Carol Schoch and Taller Maya share their experience of working with indigenous communities and promoting fair trade
The beauty of an artisan’s hands threading a wooden shuttle through thousands of hand-spun cotton strings is beyond definition, as is the cadence of a foot pushing a pedal loom while two strong arms run the weft shuttle up and down. You might look at nimble, swift fingers knotting nine-meter-long strings of cotton into a macramé shawl, or at a potter’s biceps contracting while mixing some Oaxacan dark clay, just like a baker would knead the dough, and be left speechless at the mastery these simple movements communicate.
This year we’ve had the privilege of partnering with master artisans from the four corners of Mexico and Morocco; weavers, ceramicists, coppersmiths, hatmakers, and designers who passionately create original crafts that bring so much color and soul into our homes and our lives. There’s no better time than Christmas Day, as we unwrap the beautiful and exciting gifts we received from loved ones, to think about the source of these items, the process of their creation and the lives touched by purchasing them.
We caught up with two of our partners, Carol Schoch and Taller Maya, to chat about their work with Indigenous communities and the ways in which they support them, from helping them price their work to importance of establishing a fair price with the artisans, as well as modernizing the craft processes and designs where possible, to improving their work conditions in order to equip artisans to face the challenges of an ever more competitive market.
Taller Maya has been working with artisan collectives around the Yucatán peninsula for almost twenty years, to maintain ancestral indigenous traditions alive, while Carol retired from her career in finance to pursue her passion for Mexican craftsmanship and textile design, and has been working closely with local artisans since.
Tell us about your work with artisans
When I decided to become a designer, I traveled around Mexico to learn about my country’s crafts and the people who perfected them over hundreds of years. I believe that any designer has to understand what the production process is like in order to create a successful product, and this understanding can only come from working closely with the artisans.
We don’t use a top-down approach where a designer shows up with a sketch and tells the artisan to make it. Rather, we visit them in their workshops, work with them on prototypes of the product, and test what does or doesn’t work once the design comes off the page.
How involved are the artisans in developing new techniques and new designs?
Artisans have been specializing in certain products or techniques for generations, and they know what sells in tourist markets, so why would they veer their course? But of course, taste is in continuous evolution, so it’s vital that we work with artisans to help them look beyond what’s been done so far, whilst still respecting traditions. So, I definitely involve them in the process. I come with my own ideas, and they share theirs, it’s a dialogue.
When you work with an artisan through the whole process from design to completion, any initial resistance quickly fades away. Using techniques they know very well to make new products gives them a chance to experiment in a safe environment, which hopefully gives them a competitive advantage when selling. We also help with different techniques like machine stitching and working in a more sustainable way, using less material and energy. They are open and willing to learn new things but still maintain their authentic fingerprint. The outcome of combining their unique experience and skill with modern perspectives is what works so well.
How important is it to work with the artisans to establish a fair price for their creations?
For an artisan, a wool blanket might be an obvious item that they would use to wrap their baby in, regardless of the fact it took them three weeks to weave! Since this is part of thier daily tasks they often don’t calculate the time taken to create these items in their pricing. They also undervalue their work as they don’t take into consideration the uniqueness of their craft. We need to teach them to add these factors into their pricing. To a customer on the other side of the world, it is very special because it contains years of history and culture, it’s a piece of the maker’s identity, and that has tremendous value for people, and should be taken into consideration when pricing the product. Artisans are often not aware of this.
The problem with artisans pricing their work is that they might lack some elements to make an informed decision, such as market trends and the value of labor. There is so much they don’t take into consideration, and so they often undervalue their work. so we always begin with artisans by providing them with training to set fair prices, to include appropriate compensation for labor and materials costs. Eventually, the community becomes fully independent and able to make informed choices on how to price their products and diversify their stock.
How do you perceive our responsibility in guaranteeing fair trade?
People who work with indigenous and remote communities have a big responsibility to proactively explain to the artisans they employ what components should be calculated in to their cost: materials and labor of course, but also things like scarcity, artisan’s creativity, unique skill, inspiration, history, and heritage. We need to find a methodology that makes sure artisans are properly compensated for their hard work. In the long term, my aim is to write a guide to establish industry standards for these kinds of products, which are so unique and therefore difficult to price.
One of our founders says we don’t work with the artisans, we work for the artisans. That really is the meaning of Taller Maya: we’re building a community of people who will be empowered doing what they have been doing for thousands of years. Our responsibility lies in making sure these ancestral crafts are not lost to the modern world, but rather they are integrated into it.