Y’abal Handicrafts: An Interview

During our trip to Guatemala in December, we had the pleasure of meeting with Allison Havens, Director of Sales and Marketing at Y’abal Handicrafts in Quetzaltenango. With a background in textile and product development among artisan groups and cooperatives, I was blown away by the quality of product, its attention to detail, and its adherence to global design trends. We sat down with Allison to learn more, and followed up for a more extensive interview, outlining Y’abal’s work, impact, and forward-thinking approach.

Her World Over: Explain the model of Y’abal. Why and how was Y’abal founded? How has it grown since it first started?

Allison: Y'abal was originally founded in 2005 as a small local NGO in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to provide disaster relief to two indigenous communities in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan who were destroyed and displaced by Hurricane Stan that same year. Because of mudslides and flooding, the communities were forced to flee up the mountains 3,000 meters above sea level to escape the hurricane with little more than the clothes on their backs. A small group of Guatemalans and foreigners living in Quetzaltenango at the time heard about these communities and formed a small group of volunteers to provide clothing, medicine, blankets, and food. Over the next few years, the NGO Y'abal was formalized and continued to support these communities through funding to build houses, a medical clinic, children's workshops, a water project, and job-skills training workshops.

Y'abal soon realized, however, that these communities would never be able to be sustainable if they couldn't address their core need--jobs. Traditionally coffee and banana farmers in their fertile coastal lands, the communities suddenly found themselves in a new home with land that was dry, arid, and cold- making farming very difficult.  In 2008, at the urging of a group of women from both communities, Y'abal began working with the women of the two communities to form a social enterprise to sell their traditional back-strap weavings as a way to generate income for the women and their families.

For the next couple of years, Y'abal helped them form their cooperative, learn how to manage money, set their own prices, learn about quality control and new designs, form a board of directors to manage orders, and collectively make decisions. In 2010, Y'abal the NGO was closed and Y'abal Handicrafts was officially registered as a Guatemalan business and a store was opened in Quetzaltenango. At that time, Y'abal also incorporated a second already-formed cooperative of women weavers from Solola and a family workshop of wool weavers from Momostenango into the project.

In the last few years, Y'abal has focused on becoming a fully sustainable social enterprise based on Fair Trade. All profits from sales as well as any grant money is re-invested into social projects for the communities such as micro-credits, job-skills trainings, sewing workshops, maternity leave for women weavers, and educational scholarships. But most importantly, we are able to provide consistent, fairly paid, jobs to 60 indigenous women artisans in rural Guatemala.

Her World Over: What does the process of product development look like between your internal team and your artisan groups? How does a product move from inception to completion and how does it evolve to get there?

Allison: When making new fabric designs, we usually work on modifying designs and colors based on patterns that the women weavers are already able to do. We make adjustments to colors and patterns in a back and forth process with the women weavers. We ask them to try out new ideas and sometimes it's what we had in mind and sometimes it's a little different and even better than what we had originally envisioned. The same process works with the tailors for new bags. We usually start out with a drawing or a picture of an idea and then work together to figure out the best way to construct the bag. It's usually a very collaborative process where the tailors contribute their expertise and ideas to improve on designs and as a team we're always seeing how we can improve the functionality of new products. Our design vision is to offer a product that is modern in design and look but yet made completely artisanally using centuries-old techniques and design motifs.

Her World Over: Share a moment of hope that you have seen that was a direct result of the employment and opportunities provided by Y’abal.

Allison: We recently talked to one of the women in our weaving cooperative, Juana, in the community of Chuicutama who was also a recipient of Y'abal's micro-credit program this year. She shared with us that she and her husband have three daughters and their goal is to be able to send all three of their girls to school--something that is difficult for many families in this area because of the inability to pay the costs required to attend school. This year, she used the micro-credit fund from Y'abal to buy fifteen chickens and turkeys to start an egg and meat business where they can earn money in addition to her monthly income from weavings for Y'abal. With these two incomes, she and her husband plan to be able to pay for the educational costs of their daughters. Without the work-opportunities provided by Y'abal, they wouldn't be able to afford school for their children.

Oftentimes, providing an education for their children is the hope and goal of families in these communities. Unfortunately, many families are only able to afford to invest money in the education of one of their children- who then becomes the hope for their family.

This year (2016) and with earnings from sales, Y'abal started an educational scholarship program for 4 boys and 4 girls from the communities of Pacutama and Chuicutama. We heard from one mother in particular who shared with us that her daughter was the last child out of five and that she and her husband had not been able to provide an education for their other children but that with this scholarship they had hope that they could at least send their last daughter to school. Another mother shared that her daughter did not attend school last year as she was a single mother and unable to afford the educational costs however with this scholarship money, her daughter will be able to enroll again and start high school this year.

For the thirty-five women in the weaving cooperative, the income they receive from Y'abal is a significant portion of their families' economy. This money is often used to be able to pay for "extra" things like education, medicines, and to help with the purchase of basic food.

Her World Over: Why, in your opinion, is artisan work and the preservation of culture and tradition so important?

Allison: I think with the ever increasing technological advances and machine-produced throw-away fashion, handmade one-of-a-kind artisan products are even more sacred. The artisan techniques and designs that the women make for Y'abal are forms of art that have been mastered and developed for over thousands of years. For example, back-strap weaving is inextricably linked to cultural identity and spirituality in traditional Mayan culture. This type of personal connection to the fabrication of our products and clothes is quickly being lost in our modern culture. We no longer view our cloths or products or household goods as well-crafted pieces of art but as something to be thrown out quickly and replaced always with something new. We don't care who made the products or in what condition- we've become very separate from the production process. And I think, in general, that type of modern mentality is very dangerous and has harmful consequences for the environment and for the well-being of producers in the global south.

Her World Over: What are Y’abal’s hopes for the future?

Allison: Our goal is to become a completely self sustainable social enterprise that is able to fund a variety of social projects from our profits alone. Currently, we rely on some donations and funding to cover all the costs for the social programs. Our hope is to grow as a business and to be a model for others of what a social enterprise can be- using a Fair Trade business model to support the sustainable development of rural artisan communities and families.

Her World Over: How can interested parties get involved?

Allison: Become a wholesale vendor of Y'abal products! We are always looking for new wholesale partners in the US and Europe. If you know of a store that might be interested in our product line, please refer them to us! If you don't have a store, you can also host your own Y'abal sale in your home, church, or school. We also accept donations for our educational scholarship and micro-credit programs. For more information on purchasing products or making a donation, please contact us at info@yabal-handicrafts.com


Thank you, Y’abal--you are an inspiration to us!