At 12,421 feet above sea level, the city of Puno sits on the western shore of Lake Titicaca in Southern Peru. It is here where the soft toy industry has grown and become a vital part of the local economy. The crafting of these adorable hand knit toys has allowed subsistence Peruvian farmers a chance to give their children the healthy lives they deserve. The knitting of these goods is making a positive impact, creating a resource to have cash for things they cannot normally produce or provide for themselves and their families.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960's, Julia Zagar saw the opportunities for traditional knitters in and around Puno to reach a new market by expanding their designs from the standard sweaters and gloves to new decorative items such as small toys and ornaments. With the successes of her products other groups took notice. In the late 1990s, Merco-Mujer (Market-Women) was formed, as a non government organization based out of Lima, which works with women who are mothers, farmers, and shepherds living in the most rural parts of Peru. Merco-Mujer brings these women into the monetary economy and brings cash into their households, earning a sense of dignity, recognition and power within their family. Merco Mujer works in collaboration with Movimiento Manuela Ramos, dedicating their efforts towards training participants around issues of human and health rights. They have been teaching basic sanitation concepts such as, how to brush your teeth, why it is important to wash your hands, etc.
Working as both an importer and development consultant, Colvin English, who has spent a lot of time in this area says, “Puno is extremely poverty-stricken, but has a history of knitting and fiber production. With the help of some adventurous US-based importers, Merco-Mujer began to produce a line of smaller knitted items. The success has been incredible and it has been a way to empower women. Daughters are now taller than their mothers, husbands are helping their wives with the household duties so they can fulfill orders and children are less often sick. Their husband’s are now asking their wives for work and how they can get involved.”
When first designing Merco Mujer’s product line, an emphasis was placed on identifying small, knitted items that could be carried easily while following herds of alpaca or sheep. The reasoning behind this was so the items could fit into the women's pocket as they went about their daily duties. Colvin English says, “Many companies are to thank as they are purchasing these adorable products. Companies like San Francisco-based George started to place orders for knitted mice and crocheted balls to sell as pet toys. Poco a Poco – a New Mexico- based import wholesale company developed their own line of finger puppets based on local animals. As the knitters skills grew so did their opportunities. Melange, an Aspen, Colorado-based company, started working with groups around Puno to produce a line of knitted teddy bears. This line expanded to include colorful monkeys, owls, fish and a variety of other animals, which they sell to a broad range of retail stores. Melange, along with other importers have created a new market for knitting through these soft toys which are found in some of the best retail outlets in the U.S. Saks Fifth Avenue and Crate & Barrel are just two of the companies that have supported these groups with their purchases for more than a decade and it has made a distinct difference in the area.”
Colvin adds, “In a short period of time, these communities have seen the benefits of their work. As traditional subsistence farmers, many of these families had no regular income prior to these programs. The sale of their work has allowed them the needed cash to send their children to school, to buy nutritious foods they were unable to grow and to improve the lives of both their families and their community. The ancient knitting tradition has evolved and continued to provide them with the necessities they need in life to protect themselves and advance their place in the world.”
We hope to see a continuation of these efforts, increasing confidence and opportunities for generations to come.