Reviving an Art Form

Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers

Five years after Candis Krummel moved to Santiago Atitlan, she became concerned with the rapid disintegration of the traditional Maya lifestyle and the art of backstrap loom weaving. She organized the Guatemalan non-profit, “Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers,” dedicated to the preservation of the exquisite art of backstrap loom weaving--not as an historic relic, but as a viable enterprise. She conceived the association as a way for skilled artists to make a living wage weaving their splendid textiles.
 
HAND/EYE Magazine interviewed Krummel to learn about the Cajolya Association of Maya Women Weavers.

 
HAND/EYE: What challenges/obstacles did you face when you started?


Candis Krummel: Our challenges included limitations on the width of backstrap loom fabric, and quality control and marketing. My exposure to the market with my textiles was in interior design. The first obstacle of width was overcome when I located enough women who were willing to weave wide widths once again, a tradition which had been all but lost by the time I arrived. We pushed the width to a limit that is determined by the length of a weaver’s arm when reaching out to put the batten (and the weft) into the warp. This happened to coincide with the width of 27 inches, which is half of the industry standard in interior design textiles. While still a detriment to designers accustomed to 54 and 60 inch fabrics, it somewhat mitigated the hesitancy of designers to use the fabric when all they had to do was double the quantity of fabric necessary for a job. The 27 inch width also allowed for “rail-roading.”
 
Quality control was resolved by providing the weavers with all of the materials necessary for the work, including the looms, threads, and other materials. Since backstrap loom weaving is a “warp-faced” weave, I found it necessary to warp the pieces in our studio. This provided control over the density of the weave and the precise replication of my textile designs. It also gave control over the amount of thread used in each weaving, thus eliminating loss from overage in the threads given out to weavers.
 
The third obstacle was marketing. The versatile nature of backstrap loom weaving seemed to me to lend itself to interior designs. As mentioned, the limitation on width and length, as well as the fact that all lengths were woven to order, made it difficult for designers to want to bother with Cojolya textiles, when fabric could be purchased from competitors at a more convenient width and received the next day. Plus backstrap loom weaving is a labor-intensive art and it is relatively expensive. As a fair-trade organization, Cojolya’s prices certainly could not compete with textiles coming out of China and India.
 
After several years and a large investment in wing and memo samples plus pillows and table-top in seven interior design showrooms in New York, Washington, D.C., Texas, New Mexico and California, I decided to gather all of those fabric samples and design a line of accessories that women could love and buy. This evolved into the collections Cojolya has today, and are successfully sold in our gallery shop and in shops attractive to tourists throughout Guatemala.
 
The marketing problem still exists in the export market. Due to the costly nature of our textiles and the fact that labor costs rise every year by at least 7% and we honor that as a fair trade organization, the only way that Cojolya is able to export its line of accessories is to sell directly to retail shops or to our ultimate, conscientious consumer via trunk shows and Cojolya’s on-line store. We have never yet been able to have a successful relationship with a distributor, due to price.
 
Today we face the new problem of reaching the ceiling in what the market will bear with our “bread and butter” line of accessories. With labor costs going up again in January 2011, I am designing a true wearable art line that can be exported to museum shops and galleries. By offering highly designed pieces and placing them in shops where customers are accustomed to paying for art, the fact that Cojolya is a non-profit, fair trade organization dedicated to preserving a cultural tradition should place us in a preferred position.
 
H/E: What’s your marketing strategy and who are your retail partners?


CK: Presently it’s to focus strongly upon our local retail market, utilizing Spanish-speaking Tzutujil professionals to service and expand it within the limitations of a Spanish-speaking market. Our export market will depend upon the success of our on-line store and the availability of volunteers in the US to put on trunk shows as fund-raisers for Cojolya Association.
 
As the wearable art collection becomes developed, we hope to market that via a US distributor who will specialize in that market.
 
Our local retail partners are Colibri and Arte Popular in Antigua and Zunil Shop (Hotel Camino Real) in Guatemala City. Export retail partners are NOVICA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Artisan Arts (a small distributor, Caryn Anderson, in the Bay-area of California).
 
H/E: What financing challenges have you met as a non-profit?


CK: In the past, Cojolya has been able to be a self-sustaining organization, based upon the sales of its products. We have not utilized our non-profit status to help fund the organization. Due to the conditions explained, plus the reduction of tourism in Guatemala, we need to focus more upon our non-profit status, and take advantage of the opportunities for grants. Our non-profit status has brought us many volunteers whose assistance has made it possible for Cojolya to do such things as establish the museum.
 
A difficult issue is being sure people understand that we are a non-profit. Even so, people still tend to believe that our prices could be lower if we would just “cut our profit margin”. In reality, we only just cover the costs of production and over-head.
 
Perhaps some of this confusion is due to the fact that Cojolya has never leaned on the non-profit status and begged for help as so many NGO’s do when trying to raise funds. We’ve always taken the position that our products can compete in the market and raised our money through the sale of them. I suppose that people are accustomed to seeing cheap Guatemalan products sold to raise money in churches and elsewhere that they assume Cojolya’s are commercial products because they are of such excellent quality and design.
 
H/E: How many weavers are there?


CK: At times of high demand, Cojolya has approximately eighty people (weavers, warpers, button-makers, knotters, jaspe artists, tailors) involved in the production of our products. During slumps, such as we have had this summer due to La Nina and excessive rains, tourism has fallen off and we have struggled to keep our weavers weaving.
 
H/E: Are all the women in the association experienced weavers? Do you teach younger women?


CK: Not all of the weavers have the same level of experience. Master weavers bring new weavers to the association, helping them to achieve the level of quality we require. The women see Cojolya as a stable source of income, considering that we have been in existence for 27 years and they receive their pay upon delivery of a length of fabric. They want to share this opportunity with the women of their family and neighbors. There might be other opportunities to earn money but many of those are based upon fads which disappear after a short time, such as the production of hacky-sacks.
 
H/E: Are girls losing interest in weaving or have you seen a renewed interest?


CK: With the advent of girls attending schools, they were no longer at home to learn to weave at their mothers’ sides. The figures bandied about in Santiago Atitlan claim that two percent of Tzutujil girls learn to weave. Young women hope to have a career as a secretary or teacher when they graduate from school and that is more prestigious than a career as a weaver. However, local positions in these occupations are difficult to obtain and Tzutujil women don’t generally leave the community to search for work. This means that these young women will find they have to do something else to earn money to survive and some will probably learn to weave.
 
Cojolya plans to offer weaving classes in our weaving center to all Tzutujil girls who would like to learn, eventually accepting the most promising to work with our master weaver as apprentices.
 
H/E: Are your designs inspired by traditional themes, do you add a contemporary twist?


CK: My designs are inspired by nature and by art, at times Tzutujil Maya art. I always utilize traditional techniques in a manner that showcases the capabilities of the backstrap loom. I specialize in creating functional art. A few of our pieces were created by design interns we have welcomed to have the unique experience of designing textiles and seeing them produced as finished products at Cojolya Association.
 
H/E: Do you feel the association has made a difference in the community?


Several years ago Cojolya conducted a survey of its weavers, for the purpose of evaluating current needs. We found that the weavers who had been with Cojolya the longest consistently had the highest standard of living. We measured this in that they had acquired electricity, running water, a house with solid walls and roof, their children were in school and they ate meat more than once a week. Weavers who recently came to Cojolya did not have the same level of comfort and nutrition, and their children were frequently not in school. We attribute this difference to the fact that the women who had continually woven for Cojolya had a source of income upon which they could depend.
 
In addition to directly improving the standard of living for families, in 2005 we obtained financial aid for weavers who were affected by Hurricane Stan. We gave household supplies to four families who lost their homes. Three of those needed rental homes, for which we paid the rent. One of the families eventually moved into a permanent extended- family home, but for the other two, Cojolya was able to purchase land with relief donations and collaborated with another NGO, Ayudamos of Canada. New houses were built on the lot for two of our weavers and their families.
 
Cojolya also developed a program of installing the fuel-efficient, smoke-free ONIL stoves. Begun in 2003, our program was only aimed at the weavers. The demand was so great that we opened it to the entire community, with Cojolya subsidizing the purchase price of the stoves by half. This was financed by a portion of our sales and by donations from individuals and OGIFA, a Canadian NGO.
 
In 2008, Heal the Rainbow Foundation was formed by Dr. Donald Bruce to collaborate with Cojolya, covering the expense of the administration of the stove project, including salaries of the administrator and installers, transportation and maintenance costs. Working together, Cojolya and our collaborators have installed more than 600 stoves around Lake Atitlan. Considering that these stoves reduce wood burned for cooking by 70%, emit no smoke, and protect children from burns from open fires, this project has been a huge boost to the finances and health of local families, and a contribution to the health of the planet.
 
Another way we’ve affected the community though more subtle to measure, is our museum: We have put backstrap loom weaving upon the pedestal it deserves. The women who weave see tourists from all over the world marveling at the exquisite work as they deliver their finished textiles to the weaving center. They feel pride in their traditional skills. If we are fortunate to receive a grant for which we are applying to renovate and expand our weaving center, the architecture of the building itself will become a monument to backstrap loom weaving and the women who maintain that tradition. This new weaving center has the potential to become a major attraction for tourists, bringing further income for the weavers and benefiting local businesses.
 
To learn more about Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers, please visit their website at http://www.cojolya.org

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