For ten weeks this summer I am working as a Social Programming Intern for Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers which is located in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.
In Guatemala, students are required to attend school through 6th grade. But after 6th grade ends and secondary school begins enrollment rates drop significantly, especially in rural areas. On average, an agricultural worker earns around 40 Quetzales (approximately 5.50 USD) a day, and a woman could earn as little as 25 Quetzales (3.40 USD) for the same work, so the cost of sending just one child to school after 6th grade can be a huge financial burden. Because of this, the association decided to support the children of our weavers in getting through secondary school.
In this position, I am working through the steps to build a successful and long-lasting educational support program for these children -- designing surveys to learn the biggest barriers to finishing secondary school and to learn what kinds of help our weavers and their children want. With that information, we will design a program that best meets their needs so kids can stay in school and reach their goals.
Why do you think all the #VLgirls will love Cojolya bags?
Just like every #VLgirl, the bags from Cojolya are unique and have heart and soul.
They’re unique in that they represent a variety of vibrant colors and styles and are the creations of the very talented designers we’ve had over the years. They’re also unique because of the handmade process. For example, the patterns seen on the Bolsa Fuego, Clutch Bag Toliman, and Clutch Bag Pacaya that you have in the store are made using a technique called jaspe, which is similar to the East Asian technique of ikat, where knots of white thread are tied around string before dyeing it to create specific patterns and shapes that will reveal themselves when the thread is woven. It’s like magic.
Most importantly, these bags have heart. When someone buys a Cojolya bag you are directly supporting the artisans in our association. I work beside these weavers and see some of them every day. I have held their hands, met their children, heard their stories. They are amazing, kind, and resilient women. By just carrying a tote bag, you help feed their families, pay their children’s school fees, pay their medical bills, and even help the association give trainings and workshops for the women.
Is there anything that you’ve learned from your time at VL that you hope to bring to Cojolya?
The overall attitude April and Erycka have cultivated in the store makes you feel like you’re at home, even when you’re working your butt off to make sure everyone finds the best jeans and bags and shoes and Free People top for them. It’s chill, when things go wrong you roll with it, you feel like you’re just hanging out with your friends, but as you know, #VLgirls are also all about the hustle.
What makes backstrap loom weaving so unique?
Where do I start!?
Back-strap loom weaving is a traditional weaving technique that Maya women have passed down for thousands of years and not only serves as a way for them to express their culture and heritage but also as a very important source of income for families.
The process originally started with hand-picking and then spinning cotton into thread and dyeing it with natural dyes. While this is still done in some areas of Guatemala, Cojolya now purchases our thread through a certified fair trade supplier. Then, the thread is hand-warped to fit the size of the item being made exactly. The thread is then soaked in a mixture of water and corn flour to give the thread strength and elasticity so it does not break when being woven. Each thread is then separated one by one, by hand, to prepare the loom. A back-strap is literally placed around a woman’s back as she sits on the ground and weaves as she uses her body to create tension on the loom. The parts of the loom are made from sticks and wood of various sizes and the loom is portable, allowing women weavers to care for their children and manage their homes while earning an income wherever they are.
Because of this process, an item can take several days to several weeks to create. I’ve started taking classes two evenings a week from our master weaver and it’s such hard work that I have to go home and stretch afterwards.
It’s a tradition that is reflected in the traditional clothing, colors, and patterns still worn every day by men and women alike in Santiago Atitlán and Cojolya hopes to preserve this tradition by innovating traditional techniques to match ever-evolving fashion trends. One of my favorite quotes from our co-Founder Antonio Ramírez is this: “Our tradition comes from our ancestors, who learned it from their ancestors. Once [this generation] dies, who will keep it alive? Our grandchildren must.”
When you take home a bag made by our association, you’re actually helping an important part of Maya culture live on through new generations of artisans. I could go on for hours about how important this art form is for the people of this region, but I’ll stop myself there.
Why is Cojolya being part of the World Fair Trade Organization so important?
Because of the way the majority of the fashion industry works, we are completely disconnected from the people make our clothes. What we buy has an effect on the lives of those who produce what we wear, some of who work in unsafe and dehumanizing conditions.
Being part of the World Fair Trade Organization is just one way Cojolya hopes to make a change by being transparent, connecting people to the artisans that make their clothes and accessories, and ensuring that workers are treated and paid well.
This is important because it means we follow the 10 principles of fair trade. You can be certain that our workers are treated fairly, that they work in good conditions, that we do not use forced labor or child labor, that our production respects the environment, and that they are paid a living wage (all of our artisans receive wages that are more than double what an average weaver would make by selling their products in local markets), to name a few.
Clearly Sam has been a busy lady in Guatemala! Head to the store to see all of these beautiful bags for yourself! xx