Behind the Scenes of a Fair Trade Artisan Order

profileJenn Miller is Natik’s Guatemala Project Coordination fellow, living and working in Santiago Atitlan since July 2014. Jenn has worked in the non-profit world for ten years, and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work with a specialization in immigration and migration, and a Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies. Jenn has worked extensively in the areas of program development and administration, community organizing and advocacy, and international social work. Most recently, Jenn held the position of Immigrant Family Resource Program Manager at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago.

I am talking with Juan about his work in Guatemala City when Dolores walks in carrying three bags of brightly colored hilo (thread). She’s been at the market searching for the precise colors needed for the past half hour or so; the thread vendor’s stock was not organized by color, so Dolores had to patiently wait for him to find each individual spool she’d requested for the Just Apparel custom order we were working on. With the thread now purchased, Dolores and I gather up the sixty pieces of carefully cut fabric that have been stenciled with the client’s design and head to the roof of her house for the moment the Just Apparel team has been working toward for the past few months – the 25 indigenous women can begin their work in our Fair Trade artisan’s collective.

Our latest custom order began when a client from the Netherlands contacted Just Apparel to inquire about fair trade embroidery. This inquiry began the process of determining the specifics of the design – it’s dimensions, proportions, level of detail, thread colors, fabric type – all of which must then be communicated to our coordinator in Guatemala, Dolores, who then relays information back to the customer service team in the U.S. based on local availability in Santiago Atitlan. That information is then passed along to the client, until the client is satisfied and all of the details have been confirmed.

working on JAOnce the basic design is settled, the artisan women who complete this work were asked to create three samples (one of each design requested) to send to the client to further ensure her satisfaction, allowing her to see the work in person and request any adjustments needed before proceeding with the order. On the ground, this means Dolores must visit the women of the collective individually to present the assignment and provide the materials. Dolores visits the women in their homes in the outlying communities of SantiaJASmallgo Atitlan; Just Apparel respects cultural work patterns and nurturing families, so the women complete their work from home, where they are able to care for their children and attend to their households as needed. When the assigned piece is completed, the women travel to Dolores’ house in the city to hand it in, at which time it is carefully checked for quality and accuracy, and then each woman receives her wages. After the samples were completed, they were mailed directly to the client for review. Some minor proportional adjustments were made and communicated along the Just Apparel information highway, and we were ready for the next phase of the process.

With the modified design finalized and transmitted to our field team in Guatemala, pcutting the piecereparations for the embroidery could begin. Working over the course of two days, we purchased the required materials, carefully cut the fabric, stenciled the design onto each fabric piece, and sorted the thread colors into their proper order for each design. Then Dolores called each of the women asking them to meet at her house the next day to receive their assignment – the remaining work for this order is now left in the capable hands of the women of the collective, after the coordination efforts of Dolores, myself, our U.S.-based volunteer team, and several local Guatemalan volunteers.

Back on the roof, the women arrive in groups of 2 or 3, many of them have traveled a long distance, some with their children in tow, and Dolores begins our meeting, speaking to the women in their native language of Tzu’tujil. Dolores explains the assignment in precise detail, answers the women’s many questions, and passes around samples of the embroidered design. The women help one another understand the design, prepare their thread, memorize the order of the colors, and gather their materials. They return to their homes to complete the work with a deadline of two days for completion and submission – which all of them meet.

On the due date of the order, women are stopping by Dolores’ house throughout the day, embroidery in hand. As with the samples, Dolores completes a careful quality check of each piece at the time it is submitted to ensure it meets our high standards, and each woman is paid her fair trade wages for each completed piece. When all sixty embroidered flowers have been turned in, we do a final quality check and cut away the extra fabric (to reduce shipping weight and costs), and at last, take the boat across beautiful Lago Atitlan to the international shipping center in Panajachel. Months of communication, coordination, and dedication boxed up and sent off to Rotterdam, and another custom order is complete!