At Awamaki we work with experts. Expert weavers, expert knitters, expert spinners. The members of our cooperatives are already phenomenal in their crafts. They choose to partner with us because they want to show others their expertise. They want to connect with new markets, with tourists, with opportunities. We tell them that we can be that link.
So, when we fail at Awamaki, we aren’t just failing ourselves, our donors, or our supporters. We are failing experts! That is hard to admit, but thankfully, the experts we work with are phenomenal in ways other than their crafts. They are remarkably patient and flexible. So even when we fail, our links remain strong.
The thirteen members of our Huilloc cooperative are the experts to beat in the Andean phuska, or drop spindle. Since 2008, they have been spinning natural sheep and alpaca fibers into yarn for textile and knit products produced by our other cooperatives. Over the past year, however, Awamaki has been taking steps to grow our line of all-natural handspun yarn for international sale, expanding even further the markets accessible to our spinners.
Getting the Huilloc spinners ready to sell their products per international standards has been an ongoing project over the past year. We promised them that we would find a way to professionally sort and clean the raw alpaca fiber so that they could do what they do best – spin it into high-quality yarn.
Well, we failed them – numerous times.
First, we tried to sort and clean the fiber ourselves. Adam Riley, a professional alpaca shearer with years of experience, worked alongside the families of our artisans and their alpacas to teach them how to shear the highest quality fiber. He also worked with our volunteers in the office to show them how to sort and clean the fiber that we then received. While the shearing lessons went well with the families, our volunteers didn’t have the time to spend hours sorting fiber on our office floor. We also realized training new batches of volunteers would be unsustainable, especially after Adam’s departure.
Next, we looked to outside sources to wash and card our fibers. This was extremely difficult because most yarn processing in Peru is done on a larger scale, and thus existing resources are not targeted towards our smaller-scale production. Plus, there is competition. The big, successful companies don’t want to share their resources with small organizations like ourselves and our cooperatives.
Finally, we found a local factory in the nearby province of Urcos that processes alpaca and sheep fibers. They were willing to meet with us, so we sent members of the Awamaki team to check it out. They came back with high-hopes and were excited about the possibility of a new partnership for our Huilloc spinners. However, during a second visit to the factory we learned that our fibers had become tangled in the machines when they tried to process them. Their machines wouldn’t work with our fibers – because they were too fine!
Because the factory was an unviable option, we couldn’t move forward. Although the previously mentioned Awamaki volunteer sorting team was unsustainable, they did manage to successfully sort the fibers with Adam’s help. However, without a system for washing and carding the fibers, the yarn would never be up to the international standards we needed.
Throughout this process, the members of the Huilloc spinning cooperative had been waiting patiently for a solution. Their production had been reduced significantly due to our quality issues – not their skill. We had to figure out a way to make it work. So, the Awamaki crew went back to the drawing board.
We brainstormed, and we realized something.
The whole time we had been looking for external solutions. We tried to allocate Awamaki time and resources, or we tried to find others who would share their resources. But maybe, we should have been looking internally. We should have been looking to those we already regarded as experts in their craft.
We took this idea to our Huilloc cooperative and they were extremely receptive. Of course, they were the best candidates to sort and clean the fiber they would be spinning. Because of their backgrounds, it was an easy transition for them to make. They just needed supplies and training.
We held a fundraiser to get them the appropriate fiber-washing equipment and gear. We invited a fiber professional from Puno, Hortencia Rivera Mamani, to lead a capacity building workshop on fiber sorting, washing, and standardized spinning. Giulia Debernardini, Awamaki Head of Sales and Impact, described the partnership with Hortencia as “serendipitous” in its timing considering the previous obstacles we had encountered. Even with Hortencia’s help, the fiber is not at the level of quality we want, and we are still looking for ways to improve the process. The spinners of the Huilloc cooperative have already received one international order, but we know we can do better.
By going back to our experts, our entire fiber production process was turned around. We might have failed them initially, but they never failed us. With a little training, they expanded their skill set and became the solution to our problem. All it took was for us to realize we were failing because we weren’t putting our trust in those that matter most. Now the spinners of Huilloc are producing beautiful and higher-quality yarn.
Launching our line of handspun yarn at a quality level we can be proud of has been and continues to be a learning process. It would be easy to feel discouraged if it were not for our confidence in the spinners of Huilloc. Even with the obstacles we have encountered, they remain determined to build their skills and go after new opportunities and markets. We failed forward, and the members of Huilloc spin on.
Huilloc gathered for workshop
Spinning with Hortencia