Pachacuti has always worked in some the most remote rural areas of the Andes and one of our principal aims is to create sustainable rural livelihoods for our producers.
I am in Ecuador for a few weeks, the main purpose of my trip being to explain to our Panama hat producers all of the intricate details entailed in the production of our 2012 collection. It is our most ambitious to date, but our weavers love working on new patterns and we have already discovered that they weave our coloured panama hats faster than the equivalent hat in a natural colour!
My first few days were based in Otavalo, from where I could travel out to the villages to see our embroiderers, tailors and felt hat makers. I had come prepared to work on embroidery designs as I had learnt two months ago when visiting our embroidery group that high cotton prices meant that most buyers were either taking their designs to cheaper countries, or converting to machine embroidery.
Our embroidery group, who are based about an hour north of Otavalo on a remote mountainside, had been the first of our producer groups to receive glasses and cataract operations two years ago and I was keen to hear how they were progressing. However, Mathilda who co-ordinates all of our embroidery, told me about her latest visits to see the group. "Every time I visit" she explained "the embroiderers ask if there are any orders from Pachacuti due to the higher Fair Trade prices paid. If there are no orders, they would rather earn money picking tree tomatoes as the market price for their skills is so low". Realising what a huge responsibility this creates for Pachacuti, I returned to my hotel and spent the entire weekend working on embroidery designs for a dress and a blouse in black cotton, so that at least we can place orders to sell in our shop over the Autumn period.
Ecuadorian cotton wears and washes so well and we get a lot of repeat customers in our shop, yet the embroidered blouses are often more of an afterthought for me after designing our hats, so I left the area with new resolve to create more embroidery designs each year so that these traditional skills do not die out.
My designs are usually based on traditional Ecuadorian embroideries, updated with different elements; I may include the odd motif from Mexican embroidery, or take some influence from '50s design. Mathilda will carefully copy out my designs onto the sleeves and yolks of garments and take these to the embroiderers, collect them a week later and sew them into the garments.
I think the photograph below shows exactly what we are trying to do at Pachacuti: Mathilda sitting at her sewing machine with her field of maize and vegetables outside the window. The family are almost self-sufficient from their land, only purchasing essentials such as flour and rice from the local shop.
As traditional dress continues to westernise and buyers seek cheaper alternatives, these skills could be lost within a generation or two. The region's boom days of the early '90s when everyone was exporting Ecuadorian wool jumpers, coincided with the men in the area converting to jeans and trainers instead of white trousers and alpargatas and ditching their traditional felt hat, keeping only their long plait as a symbol of indigenous identity. Will women's dress follow this same fate? At present almost all indigenous women in the area continue to wear traditional dress, which includes highly embroidered blouses. Although not a pre-colonial textile art in the Andes, embroidery has been practiced in this region since it was imported by the Spanish in the 16th Century and was rapidly incorporated into traditional dress.
I'd always felt that we were playing our small part in preserving the traditional textile heritage of the Andes, but hearing that the embroiderers would rather earn money picking tree tomatoes than embroidering, unless that embroidery happened to come from Pachacuti, makes me realise what an incredible responsibility I have to the people and culture of this region.