Village Knitters in Ecuador Fashion a Better Future

VILLAGE women sit on the ground in front of the windowless community center, bending over their sweater patterns with knitting needles clicking. Dogs and children play nearby. All the women wear black hats and embroidered blouses. This is the Chirihuasi Women's Collective, knitters of thick, beautiful wool sweaters with Andean designs.

Located not far from the town of Otavalo, where the backstrap loom has been used for an estimated 4,000 years, Chirihuasi is an impoverished hillside area with fewer than 800 people. Not many houses have electricity or indoor plumbing.

Locked in a long dispute with the Ecuadoran Army over access to more farmland, Chirihuasi has turned to new ways to try to raise money for the community and to preserve its culture.

Tukapu, an Otavalo organization promoting economic development among indigenous people, approached the women and organized the collective. The idea was to charge a higher price for uniquely designed sweaters than would be charged in Otavalo, a town with a steady flow of tourists who buy rugs, clothing, and other crafts. The sweaters would then be sold in another country.

Rosa Ichau, vice president of the collective, says, ``We are organizing the women so that, with a little work, we can progress by making sweaters. At first some of the men objected, but now they support us. We feel good, because we wanted to organize, and this will help us to resolve our other problems such as buying land.''

Through Tukapu, a cooperative in Spain agreed to buy sweaters for $21 each. The women would be paid $5 for each sweater with $12 for materials and $4 for administration of the project.

A Canadian woman, Leann Penner, was hired to teach the Chirihuasi women to knit. Last year she spent seven months knitting with them, and researched traditional Andean designs taken from petroglyphs and textile-history books. About 26 women learned how to knit; many became skilled enough to do two sweaters a week without interfering with their home and community duties.

Mario Conejo, the founder of Tukapu, says ``We try to support women from different economic backgrounds. The average woman in these communities has five children, and her husband is away looking for work in the city, and she has no income.''

Tukapu had hoped to have six communities at work knitting sweaters. But the organization in Spain could only invest money to provide enough wool for far fewer than the 1,500 sweaters planned. Eventually 250 sweaters were sent to Spain from Chirihuasi, the only collective sending sweaters.

``We'll continue to work with the collective,'' Mr. Conejo says. He says the project has been a success in inspiring and motivating the whole community to learn about economic alternatives to farming.

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