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A Week with Producer Groups in Bolivia

Posted by Ruth Ann on

This week I’ve had the privilege to accompany Liz Alig’s designer, Elizabeth, to Bolivia.We’ve been in the city of Cochabamba which is on the outskirts the Central American Andes Mountains.A quiet city that has grown over the years through immigrants from other parts of Bolivia.A city where ancient cultural traditions meet modern globalization on every street corner.A city where Spanish is spoken along with Quechua and other indigenous languages.

Our primary focus was meeting with the producers of Liz Alig’s pima cotton line {maybe you know their Jasmine Skirt or Lacy Dress}.Monday we began our time by meeting with Dona Augustina, the primary seamstress and production manager for the Pima cotton line, at the sewing workshop that has been built onto her home.Augustina migrated to this area with her husband over a decade ago, and became a part of a group that has helping women develop sewing and business skills.Through that group she developed her own business of sewing for fair trade companies.She has been able to employee other women who are in need of jobs in order to support their families.“Before this opportunity, we suffered, but sewing has provided our family with opportunities.”She spoke of her own 2nd grade education and then talked with pride about her son who is attending the university here in Cochabamba.

I spent the day watching these two women, Elizabeth and Dona Augustina connect over their passion for clothing design, textiles, and empowering women through sewing skills.I watched in wonder as the two women despite their limited vocabulary in the same language were able to share ideas, talk about fashion, and the intricacies of pattern making.We sifted through patterns, and I came to a new understanding at how much inches and centimeters and converting the two can make such a difference in how our clothes fit.We sat with patterns and talked about sizes…how to adjust them to be larger and smaller.We laughed over words like princess seams.

Tuesday we spent meeting with a group of women who have formed a business nine years ago to sell their alpaca knit products and to train other women in how to make alpaca products so that they would be able to have an option for making an income.They showed us their designs, the intricate machines that they use to make them, and we talked all about thread and alpacas.Here in Bolivia the Andes women say they are born with the ability to knit. They are involved in making orders both for Bolivia fairs and events, as well as, for international fair trade producers.

Wednesday we wandered through markets searching for fabrics and marveling at the traditional Aguayo wool fabrics that are deeply ingrained in their culture and often date back several hundred years.

We also met with another group of women from a church here who have formed their own sewing business as well…making bags and accessories to fund a daycare their church has started to provide childcare for women whose jobs require them to be out in the markets selling things.This group of 19 women have worked together over the years to teach one another sewing skills.Last night they had invited a professor to share with them marketing techniques.

After spending a week seeing fair trade fashion production in depth, here are some of the thoughts I’ve come away with:

I have a new appreciation for the magnitude of work that goes into the design and the creation of the clothes I wear everyday. It is not an easy thing to take a drawing of a new garment and transform it into patterns for various sizes that fit well in all the right places (who knew there was so many things to know about making armpits and sleeves fit just right), but these ladies make it look easy. I have been blown away by the level of technical skill that these women have.I’m not sure we often give much space to honor their skills and abilities.Listening to the ladies I heard their stories about why some things are harder to sew...and saw their pride as they showed me details on clothing that require more skill that we often take for granted.I’m reminded that next time I buy something to think about the vast amount of talent and effort that went into making that garment.

There’s a lot to know about thread and textiles.Wow!I have never had so many conversations about thread and fabric composition in my life.Things like thickness, type of alpaca, grades, dyes, sourcing, quantities, and so much more!Pretty sure my Spanish vocabulary now includes at least four different terms for cotton.Fair trade production requires asking so many questions that we often don’t think about like where does the fabric come from?What type of location is it produced in?Is the cotton used to make it organic?Where can responsibly made fabrics be sourced in small isolated cities {there are no large fabric factories in Bolivia}?Where can recycled fabrics be purchased?How long does it take to get special orders?What are minimum quantities?Often getting answers to these questions is not as simple as just asking.Fabric store owners are often afraid of new competition and wonder why you are asking such strange questions, and producers are confused about why the origin of the fabric would matter or why we would want to work with recycled rather then new fabrics.

Fair Trade production provides an opportunity for mutual learning by seamstress and designer.The value of fair trade is that we have a relationships with the person making our clothes.One of the joys of the week was watching two women from different cultures who are not only passionate about sewing but about providing economic opportunities for women through sewing connect and share ideas.Augustina talked about how she had friends who needed jobs, and she was looking for ways to expand her business so she would be able to offer them work.She was so excited to learn about new paper for making patterns that would make life easier.And I watched Elizabeth’s passion for truly understanding the culture of the seamstresses she works with. I watched her struggle with explaining complicated pattern making techniques in a way that would be easily accessible to the women working here.I heard her distinguishing between the five Spanish terms for different types of hems so that the women would know exactly what was needed in a design.I watched her ask about what the ladies enjoyed sewing, and what patterns were the best fit for their skill set {something most designers never get the chance to ask when sending things to large factories.}I watched as they both got excited for ideas of making new bag designs out of indigenous Bolivia fabrics.

Fair Trade Production is Not Easy. Being here affirms the value of fair trade (purchasing directly from producers who are paid fair wages) and the challenges of this model.Small producer groups often produce smaller quantities then large factories and face challenges with sourcing the fabrics and threads in smaller quantities from reputable sources with prices that are still competitive.I also saw the challenges of being a fair trade designer.When working with smaller groups to make clothing there are often lots more steps to the process which means lots more work for the designer.Extra effort has to be made to check out sources for different fabrics and materials, extra time is required to communicate designs and patterns to lots of little producer groups {often through a multi-person process or translating emails} as opposed to working with one manufacturer.Shipping and tariffs are a huge challenge when working with small producers as often freight for smaller quantities of items can be extremely expensive and comes with the headaches of hunting down lost packages that are stuck in customs or other places.But this week, I saw why all that extra effort is worth it.We saw first hand how production of clothing in these small groups provides good, safe, meaningful employment opportunities for these women.

I have seen over and over how it really is changing their lives for the better.I was reminded that when I purchase from fair trade producers my money is really empowering the women who sew it and not the middle man supply chain.

Fair Trade is about producers empowering each other.This week I saw these small producer groups who were so proud of their work and were passionate to share the opportunities they have had through their sewing and knitting businesses with other women.They told us about classes they had held for other women who were also interested in becoming producers for their group.These women were eager to share how the opportunities to sew had provided them with a source of income and they really desired to share that hope with others who might be struggling currently.They talked about how these group was helping them rise above difficult circumstances to be able to provide for their families in a better way.They were business minded women who were working together to help each other and to explore opportunities to better their community.

Tomorrow we leave Bolivia…and I feel as if I’ve gotten quite a crash course education this week in what fair trade production is really like, and the life change it can make in the lives of the producers.