THE ARTISAN : MAYAN HANDS
Mayan Hands, founded in 1989, partners with approximately 200 female weavers across different communities around the western and northern highlands of Guatemala. Most of the female artisans have no more than a third grade education, are illiterate, and speak native languages rather than Spanish. Fieldworkers of Mayan Hands are committed to and involved in their relationship with these women, which enables a positive fair trade experience for both groups. Their products are made with the same techniques used to make the women’s blouses called huipiles, and the designs are also based on US market trends, thus making Mayan Hands’ a combination of the traditional and the modern. Your purchase allows these talented weavers to earn an income to feed their families and send their children to school, while preserving their cultural traditions.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Mayan Hands
The Little Market recently chatted with Brenda Rosenbaum, the US Director of Mayan Hands. She had many interesting insights on their artisans, production of items and the more sustainable lives they are helping to create for their women artisans. Mayan Hands was one of the artisan groups that The Little Market Co-Founders visited during their trip to Guatemala in March. They fell in love with their incredible handwoven products, including tablecloths, napkins and placemats. We hope you enjoy our Q & A with Brenda below!
QUESTION:What is particularly unique about Mayan Hands production?
ANSWER: What’s unique about Mayan Hands is the high quality of our products. On the one hand, Mayan women are great artists and we want them to be proud of the products they make (Often, when artisans are poorly paid, they will weave faster and use cheap materials in their work. This is sad because they have high quality standards for the products they weave for themselves and making a poor quality item degrades their self-image. So much of their self-esteem, and appreciation by their community, depends on their proficiency as weavers). On the other hand, we want to present the customers with a beautiful, quality item that they will be proud to wear or use at home.
QUESTION: Where does Mayan Hands get its materials for their products?
ANSWER: We buy our cotton (and other) yarns in Guatemala, purchasing the very best quality available. We do import some materials from the US, when they can’t be found in Guatemala, such as the raffia for our baskets, or the wool roving for our felted products.
QUESTION: How important is the quality of material?
ANSWER: The quality of the materials coupled with the skilled hand of the artisan, are essential components of a high-quality product.
QUESTION: How important do you think it is for the customer to have a relationship with the artisan?
ANSWER: For fair traders, this relationship is basic. Maria Ajozal, one of our partner artisans put it like this “you, the customer, receives a quality item and, at the same time, by buying our products, you are giving us a quality of life.” But it goes even further. Handmade products, like the ones we sell at Mayan Hands, incorporate the history and culture of a group of people. This information enables the customer to connect with the artisans, learn more about them, and through the purchase, have an impact on their lives.
QUESTION: How many employees would you say are involved in the making of one single product, for example a tablecloth?
ANSWER: Our partner artisans work as a group in receiving the orders for products, doing quality control, and turning in their finished products. However, each one of them weaves independently. In addition to the weaver, two people working in the staff of Mayan Hands give out production orders, receive the products and pack them up and prepare the paperwork for export. And in the US, our staff in the warehouse takes care of the product from the moment it enters the US, until it is sold.
QUESTION: How long is the process of making one tablecloth?
ANSWER: The tablecloths are made on a treadle (or floor) loom, which requires a minimum of 12-15 tablecloths to be made at once, to make it economically feasible. The process involves many steps: the cotton threads are distributed to the group, then washed (to get the excess dye out), the threads are then untangled and measured in a warping board, and then the loom is warped. Only then can they begin to weave! The whole process usually takes from 4 to 6 weeks.
QUESTION: Where does the weaving technique originate?
ANSWER: The treadle loom was brought by the Spanish who conquered and colonized Guatemala, in the XVI century. The Maya had their own loom, the backstrap that is ancient to the region (about 3500 years). The advantage of the treadle loom is that, on it, women can weave 1 foot per hour, whereas on the backstrap loom only 1” per hour.
QUESTION: Can you give us an example of one of the workshops you offer to your artisans?
ANSWER: We have been working with our partner group in San Rafael, developing a program of dyeing yarns with natural dyes. This is a complicated art, so it’s taken about 2 years for the women to master the technique. Experts in natural dyeing from the US, have generously given up their time to come and teach the women one week at a time. Right now, we have a wonderful volunteer working intensively with the women and developing a kit (of yarns and instructions to weave with them) that the women will be selling in the US. Learning this skill has opened a new market for the group, thus expanding their possibilities of making an income.
QUESTION: We know that in areas like Rabinal there is a severe drought. How has this affected your artisans and the production of new items?
ANSWER: Many people in the Rabinal area are poor, and this drought pushes them to the edge of despair. There are no other sources of income available in the region. Artisan production and fair trade become all the more important in a situation like this. In this predicament, MH is looking for more customers and developing new products for them. We are thrilled to be partnering with The Little Market, and selling their products (tablecloths and napkins) through your wonderful website.
QUESTION: How does Mayan Hands benefit the small, rural communities in Guatemala?
ANSWER: The long-term focus of the work of Mayan Hands is the empowerment of women. Once women are empowered they will become self -sufficient. We’ve partnered with several groups for many years. We approach empowerment from several angles simultaneously: fostering the participation of the women in democratic, grassroots group where they can have a voice (we only work with groups, not with individuals). Helping them find markets for their beautiful products, so they can have an income they can count on. Providing them with workshops to refine their products, or to learn new skills. These enable them to produce more marketable items. Offering scholarships to their daughters (and often to the artisans themselves when they request them) so that they can finish elementary school and go on to high school and even the university.