Empowering Women Through Design in Rural Peru

by Awamaki
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


Presenting new felted soaps from Huilloc.
Presenting new felted soaps from Huilloc.

What do you get when you combine leftover alpaca fibers and soap?

Felted soap bars!

The women of the Huilloc spinning cooperative frequently have leftover alpaca fibers that are too short to spin. For several years, they made these fibers into felt for authentic felted soap. 

But two years ago, our natural soap source dried up, and we haven't been able to find another. Until now!

The spinners of Huilloc saw a business opportunity through a partnership with Munay Tika, a company based in Cusco that produces natural and biodegradable hygiene products. Munay Tika emphasizes the importance of high quality and reliability in its products and looks for the same values in its partners, making an alliance with Awamaki a perfect fit.

Now, the Huilloc women have begun felting to Munay Tika’s bar soap. This layer of alpaca fleece, which is both functional and decorative, completely covers the bar and serves as an excellent exfoliant when the wet soap is rubbed on the skin. It’s not just for home, though—felted soap is ideal for travelers because the alpaca fur dries completely after use. This eliminates the need for a soap holder to avoid the residue that bar soap often leaves behind in your travel caddy. Extra bonus: a built-in loofah!

Awamaki's first soap product was a small hand soap felted with alpaca fibers in a blend of natural colors. The new bars are a larger, spa-sized bar, and the women have experimeted with decorating the soaps using the alpaca fibers. 

The soap designs include flowers and mountains as well as the more traditional blend of different colored alpaca fiber. What inspired the designs, we asked?

"We just look around us," said Victoria, the president of the group. 

Unlike old designs, these sport personalized pics.
Unlike old designs, these sport personalized pics.
Virginia, president of the spinning cooperative
Virginia, president of the spinning cooperative
Studying leather technique
Studying leather technique

Happy Bonus Day from Awamaki!

This Bonus Day, we want you to meet Laura and Meghan, two of Awamaki’s talented resident designer interns who have been hard at work with our seamstresses updating one of our new products.

Laura and Meghan have spent the last two weeks working on redesigning the clutch. After listening to our customers’ feedback, our designers realized that a few things needed to be changed. Among other issues, the leather finishes were difficult to align, so the top of the clutch was coming out crooked.

Rather than making a new product from scratch, Meghan said, “This was problem solving!”

In order to make the best product possible, they crafted several samples and used them to come up with ways to solve the problems and update the design with more modern textiles. “You realize that once you change one problem, it can lead to others,”Laura explained. The fashion student used her expertise as a seamstress to improve the bag’s overall quality.

Once they discovered the best design, they made suggestions to improve the order in which the pieces were put together in order to to streamline production. Last week, they sat down with our seamstresses to teach them how to make the entire clutch. To improve quality, they also taught the seamstresses a new technique. Laura and Meghan worked with Justa and Estela to teach them how to properly work with leather using leather glue and hammer. New to working with leather, Justa and Estela were excited about learning a new skill that they can apply to other products as well.

“This new technique makes the work come out so much better,” Estela told us. “I can use this for the Ivy Bag too, and other new products we are making.”

Your contributions enable us to fund the trainings that we do with the seamstresses so they can continue to refine their skills. This Bonus Day, please consider supporting their ongoing skills and design development with the artisans at Awamaki, and your donation will be matched by GlobalGiving to multiply your impact!

Thank you!

Working on leather
Working on leather
Previous clutch with crooked leather finishing
Previous clutch with crooked leather finishing
Redesigned clutch sample for teaching
Redesigned clutch sample for teaching


Knitter Rosa, right, with staff member Silvia
Knitter Rosa, right, with staff member Silvia

Dear friends, 

With your help, we have had a great year at Awamaki, and we couldn't have done it without you.

We now count 24 international retail partners carrying the women's products, up from nine last year. We have sold $110,000 of artisan products, up from $87,000 last year. We have put $120,000 directly in the hands of women, through our artisan products sales and our tourism program.

Ever wonder what all this means on the ground?

It means that 96% of the women in our programs report that their income has increased with our program.

46% spend the extra income on education, including school supplies, fees, or room and board for children at university.

38% use their extra earnings to save.

80% eat more meat and vegetables than they did before working with us. 

78% feel more confident to participate in decision-making processes within their cooperatives, communities or households. How do we know? Women say:

"I have a stronger position in the community through my connection to other women."

"I am not afraid to speak up anymore."

"I can work and earn my own money."

"I am more disciplined in my life."

"Now I interact more with people from outside my community."

"Our group meetings help us communicate at a higher level." 

This means empowerment that few women in these communities have ever experienced. It also means real changes in households. Women report their husbands helping spin wool, take care of kids, and even cook lunch, the main meal of the day, when they have an order to finish.

You are making these changes possible, and for that we want to say thank you. Next year, our goal is to teach the groups to manage their own order production, financial management and quality control. We don't want them to depend on anyone--not even us--to run their own businesses and earn a livelihood for themselves and their families.

We hope you will donate today to keep investing in the lives and empowerment of these women, and the futures of their children and their communities.  Thank you and have a great New Year!

Thank you from one of our weaving groups
Thank you from one of our weaving groups

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Organization Information


Location: Ollantaytambo, Cusco - Peru
Website: http:/​/​www.awamaki.org/​
Project Leader:
Mary Kennedy Leavens
Ollantaytambo, Cusco Peru
$23,535 raised of $28,000 goal
430 donations
$4,465 to go
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