within our collection.

Veronica: Is there anything else you would like to add about the design process or working closely with the artisans?

Alejandra: I definitely think that our work is most successful when it is inclusive and collective.  Acknowledging that each team member, whether in the office or in the artisan communities, possess certain strengths, allows us to work more efficiently. There have been instances where knitters have suggested particular finishes on product or other times that weavers have offered better approaches to composing a particular figure on a textile. Other times, it is us providing quality control or color theory workshop. It takes all of us to create beautiful and quality product. 

 

Overall, hiring Alejandra has allowed for a stronger designer-artisan relationship, which translates to a more collaborative design process. Now, we take a look at how Alejandra’s relationship with our partner artisans has transformed both our style and Awamaki itself. We are currently in the making of our 2020 collection and we can see how the trust that has been built between Alejandra and our partner artinsas is reflected in their creations.

Thank you for all of your support!

Chakana design sample
Chakana design sample
Alejandra sketching for Kay Pacha collection
Alejandra sketching for Kay Pacha collection
Looking through weavings from our partner artisans
Looking through weavings from our partner artisans
Beautiful weavings from our partner artisans
Beautiful weavings from our partner artisans

Links:

New Artisans from Ocongate knit samples.
New Artisans from Ocongate knit samples.

As an indigenous artisan in the Cusco region, the farther you live from Machu Picchu and the city of Cusco, the fewer economic opportunities you have.

Until 2019, the furthest cooperative with which we worked was in the village of Kelkanka, three hours from Ollantaytambo.  But as we’ve graduated our veteran cooperatives, and gained capacity as a staff to begin working with new cooperatives, we have begun working with three new cooperatives  located in the region of Ocongate, four hours south of Ollantaytambo. By expanding our geographic reach to different regions of Cusco, we can not only bring our model to more artisans but also bring new techniques and skills into our work.  

“We got in touch with the Ocongate cooperatives through a health NGO called Suyana.” Mercedes, our head of women’s cooperatives program, explained. Mercedes built the connection through a family member that works with Suyana, from there she was able to get in touch with the cooperatives located in the Ocongate region.

For the first visits both Mercedes, and Martha, our knitting coordinator, oversaw knitting and weaving samples from three separate local cooperatives. Since March the new artisans have demonstrated great skill with their handicrafts as well as professionalism in the way they conduct their organization. We are very excited to be working with such talented and motivated artisans and have already placed several orders for our export collection, Kay Pacha.

There are three separate groups of artisans in the region of Ocongate with which Awamaki is building partnerships. The first, Condor Pallay, is composed of 16 artisans, the second is located in the smaller community of Upis with 22 artisans, and the third, Ausangate, has 19 artisans. Ausangate specializes in knitting and crocheting and they are currently filling orders for Awamaki’s Muku baby collection, including the adorable Lamb Lovey and Llama Play Toy.

The cooperatives in Ocongate “understand the production process and are comfortable with texting us and sharing images of their work, which makes our collaboration smoother and faster, especially now that we have been getting more international orders than ever,” Martha said.  She also explained that Awamaki does not currently collaborate with many highly trained crochet artisans and that establishing a relationship with these cooperatives is a great asset, because the crochet technique requires a lot more attention to detail as it is a more sophisticated craft.

Martha also mentioned that she enjoys the challenge of working with cooperatives that have less professional expertise, as it opens the door for more opportunity to train the artisans using Awamaki’s hallmark training program, the  Impact Model. Mercedes explained that “the cooperatives in Ocongate are very skilled and have great work ethic, and we are planning on implementing workshops in color theory, and design, for them to push their abilities even further.”

The first step to begin a partnership with Awamaki, Mercedes explained, is for the cooperative to reflect a well organized and established working space and to have a designated president. In the case that they don’t have a work space of their own, Awamaki supports the cooperatives as they begin the process of securing a center in the near future. A final part of the first step-- and a very important one due to the percentage of informality in the labor sector of Peru-- is for the cooperative to register as a legal association with the Peruvian government so that they are able to generate their own legal receipts.

A cooperative reaches the second level of the Impact Model when it is able to execute designs and quality control expectations as well as maintain good standing of management over their payments from Awamaki. Ocongate cooperatives have demonstrated great expertise; we are inspired to expand our partnerships with them, along with conducting new and emerging workshops on design and color theory. The third level, which prepares the cooperatives for graduation, is reached when the artisans are able to secure their own clients and work independently. Here, the relationship with Awamaki transforms from training workshops to a mainly commercial one. However, as Mercedes explains, “Awamaki stays present in their journey and development and if the possibility arises, puts them in touch with other clients.” From here, the cooperatives can grow their own successful, independent businesses.

Here at Awamaki, we celebrate cooperatives at all stages of the Impact Model and beyond. We believe in continuing to reinforce their empowerment, and being creative about ways to help them grow and challenge their skills for the future.

Your donations have funded the development of our Impact Model, as well as the training that has allowed our veteran cooperatives to move towards graduation. You also help fund the start up costs associated with bringing on a new cooperatives just like the 57 women of Ocongate. Thank you for being with us on this journey!

Mercedes leads an intro with new cooperatives
Mercedes leads an intro with new cooperatives
Knitting New Partnerships
Knitting New Partnerships
New Partner Artisan Knits Sample for Martha
New Partner Artisan Knits Sample for Martha
Martha explains production methods
Martha explains production methods

Links:

Women Inside the Center
Women Inside the Center

Kelkanka, a small village high in the Andes, is an amazing place to be able to visit, not only for its views, but for its people. Our partner cooperative, Wakanquilla, has recently finished building their new artisan center in the center of the village. The center will be used for meetings, weaving, and workshops that will enable the cooperative to continue trainings with Awamaki as well as support their future as an independent business. The workshop covered how to build self esteem, strengthen confidence, and how to be a leader. It was amazing to see the women collaborating, learning, and getting out of their comfort zones as they worked through each activity as a group. Not only was the workshop helping empower them, but the space “gives them security and more [empowerment]” Mercedes, our head of the women’s cooperatives program, explained. They now have shared ownership of the center and can access it whenever they want, giving them a great place to gather and work as an independent business.

“The idea to build the center had been in the works for the past three years” Mercedes, described. Once the money was raised to build the center, the women got to work right away. Kennedy, our founder and executive director explained that the “artisan group [purchased] the land in the name of the [Wakanquilla] cooperative, and then [Awamaki] collaborated to build the center.” Awamaki helped them with the planning, designing, and fundraising of the center. Once construction finally began, it was completed in a speedy fifteen days, the whole community working together in a community-led initiative typically referred to as a faena, a traditional Quechua concept. Faena’s are usually projects that contribute to the overall growth and development of the community as a whole, bringing people together for a single purpose and goal; the idea being everyone could benefit mutually. “The artisans and their families supplied materials like adobe bricks, thatch for roofs, and stones,” Kennedy continued, “[Awamaki] supplied materials that needed to be purchased, like concrete and wood.  Awamaki was able to purchase the supplies from the generous individual donations given in support of the Wakanquilla cooperative in Kelkanka.”

“Before the center was built, the women would meet in the open air or in the community schools, never having a permanent or reliable place to congregate,” Kennedy explained. These meetings were also dependent on the weather, which can be spotty far up the mountains in Kelkanka where rainy season often blocks transportation on the roads into town completely and snowfall is a common occurrence. The women needed a place to call their own to provide security for their meetings and trainings, as well as a place to store their inventory. In the future the center will help provide a safe, independent central meeting space, or even one day be used as a sales center.

While talking to Eustakia, one of the artisans of the Wakanquilla cooperative, she expressed her excitement for the new center, “It makes me feel very cheerful.” It was anything but difficult to tell that the women were excited to have a new center to use as their own. They all showed up for their first workshop in the center early, waiting outside its locked doors, eagerly awaiting to find a space to sit inside. During the workshop, the women were enthusiastic; activities like group presentations, acting, and ‘simon says’ got them all smiling and laughing. The impact of the center on the women is no doubt positive, and so is the impact on the community. The center is improving the small village, with strengthened economic opportunity for the women who live there.

The future of the center looks bright, and so does the artisans’ business now that they have a center to call their own. It is through the hard work of the women, Awamaki, and our supporters that allow goals like this to be made into reality. We cannott wait to see the progress the cooperative is able to make as a result of the center and the impact it will have on the artisans and their families.

The New Center in Kelkanka
The New Center in Kelkanka
Team Building Activities
Team Building Activities
View From Inside the Center
View From Inside the Center

Links:

Watch our 2018 Thank You Video!

This month we are sending thanks to you! We couldn't do what we do all year without your generous support of our projects. 

Your donations and dedication have empowered 180 talented artisans to care for their families and preserve their traditional crafts.

The coming year marks our ten year anniversary and a chance to reflect on what we've built with your support. We hope you will support our work again in 2019. We're looking forward to the launch of our new line in February, the expansion of our artisan cooperatives as we train more women entrepreneurs, and building our sustainable tourism program in new partner communities.

We are so grateful for all you do for us. We hope you enjoy a glimpse into the joy, dedication, and passion that our artisans share with us throughout the year, all thanks to your support, with this video!

Links:

Alejandra works with Silvia on a new design.
Alejandra works with Silvia on a new design.

Over the course of the past year, we have realized that the development of our 2019 line, Kay Pacha, would be a year of change and growth for many of our artisans.

A few months ago, our team led a women’s empowerment workshop in Kelkanka; when we asked the artisans what they would like the theme of their next workshop to be, they unanimously requested: quality control. Since then, the women have demonstrated a strong interest in learning, and improving their textiles. They recognize that by developing this skill, it will act as a path that will lead them to receive more orders in the future. Not only is this path a priority for Kelkanka, but the Awac Puña cooperative in Patacancha has also been prioritizing the development of their technical skills.  

“We’re very proud of that because it shows that the workshops have proven to be effective; they’ve taken it upon themselves to gain business, and we’re able to continue building them up as professionals,” head designer, Alejandra Carrillo-Muñoz asserts of the women.

“During design workshops and empowerment workshops, we stress to the artisans to have pride in their craft, the importance of punctuality and responsibility; because at the end of the day, when we’re not here they need to continue working this way with other clients,” Alejandra details. Looking at the bigger picture, the artisans need to have these skills going forward, and we are thrilled to know that the women are eager to learn them.

Every summer we begin working on our new line of artisan made accessories for the year to come. Samples are woven, colors are selected, designs are adjusted, and over the course of the following months, we see it all come to life, from the creative vision of Alejandra in collaboration with our artisans, to handmade products ready to be shipped across the globe. We work hard to get all of our product samples complete in time for the annual photoshoots, and before Alejandra leaves us for the year. You could say, we don’t just trust these tasks with just anyone, we call on the professionals.

This year we worked closely with five of our nine cooperatives to help with sample work, one for spinning, two for knitting, and two for weaving. While our spinners and knitters are seasoned experts at this time-sensitive project, this was the first time that Wakanquilla and Awac Puña had been tasked with such an undertaking. For the past ten years, we have delegated weaving samples to our most well-trained weavers from the Songuillay cooperative, however, they recently found themselves busy with their own new clients, a milestone for which we are extremely proud. We’ve been partnered with the 22 women of the Wakanquilla cooperative in Kelkanka for ten years, while the 30 women in the Awac Puña cooperative have been working with us for just three. Despite the short duration of our partnership, however, the women of Awac Puña have proven just how ready they were for the challenge.

Up until this point, the artisans of Wakanquilla and Awac Puña have been responsible for weaving only their own designs for our store in Peru, while they undergo color theory and quality control workshops. Weaving new designs is always challenging, despite it being their first time, they were able to read the two dimensional designs provided to them by Alejandra and making it three dimensional all on their own.

In a recent visit up to the community, Mercedes Durand, Head of Women’s Cooperatives, along with Alejandra, were able to check in with the artisans regarding some of the tools we have  created to help the women execute the designs to their fullest abilities.

Most of these artisans have only ever designed from patterns that they keep in their heads, passed from generation to generation. It is difficult to imagine a transition to designs presented on a piece of paper. “While not an industry standard by any means, we’ve had to find our own set of tools specific to the communities with whom we work,” Alejandra explains, “‘cartulinas,’ that’s the name we gave them, and a concept we came up with. It is an aid for the artisans to be able to interpret two dimensional design.”

‘Cartulinas’ are customized cardboard tools that act as a specialized measuring device for their textiles. The artisans simply have to apply the cartulina to the textile they are weaving to ensure the spacing and alignment is up to quality control standards. “It’s kind of our way of helping them out and giving them a tool and a resource for them to interpret, the mix of contemporary design and traditional design.” Each design and individual product has its own cartulina to aid the artisan in charge of that textile, and while it is still a challenge, we know it has been tremendously useful for them to refine their newly learned skills.

“Orders for export come with a certain responsibility; we have to help them meet that responsibility by creating workshops that will support their understanding with what export is in general,” Alejandra explains, “we began that journey early in 2018 explaining what the international market is, what our role is, what role they serve within the organization; the follow-up to that was to get them weaving our initial samples.”

Wakanquilla has traditionally been a challenge for us to work with simply because of the distance from Ollantaytambo to Kelkanka. On a good day, the drive is at least three hours, and during the rainy season, the road may be blocked altogether. Therefore, training them to be ready for the demands of export quality production, though rewarding, has been a slow process.

The artisans of Wakanquilla have been working hard weaving textiles for the store in Peru, but they have not been ready for orders of export-quality textiles until this year. Mercedes has been an advocate of them, pushing our organization to invest more in their community and give them the same training opportunities as other cooperatives, despite the geographical challenges. Recently, we have  been able to include them in design workshops in order to guide them to start producing samples of export-quality standards.

“Awac Puña slowly started proving themselves last year,” Alejandra points out. Although at this time last year, they were not turning in samples for the start of the new design season, they were stepping in to fill some orders for export throughout the year. They have proven their work to be of consistently high quality and have maintained a professional outlook about the work they have been completing.

“Not only are their textiles clean and consistent and meticulous in their craft, but they turn them in on time and are reliable; they're very unified as group,” Alejandra eagerly remarks in relation to Awac Puña. “They’re very communicative amongst themselves. They help each other with samples, and it shows in the quality of their work.” We are excited to see them displaying leadership, strength, and potential for even more growth.

Kay Pacha, our 2019 line is on its way, and the women of Awac Puña and Wakanquilla have included many special touches on the pieces. Sampling, as part of the design process, inevitably leads to influences made by the artisans themselves. This year we are very excited to have incorporated ideas and traditional techniques that are unique to both of these cooperatives of exceptional artists. These never-before seen details are sure to make our new collection an exceptional one, one that would not have been possible without the dedication, determination, and development of each of our partner cooperatives.

Mercedes goes over designs with Cipriana.
Mercedes goes over designs with Cipriana.
Isadora practices using a cartulina.
Isadora practices using a cartulina.
A design intern helps Isadora with the cartulina.
A design intern helps Isadora with the cartulina.
Toribia reviews the next textile samples.
Toribia reviews the next textile samples.

Links:

 

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Organization Information

Awamaki

Location: Ollantaytambo, Cusco - Peru
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @awamaki
Project Leader:
Mary Kennedy Leavens
Ollantaytambo, Cusco Peru

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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
   

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