Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru

by Awamaki
Awamaki Booth at NY NOW
Awamaki Booth at NY NOW

“You can’t design from a distance,” explained Anny Caba, an Awamaki Design Intern, to visitors of the Awamaki booth at NY NOW, as she described our unique design model that brings young designers to work with our artisans in Peru. Members of the Awamaki team traveled to NY NOW, a wholesale products and innovative designs tradeshow, in order to network with clients from all over the U.S. and further connect our artisans to international markets. Our beautiful, handmade Awamaki products drew visitors to the booth, but many stayed to hear more about our unique model of empowering women artisans.

Anny, recently returned from her experience designing alongside our artisans, chatted with potential clients not only about our designs and products but also her time in Peru. She explained that “many people were shocked that we don’t just import; they were impressed that we work in and out of Peru with the artisans directly.” Visitors also commented positively about our fair trade membership and use of natural dyes. Awamaki Executive Director, Kennedy Leavens, said that the interest Awamaki received at NY NOW was notably an improvement from the past. She emphasized that “it’s not just about the orders you place, but the connections you make. It’s about creating opportunities to connect the women to potential markets.”

What has Awamaki done to step up our game at these tradeshows? Annie Millican, the founder of Awamaki's design programs, then known as Awamaki Lab, stopped by our table at NY NOW. She attributed our success to the cohesiveness and color palette used in our products and collections. She noted that we had moved away from the classic Peruvian designs and colors in order to showcase traditional designs in modern colors and arrangements.  Awamaki’s transition to a more modern aesthetic that continues to display Peruvian culture impressed current and past members of the Awamaki design team alike.

Giulia Debernardini, Head of Sales, attended NY NOW and worked hard to turn our connections into concrete numbers. Overall, she reports that we made 5 new retail partners, 6 on-site orders, 50 new potential clients to connect with, and over $3,000 worth of sales at the show alone. 

Thank you for your support in helping our artisans develop the designs that we were able to present at NY NOW. Increasing business in this way will generate more work for our artisans and in turn more income that they can reinvest into their families and communities.

Awamaki Design Interns and their creations
Awamaki Design Interns and their creations
Awamaki reunion of Kennedy, Annie, and Anne Marie
Awamaki reunion of Kennedy, Annie, and Anne Marie
Mercedes and Giulia at Peru Moda
Mercedes and Giulia at Peru Moda

Awamaki staffmembers Giulia and Mercedes recently hosted our booth at PeruModa, a three-day Peruvian product exhibition. There, we connected with retailers from all over the world, including Japan, Korea, Europe, United States, Peru, Canada and Venezuela. At our booth, we showcased our new colors and designs, which met a very positive reception. Overall, we were able to make more than 50 connections with potential clients and collaborators. These potential clients were extremely receptive to learning about how we work with our women weavers, and we are now working hard to turn those new connections into new orders.

“The best part about Peru Moda was meeting face to face with many known designers and brands. It was great for Awamaki to get this exposure and to connect with people who share the same passion for sustainable fashion,” said Giulia Debernardini, our Head of Sales and Impact Evaluation.

Mercedes, her colleague and Head of Women’s Cooperatives, explained that “Peru Moda was an opportunity for us to exhibit our products made by women and by hand. Valuing and preserving traditional techniques is important in an increasingly globalized world with local, national, and international markets. To work within these markets is fundamental in order to continue our institution and provide a greater economic opportunity for our groups.”

Thank you for your support in helping our artisans develop the designs that we are able to show at PeruModa! Orders from the clients that we meet there sustain the artisans and their families.  

Pssst! Are you excited about helping Awamaki and our artisans connect to the broader world of textiles and design? We are raising funds through a GlobalGiving microproject to send Mercedes and her colleague Martha, both our Quechua cooperative coordinators, to the U.S. where they have been invited to present at a national textile symposium. Learn more and support their trip now or this upcoming Bonus Day, June 15th!

Awamaki booth at Peru Moda
Awamaki booth at Peru Moda
Inspecting the yarn
Inspecting the yarn

“We arrived at Patacancha early in the morning only to be greeted by beaming women and a pot of potatoes for breakfast. It was quite clear that our weavers had already been hard at work for many hours.”

Carys, an Awamaki Sustainable Tourism volunteer, was immediately impressed by the Songuillay cooperative members upon her arrival in Patacancha for the natural dyes workshop. Members of the cooperative got up bright and early to prep for a full day of natural dyeing for Awamaki’s 2016 wholesale line. The Songuillay women have been doing so well that they were able to pay for a natural dyes expert, Andres, to lead the workshop. Andres divided the women into five different groups and each group worked to develop the same pre-arranged colors. It was hard, but by the end of the day each group had an amazing color explosion hanging on the drying line.

The concentration of our weavers did not waver as Andres carefully conducted them through color pallet, ranging from the bright greens and yellows created by the ch’ilka plant to the fierce reds and purples created by the cochineal beetle.

Even through the women were under the instruction of Andres, their preparation was what made the day a success. At the previous dye workshop the year before, the women where not prepared at all when Awamaki arrived with the dyes expert. The woman did not know what to do, and we had to start everything from scratch, which took time. In contrast, when Awamaki arrived this year, the women were already split into groups and each had their own fires built under huge pots of boiling water. All the materials were laid out and ready to go. Jess, our Head Designer at Awamaki, described how wonderful it was that the women were so prepared.

“It was a moving day to see how organized our weavers were and how much initiative they took in preparing the yarns for dyeing. They were so interested in learning and their confidence increased throughout the day. They started asking my opinion or running over to other groups to ask them how they got their color a certain way.”

Some of the men from Patacancha were hanging around and would occasionally help out, but the women continued to run the show. Karina, a Women’s Cooperative Program volunteer, was amazed by the women’s dedication to both their work and their family.

“Groups of women were gathered around the pots of steaming, colorful dyes – spinning, mixing, dyeing, drying. What’s incredible is many also had a baby on their back or a toddler at their feet!”

Andres did a wonderful job directing the women throughout the day in the art of color creation. However, in the future we want to train a few women from each cooperative to become experts in the natural dyeing process so we no longer have to hire outside of the community. These women would be responsible for leading the dye workshops not only in Patacancha but also in Kelkanka. They would have to attend all of the dyeing workshops in order to learn the complicated process, such as how the dyes react together and how much fiber you can mix in with each batch of dye. It truly is a huge commitment to learn and take on, but we are sure that our cooperative members can rise to the challenge! Supporters like you enable our cooperative members to gain new skills in design, and in turn empower them to reach for the rainbow (of natural dyes!).

Experimenting with color
Experimenting with color
Marleny and her son, Samir
Marleny and her son, Samir

For nine months, she carries another human being inside of her; for eighteen years, she is a cook, nurse, teacher, janitor, taxi driver, and cheerleader; and for the rest of her life, she is more invested in another person than she is in herself.

Motherhood is, hands down, one of the hardest jobs in the world. A mother’s boss is several decades younger than she is and can be one of the most thankless employers on the planet. Like a doctor, she is on call all night long—every night. Like a politician, her behavior must be exemplary, even when it seems as though no one is watching. Like a farmer, she is responsible for keeping her crop alive and happy in conditions that are largely beyond her control. There’s a little more pressure, though, when your crop is a human being. 

Women worldwide can relate. When I asked a few women in our Rumira cooperative about the hardest part of being a mom, the answers were the same as what I’ve heard from my own mom for years: maintaining a clean house, keeping the kids focused on their schoolwork, thinking of something different to cook every night. When I asked what they would do with 1000 soles, each woman immediately answered that she would invest it in her children. (When I asked what they would buy for themselves, one woman giggled and answered, “clothes”—and I think a lot of women, mothers or no, can relate to that.)

Motherhood brings its own unique challenges in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Even in Rumira, one of the least remote of Awamaki’s partnering communities, most of the women with whom I’ve spoken did not make it past primary or secondary school, as many began having children in their late teens. Despite a limited education, some are the primary breadwinners for their families, supporting their husband and several children on the profits from their knit goods. They are expected to tend to the family’s farm daily, often with an infant strapped to their back or a toddler in tow. If the in-laws need anything, their daughter-in-law must be available. To the already endless list of a mother’s titles, add weaver, farmer, and caretaker of the elderly.

For Marleny, a member of our Rumira cooperative, the list goes on. Marleny, who didn’t finish secondary school as a teenager, is now a full-time student at a vocational school in Urubamba studying computation and computer science. When she isn’t knitting to fill Awamaki orders or cooking and cleaning for her family or mother-in-law, she is taking care of her two-year-old son, Samir—and planning for his education. Though Samir is still learning to talk, Marleny is already working to pay for his university tuition, something that is financially out of reach for most families in the rural communities of the Sacred Valley. “I want him to finish his studies and do something in life,” she says.

And for Marleny, that means continuing to wear her many hats, continuing to sacrifice sleep and time to herself to fulfill her endless to-do list, and continuing to invest in her own education to ensure that she will always be able to invest in her son’s. But like most other moms that I’ve met, there isn’t an ounce of hesitation in her voice. When I ask her about the hardest part of being a mother, she just laughs and says, “That’s a hard question. It’s hard to raise a child.” But when I ask about the best part, she answers without hesitation: “When I teach my son something and he learns.” And with all that she does, there is plenty to learn from her. Motherhood may be one of the hardest jobs on the planet, but it sure suits Marleny well. 

Pink yarns need carding for color consistency
Pink yarns need carding for color consistency

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!

Volunteers unpack the carder after its trip down!
Volunteers unpack the carder after its trip down!
Black alpaca before and after carding
Black alpaca before and after carding



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Organization Information


Location: Ollantaytambo, Cusco - Peru
Website: http:/​/​www.awamaki.org/​
Project Leader:
Mary Kennedy Leavens
Ollantaytambo, Cusco Peru
$22,550 raised of $23,000 goal
410 donations
$450 to go
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