An Inside Look with Miguel Calvo: Leaving No Fabric Wasted
Miguel Calvo with the AMA/Pixan artisans
Miguel Calvo is no stranger when it comes to working with indigenous artisan groups in Latin America. After much success working as a product development and design consultant for the Wayuu Artisan Women’s Initiative project in Colombia for Aid to Artisans (ATA), Calvo found himself working again with indigenous women artisans of the Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano (AMA) in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Founded by Guadalupe Ramirez, AMA is a grassroots organization that focuses on economic and social development through well-being, health, enterprise development skills, and community engagement programs. In 2012, AMA approached ATA to connect with an international designer to address the challenges of the global market. With his extensive experience, having graduated from Parsons School of Design and worked among others, for Baccarat Crystal in France, ATA employed Calvo’s help to create a new line of home décor and personal accessories for AMA.
As part of AMA’s three-year project funded by the Inter-American Foundation, ATA and Calvo conducted a two-week product development workshop last February with the House of Design Pixan, AMA’s social enterprise and alternative production chain, specializing in fair trade production of innovative textiles, clothing, and accessories.
Through the workshop, Pixan has been able to increase production capacity and quality and is ready to meet orders from big-box stores. With the project completed, ATA sat down with Calvo to discuss his experiences with AMA in Guatemala.
What was it like working with the women artisans?
Being the only man in the group of women, there was a bit of a hesitation on my part but it was easy to break down those barriers by having fun, joking around, and playing with the kids. The workshop was very busy all the way from pattern cutters to the weavers to the seamstresses to the hand-embroiderers. There was never a time when they were wondering what to do next. They were all happy that they all had projects to do even during a power outage. We discovered they had vintage Singer machines that you pedal with your feet so our workshops continued without relying on electricity.
How did you prepare for the project?
With directions and some samples from ATA, I did research and horded visuals on my iPad. I always try to be sensitive to what the artisans are already doing but also take them to the next level. They said aprons are good sellers for them, so I showed up with 50 versions of aprons that they’ve never seen before. I showed them my research and worked on color palettes. Giving them the ability to develop products on their own was important through color theory, shapes and patterns.
How did you use your design experience to develop new products?
What I brought uniquely to this project was that I was curious not only about textiles but transforming 2D textiles to 3D textiles. Aside from kitchen accessories like potholders and aprons, we tried to do a large variety of items from very expensive to affordable. Some the scrap fabric was too small to turn into a personal accessory but they weren’t too small to turn into a cosmetic case. So we utilized any leftover material and did a lot of repurposing, making sure we didn’t waste anything. We turned the head wraps worn by the Mayan women into collars and leashes for dogs. They’re fun, cheap and easy to ship, and also we made key chains and men’s ties with the leftover pieces. It was better for us not to put all our eggs in one basket on one product but to have a variety of them. It was important for this group to make something that would help them stand out.
Guadalupe, the founding director of AMA, was one of our participants at ATA’s recent Market Readiness Program in New York. What was it like working with her?
Since she travels a lot, she understands some of the sensibilities that I was aiming for. As I was telling them ideas for new products like iPad covers, she would have to explain to the women what they were for. Even though she was only there for a portion of the time, she was very helpful in explaining to me what the Mayan symbols meant. We really wanted to make sure that the spiritual content was embedded into the products. Because she knew a lot of about the Mayan culture and language, and knew English and Spanish, she was indispensable.
What were some of the challenges you faced while working on the project?
One of the challenges I faced was trying to help them develop new skills to make the process more efficient, for example, tracing new embroidery by copy. At the beginning of the workshop, we worked on cutting patterns and color theory, which took a long time because the artisans live in a region that doesn’t have our seasons, only rainy season or dry season, and a color palette has to relate to the each season. The concept of complementary colors was a new thing to the women. To save time and money, we produced prototypes with inexpensive fabrics in any color, a complete raw canvas so we could keep cutting it and playing with it as opposed to spending an entire week working elaborately on something and then going back to drawing board.
What were some rewarding moments you experienced?
When we were looking for different markets by taking a field trip into town, I saw what everyone gravitated to and understood what they really liked. To be able to show them new products and new methods and getting them excited about it was very rewarding. Coming into the project, it was my goal to produce 14 new product groups. When I told them that, they looked at me like I was crazy. Some projects took 10 minutes some took 10 days. But when we reached the goal, it felt good to see how much we had accomplished together.
What do you expect to see from the AMA women in the future?
I hope to see them investigate and try different methods of looking at things. Once you developed a certain skill, you want to keep educating yourself and exploring new and uncharted areas. I want them to try to experiment more to take their skills to the next level in that way.