"Recycled" Huipiles - the Response

Posted on 28 November 2014

huipiles-for-sale-in-Chichicastenango

A  few months ago, Brenda wrote about the phenomenon of repurposing used huipiles into trendy accessories which are sold in the international market as "recycled." Research done in collaboration with Guatemalan anthropologists revealed exploitation in this system, in which women are pressured by middle-persons who go door to door to purchase used huipiles at rock-bottom prices from women desperate for cash. The huipiles are brought to larger regional markets in Chichicastenango, Panajachel and Antigiua and bought by buyers who cut and sew them into "eco-friendly" products. We learned that women who sold the huipiles at the first step of this chain are often unable to replace their treasured huipiles, nor even able to afford to purchase the yarn to weave a new one. 

After the article was published in the Summer 2014 newsletter of Weave a Real Peace, we heard from many and would like to share some of their responses with you. Tell us, what do you think? 
 
Ruth DeGolia, Mercado Global: 
Thank you so much for sending this out. I agree that it is incredibly important for everyone to consider the impact of this practice. In addition to the impact you describe below, I also encourage everyone to consider an additional way this negatively impacts the region in both the short and longterm. 
 
When products are sold internationally (or even domestically) using used huipiles at a fraction of the cost of what it really costs to weave the fabric, this drives down the perceived value of Guatemalan fabrics for international (and domestic) consumers. This in turn undermines the ability of indigenous women to sell their products at a fair or sustainable price in the future. This is a phenomenon that we have observed in the market increasingly in the past years. Bags made with used huipiles can obviously be made for a fraction of the cost of a bag made from the same fabric if it was newly woven (let alone if the artisan was paid a living wage for her time). The fact that the women who are selling the used huipiles are often extremely desperate and paid next to nothing for their clothing makes the situation even worse. This is definitely a complicated issue, but I suspect that in the longterm this practice is harmful from multiple perspectives both for indigenous women and for companies promoting Guatemalan artisanal products. 
Te saludo con un abrazo, I want to add myself in this preocupation of yours. It has always been my concern,since the 70's when the fad of bags, jackets and patch work started using huipiles and traditional textiles for making those products- I feel it is a mutilation of many months of intricate hand work. I companies for buying and using huipiles from Indigenous vendors in Chichicastenango, Panajachel and Antigua, where they are sold for nothing. When converted into "design crafts" no one knows or appreciate what kind of textile has been used or mutilated for that purpose. It is sad that many Guatemalan designers are using used huipiles for their products instead of giving work to many weavers who are craving for work. I think it is a great campaign you are doing, I will like to suggest that also it should be published in Spanish in all the magazines and news papers, and also create a conscience among the associations, coops and NGO's to try to ban this wrong commercial attitude. It is important that buyers from abroad get to know this, but it is also important for us Guatemalans to get to know this sad situation that needs to stop as soon as possible. 
 
Ian Gonzales, La Casa Guatemala
Dear friends, I am attaching herewith an excellent article just published by Brenda Rosenbaum—a Guatemalan--about the increasingly widespread practice of converting Mayan women’s blouses (huipiles) into wearable accessories and home décor, contextualizing this process as upcycling or repurposing and mistakenly claiming it is an important income source for Mayan women weavers. Certainly this is a world phenomenon, with culture-specific textiles acquired under duress at ridiculously low prices disappearing into village sweatshops to be made into coin purses, fanny packs, and table runners (in the best case transforming a garment with intimate cultural meaning into a wearable artifact, in the worst case simply feeding our insatiable need for color and pattern with raw material at the lowest cost possible). Clearly, admiration for traditional textiles the world over can be better demonstrated by encouraging and aiding weavers and embroiderers to continue to exercise and grow their capabilities in the creation of new textiles for sale, and to educate markets and consumers about their values—intrinsic (i.e. as art object, art form, technical brio), cultural (i.e. reinforcing worth of tribe-specific, linguistic group, or regional ancestral techniques, patterns etc.), & family-economy-wise--versus both machine-made goods AND these transformations of traditional garments into wearable or utilitarian artifacts. It is an article that should be given the widest possible diffusion. 
 
Renice Jones, Global Crafts:
I'm so glad you brought this to the attention of so many. The term "recycle" is such a positive buzz word that few realize the damage caused by purchasing these huipiles in the market and creating a product that is not a craft piece but merely a sewing exercise, with sewers associated with a Fair Trade local business being paid a fair price but not the woman who made the huipile years before. It is an issue that Fair Trade handicraft buyers often turn a blind eye to - who is making the materials used? In the handicraft sector, it is often difficult to trace all of the materials that can go into a complex product that includes manufactured parts (fabric, zippers, buckles, beads, hinges, electronics for lamps) but this is not the case with the huipil. 
 
The news about the huipiles is quite distressing. Seems every time we take two steps forward, we end up three back. I can only hope people are ignorant and with you creating this awareness, things will change for the positive. I posted your letter in our store for people to read. Thanks for your work. 
 
Eliza Strode, A Thread of Hope
It might be a good idea, if you haven't already, to distribute the article via the Fair Trade Federation as well as the international Fair Trade certification organizations. It would be good for those groups to educate their members as well as to use this info when considering new or continuing members' applications. 
 
Karen Pickett, Education and More:
Thank you for highlighting this topic and bringing it to all of us. I had not thought of the problems that you and the article describe so I am really glad to get the information and participate in the discussion. We work with over 100 artisans directly and are glad we can make a tremendous difference with the fair wages and benefits they receive from us. We recently started offering a few recycled products made from used huipiles and combined the huipil fabric with our partner artisans handwoven fabric. Because I know how the huipiles were obtained and the prices paid for them we had no problem in using them to complement the artisan woven fabric. We all -- FT advocates, non-profit organizations and businesses -- need to make it our first priority to offer products that not only help the producers but do no harm to other disadvantaged people. I will be reviewing our recycled offerings and perhaps we will eliminate the huipil products, even though we know they have been sourced ethically, in order to eliminate any perceived injustice to the Fair Trade world at large. Thank you again for bringing this topic to light and let's do keep the discussion going. 
 
Below is an article recently published by Brenda Rosenbaum of Mayan Hands, as well as commentary on the article submitted by Ian Gonzalez of La Casa Cotzal. It describes the distressing phenomenon in which used huipiles (woven blouses traditionally worn by Mayan women) are bought at unfair prices from desperate women, cut to pieces, and resewn into “upcycled’” accessories for tourists, such as coin purses and pillow covers. This process not only denies the integrity of these woven masterpieces but also shortchanges the owners of the huipiles, who are often obliged to sell their huipiles at very low prices due to difficult circumstances and poverty but who could, if given the opportunity, make a fair living wage producing new woven products. We at Cojolya urge our supporters to be scrupulous in buying artisan products and to consider the possible economic, social, and cultural impacts of our consumer choices.

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