Knit A Mitten, Save The World

I love buying yarn “with a story,” whether that means a percentage of the proceeds go towards helping refugees in Darfur or the yarn is handspun by at-risk youth thirty miles from my house. The story makes me feel good about buying yet another skein of yarn, and, when I knit a project out of it, I get to carry the story around with me. My favorite yarn, Malabrigo, is hand-dyed by an Uruguayan women’s collective; when knitting a mitten from Malabrigo yarn, I reason that I am crafting alongside women I will never meet, helping them along the road to prosperity and independence. The reality is, of course, much more complicated.

Mittenz in the snow.

These Malabrigo mittens will save the world.

Over the last two decades, an entire industry has sprung up around the notion of packaging the products of Third World craft collectives to sell to the First World. Let’s examine the ways in which First World advertising both misrepresents and romanticizes the work and lives of these collectives to encourage First World consumers to buy their products.

Advertising encourages consumers to bolster their sense of identity by purchasing certain products. An increasing number of Americans are being swayed towards buying handicrafts in particular. “Labeled cultural creatives [emphasis in the original], these individuals are college educated, in their early 40s, and with average household incomes of $52,200. Six out of 10 are women. Values of community building, ecological sustainability, abhorrence of violence, and attraction to the foreign and exotic guide their lives” (Litrell and Dickson 1999, 52). Authenticity, uniqueness, and the hope that the item’s value will increase over time are important factors in the cultural creative’s decision to buy a handcrafted product. This kind of consumer purchases items with a story she can relate later. She is the prime target for an industry that produces handmade items.

This typical American consumer feels that, in purchasing a handmade item, whether imported or through tourism, she is in some way participating in the culture that produced it. In her social circle, the handmade item awards her cultural capital. She is like a representative for the culture the item represents, along with the exotic knowledge that position suggests. She also likes the idea that buying the item does good in the world; buying from a craft collective is appealing to her. Therefore, advertising intentionally builds a narrative around the collective and its products. The general storyline involves a population in crisis, who, usually thanks to the intervention of kindly Americans or Europeans, develops a small industry, producing handicrafts imbued with exoticism.

The Mirasol Yarn Project is one such example. The Peruvian collective, which produces yarn for export, manages every aspect of production, from alpaca herding to marketing. Perhaps to make consumers feel at home, the website emphasizes the actions and perceptions of American and European visitors to the project site over the experiences of the Peruvians who make the yarn. Profits from every sale of yarn fund childhood education in rural Peru. The website makes sure to mention that the idea for the school “came from a visit made to the ranch by Kari Hestnes and Per Svendsen who run Du Store Alpakka in Norway.” The product line itself “was initialized by Peter Mulley from Diamond Yarn in Canada, and he then set about contacting other distributors to make sure the Mirasol Project was supported worldwide with contributing companies in the United States, Europe and the UK.”

There is little mention of the agency of individual Peruvians in the collective itself, other than a biography page for Mirasol herself, the little girl who is the company’s namesake. The biography page, despite being called “Meet Marisol,” contains no biographical information about Mirasol, only photographs and a first-person description of her from Kari Hestnes: “Mirasol is beautiful, but she is marked by the life she lives, the skin is darkly tanned and cracked, her clothes are trashed, but she still radiates something beautiful and very feminine that touches my heart deeply […] I get a strong need to give something to these children, but the only thing I have in my pockets is lip gloss with sun block” (The Mirasol Project). This narrative emphasizes the cultural creative’s need to “do something” when faced with the crushing poverty of this region of Peru. The unspoken answer to the yearning is, of course, to buy Mirasol Yarn.

Marketing photographs of Third World collectives frequently show small groups of workers – usually women – working in a bucolic, often outdoor, setting. The workers smile, projecting satisfaction in their work. Purchasing the products, it is strongly implied, will keep these workers happy. Manos Del Uruguay, another collective producing garments and handmade yarn, offers up several such photographs. Unlike the Mirasol Project, Manos was founded by an Uruguayan woman, Olga Artagaveyta, in 1968. (Durbin 2005) Manos’ website emphasizes the empowerment of individual women through collective action (Manos Del Uruguay). The site even provides photographs of some of the 17 collectives the group boasts. The American influence is not mentioned, although Durbin’s article refers to the grants from NGOs that make the collective possible. They are beautiful photographs of Uruguayan locations, although they do not offer any information about actual working conditions or wages.

In general, the producers who belong to craft collectives are assisted by government agencies, NGOs and outside nonprofits who try to organize the artisans to make products that can be successfully exported. The typical artisan working for such an organization is also female, but, there, her similarity to the American consumer ends. She is usually part of a household, making handicrafts while tending to household tasks. Her goal is to make money to maintain and ultimately raise her family’s status in the community. So it is that, for example, the money made by small artisans who borrow from the Grameen Foundation goes almost invariably to educate the borrowers’ children. (One of the “Sixteen Decisions” chanted by members is “We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.”) Ironically, while the artisan’s handcrafted item appeals to the “cultural creative,” such items do not have the same cachet in the artisan’s community. Frequently, artisans use the money they make to buy items imported from America and elsewhere, such as appliances, electronics, and, in one example, Stallone T-shirts.

When these projects are successful, women’s lives improve dramatically. As the Grameen Bank publicizes, women overwhelmingly educate children of both sexes, which, in turn, uplifts an entire family. Women also delay marriage and childbirth when they have financial independence, and their families support them when they see the clear economic benefits. This can have tragic results when the community sees this empowerment as a threat to the male status quo. In one Chiapas village, the female organizer of a pottery collective, Petrona Lopez, was murdered. “Petrona was clearly a threat to a patriarchal order of households wherein women’s production was controlled by their fathers or husbands. All men in the community were threatened by the autonomy women gained in the cooperative and condoned the act that released them from the threat” (Nash 1993). Marketing certainly does not emphasize the risks female workers accept when they band together to form collectives.

There are many other pitfalls on the way to becoming a success story like Mirasol or Manos Del Uruguay. First and foremost, producers of handicrafts are dependent on the global market. They do not produce a “necessary” product, and in an economic downturn, demand for their products will by necessity decrease. When a market is developed for a product, that market can become suddenly flooded with inexpensive, mass-produced knockoffs from, generally, Asia. As well, tastes change quickly; if there is suddenly no demand for an item, a collective is left with equipment and raw goods but nowhere to unload them. There is constant, ruthless competition in the global market from East Asian countries. Chinese yarns and other textiles are produced much cheaper than the handicrafts, which is, of course, why advertising must be used to explain or justify the higher cost.

When men in a community realize the craft collective has a potential for success, they often become involved in the management of the collective. Because they are not artisans and are primarily concerned with increasing the collective’s bottom line, they frequently reorganize in ways that increase profits but are detrimental to workers. One common tactic is to divide artisans in to “pieceworkers” so that each worker specializes in a tiny portion of production. No one woman gains the knowledge to assemble an entire item, so each woman is dependent on the collective. If the collective disbands, the women may not have transferable skills.

A side effect of pieceworking is to reduce the pride of craftsmanship that brings enjoyment to artisans. Further reductions to this enjoyment can occur when artisans find themselves producing to North American tastes, at the expense of their own, culturally dictated aesthetics. In one situation, Guatemalan weavers were upset when told that North American consumers did not like the “hot pinks, limes, and oranges” they traditionally wove into their hangings (Lynd 2000). Some even continued to weave with traditional colors, despite being paid a discounted price for items that “did not meet quality standards.” Clearly, it was a difficult situation, as expressed by the American who was overseeing the collective: “On the one hand, we want to help the women succeed in the international market. On the other hand…we do not want producers to lose the integrity of their weavings” (Lynd 2000).

Worst, wages may be disproportionately low. In the production of Peruvian sweaters in one male-run collective, “in a classic example of middlemen reaping disproportionate profits, knitters earn between US$5 and US$20 for a sweater, while the garments may sell in the U.S. for as much as US$200 or US$300” (Page-Reeves 1998). One USAID program not only underpaid workers, but actually left participants worse off than before. They encouraged a collective to take out loans, then used information gleaned from the collective to actually develop factories to undercut the market (Page-Reeves 1993).

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, advertising often must project an additional cachet to get the consumer’s attention. So it is, for example, that Campbell Soup produced special pink “breast cancer” cans of soup for a limited time; by purchasing a can of soup that contributed a tiny fraction of sales to breast cancer research, consumers could sate their guilt over not financially supporting the race to the cure. Ben and Jerry’s ill-fated Rainforest Crunch convinced shoppers that a purchase would help save the Amazonian rainforests. Consumers like to buy products that make them feel good about themselves. Buying “breast cancer” chicken soup implies that the consumer is a good person who cares about breast cancer.

Although the goal of helping individuals parlay often ancient skills into modern financial success is laudable, it may minimize help for more widespread solutions. This makes the consumer force complacent. My buying a skein of organic yarn spun by a Tibetan refugee is very nice, but it does not lead me to lobby Congress to put pressure on China. Nor does it encourage me to seek information on how my purchase really affects the man or woman who spun the yarn. We have the power, as consumers, to ensure that “voting with our pocketbooks” makes the lives of individuals throughout the world better. Looking beyond advertising to the realities of production can be the first step.

Works Cited
Durbin, Paula. “Manos Del Uruguay: The Bottom Line.” Grassroots Development: Journal of the Inter-American Foundation 26, no. 1 (2005).
Ghista, Garda. “Towards Economic and Women’s Liberation Via Grameen Bank.” ProutWorld.org. (Retrieved May 9, 2010.)
Litrell, Mary Ann, and Marsha Ann Dickson. Social Responsibility in the Global Market: Fair Trade of Cultural Products. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 1999.
Lynd, Martha. “The International Craft Market: A Double-Edged Sword for Guatemalan Women.” In Artisans and Cooperatives: Developing Alternative Trade for the Global Economy, edited by Kimberly M. Grimes and B. Lynne Milgram, 65-84. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2000.
Manos Del Uruguay. (accessed August 13, 2008).
Nash, June. “Maya Household Production in the World Market: The Potters of Armantenango del Valle, Chiapas, Mexico.” In Crafts in the World Market: The Impact of Global Exchange on Middle American Artisans, edited by June Nash, 127-154. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Page-Reeves, Janet. “Alpaca Sweater Design and Marketing: Problems and Prospects for Cooperative Knitting Organizations in Bolivia.Human Organization 57, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 83-93.
Page-Reeves, Janet. “Sweater-Knitting and Project Aid in Bolivia: A Critique.” Anthropology of Work Review 14, no. 2 (Winter-Spring 1993): 34-36.
The Mirasol Project. (accessed August 13, 2008).

Comments

  1. Dear Marcella,

    I just ran across your article and want to correct an error in your description of the Mirasol Project.
    There was never a ‘Peruvian collective’ associated with the project which is why there is no mention of it on the Mirasol website you reference or in any of our publicity. The yarns which are sold in the Mirasol Collection are made by Michell y Cia S.A., a long established mill located in Arequipa, Peru.
    The Mirasol Project is managed by a nonprofit association in Arequipa which uses the money we contribute to build and staff schools for disadvantaged children in the remote Peruvian Highlands. The model is very simple. To establish a sustainable cash flow to aid these children I arranged that all distributors buy from the same source (Michell) and at the same prices. There are no inflated margins due to redistribution outside of Peru. There is no reselling from one distributor to another. As a result the prices of these high quality yarns are comparatively low (there are many more expensive luxury yarns on the market). A percentage of each Mirasol distributors’ purchases is remitted to the managing nonprofit association in Peru. Michell also contributes a percentage of its Mirasol Collection yarn sales to the distributors.
    If we are looking for term to describe this arrangement and the participation of the manufacturer, the distributors and the consumers of Mirasol yarns, ‘making a charitable donation’ would be more accurate than ‘supporting a craft collective’.
    However, the difference between this type of charity and the usual ‘fund raiser’ is that it is ongoing and sustainable. And it is so because money is being made by the distributors. I’m not an Adam Smith disciple, but I’m sure I would not have been able to raise enough money to build and staff schools if I had just asked for donations – that is, without invoking profit motive. It is the combination of making money and ‘doing good’ that keeps the project alive with the manufacturer (Michell) and the distributors (myself and others in the UK, America, Germany, Spain, France, Norway). Moreover, the eventual consumer, in addition to the pleasure of owning a very nice yarn, derives satisfaction from the good work of the project. Justifiably, I think.
    Perhaps I misread your article but it also seemed to me that you imply we intentionally withheld information on the Mirasol Project in order to market more effectively. From my point of view we did just the opposite. The Mirasol website was put together to directly and transparently substantiate the project. You can follow the its progress year by year. I was very conscious of the false claims made by some corporations claiming the moral high ground for their products (the Body Shop is a classic MBA case study) and wanted to make it clear we were doing what we said we were.
    I do not disagree with your point that ‘consumer charity’ (to create a phrase) may create lethargy. It is possible that some may feel less guilty by purchasing pink ribbon soup like modern indulgences but that does not apply to all, does not preclude additional action and does not invalidate the cause. My involvement with the Mirasol Project, for example, does not prevent me from lobbying my MP to push for better rural education in Peru. I do believe, however, that the Mirasol Project is effective and that it certainly produced quicker results.
    Finally, I completely agree that we should be ‘looking beyond advertising to the realities of production’. It’s why I am writing you this letter.

    Regards,
    Peter Mulley

    P.S. I’m glad you like Malabrigo yarn. I distribute it in Canada as well. Something I didn’t mention above because it was a bit off topic: Malabrigo and Mirasol yarns sell first and foremost because they are excellent products. I have yet to see cheaper alternatives of the same quality.

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  1. [...] Knit A Mitten, Save The World | Marcella White Campbell "Over the last two decades, an entire industry has sprung up around the notion of packaging the products of Third World craft collectives to sell to the First World. Let’s examine the ways in which First World advertising both misrepresents and romanticizes the work and lives of these collectives to encourage First World consumers to buy their products." (tags: via:marcelory globalization artsandcrafts) [...]

  2. [...] Your Time May 16, 2010 tags: development, poverty, Worth Your Time, Zimbabwe by Meg Knit a Mitten, Save the World, via Racialicious This typical American consumer feels that, in purchasing a handmade item, [...]