INTERVIEW: HARPER POE (OWNER/PROUD MARY)

Dye yard in Bamako

Dye yard in Bamako

Proud Mary is a lifestyle brand owned and operated by textile enthusiast, Harper Poe. Proud Mary collaborates with artisans around the world to construct a beautiful collection of clothing and home accessories using handcrafted textiles. Harper’s knowledge about the artisan sector has allowed her to create a sustainable business for herself and her artisan partners, while among her abundant passions, first and foremost is keeping this growing industry authentic. (All words by Dain Silvestri)

Backstrap weaving wool for Proud Mary's AW16 clutches in Chiapas, Mexico

Backstrap weaving wool for Proud Mary's AW16 clutches in Chiapas, Mexico

For new followers, how would you explain the work that you do? What do you want people to know about you and your work?                                                                                                                                   
I would say that I am the owner/designer of a lifestyle brand started in 2008 and made in collaboration with artisans in Latin America and Africa. Our collection consists of clothing, shoes, accessories, and home goods… 75% designed by us and made by our artisan partners and the remaining 25% picked up in markets during our travels. I want people to know that I'm extremely passionate about the artisan sector and want to see more artisans grow to the point where they are export ready.

What are some things in the business that you are passionate about?
As more and more businesses enter into the artisan sector I see a lot of buzz words being thrown around just as a marketing tool. I am really passionate about being as transparent and authentic as possible because we are working with humans. I want to tell the correct story, not overly tell a story, or leave things out. I don't want to be the police but I think the consumer has a right to know what these products are, where they originate, who makes them, and what the true cost is.

Preview Image from Proud Mary's SS17 collection!

Preview Image from Proud Mary's SS17 collection!

Explain the style of Proud Mary and how you learned about different styles and techniques.                                                                                                                                             
I think the Proud Mary aesthetic has always been a simple, pared down version of ethnic handmade. I call it "ethnic-modern". By understanding in depth the techniques and available materials we can strip down the sometimes overly complicated traditional designs to something clean, simple, and modern. I've totally learned by observing in the different countries where Proud Mary works. I have no training, but have learned along the way the various techniques and weaving styles and what is possible when developing a handcrafted textile based collection.

Where are some of your favorite places and memories from the last 9 years?                                       
My favorite place is Mali. The people, smells, textiles, color, and dry desert is magical. I've only been able to go once but it's stuck with me and I still work there. My favorite memories are sourcing/product development trips. Being around people from other cultures and backgrounds speaking different languages feels so right to me. I love being immersed in diversity.

Harper with Boubacar Doumbia at Ndomo in Segou, Mali

Harper with Boubacar Doumbia at Ndomo in Segou, Mali

How do you start a new project and what are you drawn to when finding places and people to work with?                                                                                                                                                     
Sometimes things fall in my lap and sometimes I seek out groups that are working in certain geographic areas I am interested in or are working with certain techniques that I am interested in exploring. I do a lot of research about traditional textiles and craft and the origin of techniques and materials so I can go as direct to the source as possible. For example I would only work with mud cloth producers in Mali as that is where mud cloth originates from. I have producers come to me or I have reached out to non-profits and NGO's working on the ground to connect me with artisans. I tend to want to work with artisans that are not export ready… the potential is there but they need some hand holding to get to the point where they are capable of producing quality goods on time for export. It can be risky and a lot of work but when the projects take off it's so rewarding!

What are your goals for artisan partners when doing business with them?                                    
To create something together that my customers will get really excited about and to create long lasting partnerships with our artisan partners. We don't want to just work with an artisan group for one season. It takes time to learn other's work styles and it takes ample resources to start a new project, on both ends, so it makes the most sense to invest in the long game.

Raffia workshop in Essaouira, Morocco

Raffia workshop in Essaouira, Morocco

Explain your company motto "pride not pity".                                                                               
Using the business of handicrafts as a tool to alleviate poverty and grant greater opportunities for the artisans we are working with. They make beautiful things and we want to share and celebrate those things to help them advance. 

How did you come up with the name Proud Mary?                                                                                                              
I started Proud Mary with my friend Molly when I was living in NY.  Her first name is Mary as is mine so we knew we wanted Mary to be in the name somehow.  Also, Mary is a strong female name in most cultures so it works on different levels.

Name a few brands working in collaboration with global artisans that you admire and why.
Heather Taylor Home, she produce her line of handwoven table linens, home decor, and accessories in collaboration with artisans in Chiapas, Mexico.  I really admire that she let's the products speak for themselves and doesn't over do it talking about the artisans and their situation.   Tigra Tigra is a new'ish clothing line that collaborates with artisans in India, South Africa, and Namibia.  I'm obsessed with this line, it's such a breath of fresh air.

Herder boys in Lesotho

Herder boys in Lesotho

Where has been your favorite place to travel and where are you dying to go? (because let's be honest we do this in part so we can see the world!)
So far Mali has been my favorite country I've visited. I'm dying to go on a surf/yoga retreat in Sri Lanka, textile hunting in Laos/Cambodia, and a hike around Patagonia.

COUNTRY PROFILE: JESS BERCOVICI'S GUATEMALA

stela 9_1.png

For our first country profile we turned to have Jess Bercovici; archaelogist turned ethical fashion designer, Angelino turned Antigua resident and overall inspiring lady share her passion for her adopted country, Guatemala. If you don't know her brand Stela 9 check it out here.  If you're into the business of craft, at the end we talk about her recent decision to switch to a direct to consumer sales model. So admire this approach, thanks for opening up about your business Jess!

What makes Guatemala so special?
Guatemala is an insanely diverse and vibrant country. Its people are ranked amongst the happiest in the world and its geography boasts microclimates of tropical coasts, humid lowland jungles and ruggest volcanic peaks. This is why, while banana plantations clutter the coasts; there are also pockets of wool production in the highlands of Totonicapan amongst pine trees and cold mountain temperatures.

This region is also quite famous for the hundreds of Mayan and other pre-Columbian ruins that lie beneath the surface. A few have been uncovered and reconstructed, like Tikal but many are yet to be unearthed.

One of the special things about Guatemala is that most indigenous communities still wear their traje. While mostly women wear their huipil (back-strap loomed textile blouse) and corte (foot-loomed textile skirt), there are still a few places where the men represent their dress (which is typically a loose fitting collared work shirt and pants with cinched in belts). The traje each person dons is indicative to where they’re from. So for example if a woman is wearing a huipil with purple and white stripes with birds embroidered into the neckline, 99 times out of a 100, she’s from Santiago de Atitlan.

Which handicrafts are prevelant in Guatemala?
Handicrafts that thrive in Guatemala are carpentry, wood working (masks), weaving (both backstrap and footloom), leather work, and pottery. 

Backstrap loom weaving

Backstrap loom weaving

Which textile techniques/raw materials are available and used in Guatemala?
Natural fibers like cotton and wool are the most commonly used threads in weaving. Acrylic threads were introduced to the country in the late 20th century and have taken over much of the marketplace because of their low cost.  Fortunately, there has been a strong resurgence and focus on working with natural dyes over the past few decades, especially in San Juan de Atitlan.

Traditionally men operate the foot-loom while women weave on the backstrap loom. This is because the backstrap is more mobile and one can watch over a household and weave from any location that has a place to hang the loom. The footloom on the other hand is very large and location specific.

Can you give an overview of the indigenous population and how they are affected by the handicrafts industry?
60% of Guatemala’s population is made up of indigenous people, which is more than 6 million people. In addition to that, there are 25+ different indigenous populations within that grouping and 25+ different dialects of indigenous language.
 
Because of the extreme unequal distribution of wealth in Guatemala more than 75% of the population lives below the population line and as I’m sure you guessed, 60% of that is the indigenous population. For the most part, living below the poverty line in Guatemala simply means that they live in a more rural environment and have communities that are more self-sufficient. However, these people do not have access to the same education that an individual from a more urban area would have. This applies to health-care and clean drinking water as well. There is a stronger focus on crafts because they are learned traditions passed on through generations. Weaving thrives in these small, rural communities. For as long as there is a market and general interest in the production of crafts, there will be work for these individuals and these incredible forms of art will continue to be preserved. In an idealistic world, it would be wonderful to get to a point where the communities have access to higher education and also continue to pass on these crafts. According to recent statistics, the indigenous participation in Guatemala’s economy is at a 62% output. Most of this relates directly to the craft sector.

Market

Market

Craft Markets: Where and what can you find?
Antigua
The Antigua market is mostly condensed to the west side of town, near the bus station. It is picturesque little storefronts amongst multiple courtyards and fountains. You can find vintage textiles, jade jewelry and woodwork. Most of these shop owners are simply that. They are not artisans and they resell these products (this is why many of them have set prices and are a little more difficult to haggle with). There are a few people that really stand out here. Amongst them are Dona Petronela and her niece, Gladys who own two booths side by side that are covered in huipil (you’ll know it when you see it). They are collectors and have an incredible wealth of knowledge about their products. They won’t sell you the cheapest huipil, but it will probably be the most beautiful and highest quality one you’ll find on your whole trip.
 
Lake Atitlan
I like to think of the Panajachel market as Antigua’s hippie sister. Most storefronts are along Calle Santander and wind through little alleyways. There is definitely more variety and it’s easier to haggle (which doesn’t always make it right – when buying textiles think about the time and value of the item through your own eyes before trying to get the price down). I also think that the artisans are a little more innovative at the lake and most things that are made in the Solola region make their way down to the Pana market.
 
The Santa Catarina Palopo market is small, but if you adore textiles, it’s definitely worth visiting. Most sell textiles from their village, including the incredibly intricate men’s pants.
 
The Santiago market is known for its paintings. The naïve style is famous around the lake, and these oil paintings make up most of the stalls. There are also tons of textiles and woodwork. If you have time, make sure to pay homage to Maximon (the patron saint of debauchery). A local kid will show you were he’s currently housed for around $3 USD.
 
Chichicastenago
If the Pana market is Antigua’s hippie sister, then Chichi is their Great Aunt who has spent her lifetime traveling and collecting the most beautiful pieces of ancient jade and textiles. It is the largest artisan market in all of Central America and a must if you’re after something truly special.
 

Food/Drink: Traditional dishes and/or drinks and a few favorite spots!
Guatemala is famous for its caldos which are basically stews. My favorite of these actually comes from the Caribbean coast and is called Tapado. It’s a coconut and tomato based seafood soup with plantains, crab, shrimp, fish (usually a whole one) and conch or snail.
Ceviche is pretty huge here as well, but very different to Peruvian ceviche. Guatemalan ceviche is usually a hangover cure and for the most part, sold out of an ice chest in the back of a pickup truck on the weekends. It’s covered in salsa inglesa (Worcestershire sauce) and ketchup. Almost always paired with a picosita, which is a spicy beer in a can that you must take a few sips out of before it’s made so that they can pour lime juice, onions, peppers, soy sauce and more salsa inglesa into. If that doesn’t sounds like something you’re after, Guatemala is also known for it’s delicious coffee and limonada con sodas (lemonade made with sparkling water).

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

Non artisan, crafts, textile activity; hiking? coffee tours? jungle? yoga retreats?  
You could spend months in Guatemala and not enjoy all of the beautiful things this country has to offer. If you only have a short time, Semuc Champey, Tikal, Lake Atitlan and Antigua must be on your list.
 
Quetzal Trekkers is a wonderful NGO based out of Xela that organizes treks around the country.  They use funds generated from their hikes to go back to educational systems here in Guatemala and work directly with a few school.
http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/xela/
 
The Yoga Forest in San Marcos de Atitlan is one of the most serene retreats along the lake.
http://www.theyogaforest.org/
 

Finca Filadelfia outside of Antigua hosts a beautiful coffee plantation that you can tour and even zip-line at.
http://filadelfia.com.gt/guatemala/servicios/tours/
 
Maya Traditions is simply the best way to get a chance to interact directly with weaving cooperatives and indigenous communities.
http://www.mayatraditions.com/ethical-travel/

Jess with leather artisan

Jess with leather artisan

Biggest challenge working in Guatemala:
Patience is something I’ve learned as a producer in Guatemala. I’ve produced in Mexico and India in the past and for the most part, you submit your designs to a factory and there are a few phone calls and emails made throughout the production time line but you really don’t do anything more than that. In Guatemala I speak with my artisans at least 2-3 times a week, and visit with them at least once a week. We aren’t a factory and they, for the most part, are new entrepreneurs themselves, so there is a lot of work and time that goes into making new designs – which is essential to Stela 9. I could simplify and spit out the same bodies and textiles every season, but where’s the fun in that?
 

Top and Pants from Stela 9 Collection

Top and Pants from Stela 9 Collection

You recently made the decision to move to a direct sales model. Can you tell us what led you to that decision?
When Stela 9 first launched, almost all of my energy went into building a brand that I could cater to wholesale accounts. Specifically large retailers like Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie. This worked and for a long time 90% of our business was producing our designs for the wholesale market, which isn’t necessarily a bad things and it works for many other brands. However it was bad for Stela 9. We were putting so much time and money into spitting out collections that we weren’t actually making any money. And for a long time I thought that was okay or normal and that as long as the artisans were benefiting then it didn’t matter if I personally wasn’t making any money. This went on for a long time. I had to hire more people to help with the demands of the business, all along still not making money. So increasing my overhead to balance our growth but consistently unable to pay myself. I felt like a horse with blinders on. I was just trudging along until that one day that maybe we’d get one account or investor or partner that would help us better sustain our growth. But, then one thing happened that created a domino effect on my whole business; we didn’t get paid. A few accounts we were working with at the time filed for bankruptcy and we lost all of the product we had already delivered to them (typically accounts like these pay on net terms, meaning that they usually don’t even start to think about paying you until 30 days after you’ve delivered the product). Stela 9 has never had capital. There are a host of reasons for this, mostly being that I kind of didn’t really mean to start a business that grew as quickly as Stela 9 did. So when those accounts couldn’t pay us, I couldn’t pay our artisans and I couldn’t pay my employees. I thought I was going to lose everything. After letting all but one employee go, I still owed all of our artisans money. Quite a lot of money. The people I started my business to help were in danger of losing their own business and everything we had worked so hard to build together. I didn’t build a strong enough foundation for Stela 9 to support incidents like this. The best analogy I can think of is when you’re on a flight and the attendants are going through the safety manual with you and explain that in the case of an emergency, you must put your oxygen mask on first before you help your child. I never did that. I just gave all of our air to the artisans but then almost lost everything in the process. The bankruptcies in a weird way gave me time to stop and take the blinders off. I reevaluated everything we were doing and noticed that wholesale was completely detrimental to our financial growth. We spent too much money on sales commissions and financing these orders. It also put a lot of pressure on the artisans to create products quickly because we were essentially directly competing with fast fashion. So now with our capsule collections, we are not producing as much as we were before, we’re doing it a little smarter this time. We now have longer lead times for the artisans and smaller cycles. This helps us manage quality better than ever, gives the artisans consistent work and takes away a lot of the pressure of unreasonable deadlines. We are also able to significantly lower our prices because we no longer have to match the retail prices of our wholesale accounts. This means that our customers can now get the same products at lower prices, the only difference is that they can only buy them in our Antigua, Guatemala boutique or online.

HUH?: WOVEN TEXTILE TERMINOLOGY

Vertical loom in All Roads studio

Vertical loom in All Roads studio

Textiles! We love us some hand woven textiles but do we know the process behind the terminology that is thrown at us? Hand woven, desk loom, foot loom, yarn dyed, hand spun, loom woven. Huh?! We've enlisted Janelle Pietrzak, All Roads Design, to help break down some textile terminology.  Janelle's background is in textile development/sourcing for fashion brands and has transitioned into a full time textile artisan.  She's done some awesome collabs with the likes of Clare V., Suno, and Ace & Jig and produces a home decor collection for Anthropologie.  We know you've seen her work now let's tap into her textile brain. Take it away Janelle!

Having worked in textiles professionally for 13 years, I am happy to share some knowledge regarding the many different options in creating, both functional and not.  Since textiles make up the majority of life, I find it less than entertaining when the wrong terms are used to described textiles, especially in superfluous product copy as sales pitches.  I fully support educating customers in a way that isn’t full of gimmicks or catch phrases.

Starting with the most basic technique, a simple knot or a loop - one can create a fabric or object that can provide shelter or assist with basic daily life.  I learned about technical fabric construction through immersion, by sourcing fabrics for apparel for fashion design companies like Anthropologie and BCBG.  As a full time textile artist and designer, I have come to learn more about how color works, texture and am continue to further my knowledge in fibers.  The main technique I employ is weaving, so I will discuss weaving a bit more, but I can’t talk about textiles without a quick mention of knots and loops.

Macramé is a series of knots.  The knots can create a pattern, or be random.  Most macramé that you might be familiar with is the chunky rope wall hangings or plant holders that has made a huge comeback in interior design and art.  Macramé can also be used for fine applications like jewelry, accessories or clothing. Macramé knots can even be used to create vessels, or objects for utilitarian uses.

Knitting and crocheting are series of loops.  Often the loops are created with needles, but there are now artists and craftspeople who use their arms, broomsticks or even larger implements to knit large chunky fiber or ropes.  Knitting and crocheting can also be utilized to create garments, accessories, utilitarian objects and even fabric yardage. Knitted and crocheted fabric or garments have stretch due to the loops.

Weaving is the intersection of two yarns at right angles (or any fiber, metal, reed, stick, etc.).  Unless you are weaving with a stretchy fiber, like elastic, weaving does not stretch.  The yarns that run vertical in the fabric, the length of the yardage, are called the warp. The yarns that run horizontal are called the weft.  A loom is a device for holding the warp yarns at a fixed tension.  A loom can be a machine controlled by electricity and computers.  A loom could also be a block of wood, or two trees that the warp yarns are wrapped around.  Weaving is very primitive, but it is also very complex.  Obviously we know that textiles are a massive industry, as we are surrounded by textiles - carpets in our house, our bed sheets, towels in the kitchen, the clothes we wear or the seat covers in our automobiles. 

(a side note from Harper...assume we are referring to yarn dyeing which is when the yarn is dyed prior to weaving. This is the case with stripes, ginghams, plaids, other special effects, and denim. The other option would be piece dyeing which is dyeing the fabric after weaving which is usually used for solid colored cloth)

A very simple method of weaving is on a frame loom.   In my studio, I have frame looms of many sizes.  The dimensions of the frame loom limit the size of the completed textile.  Weaving on a frame loom has advantages of a quick set up and portability.  Tools are minimal. 

Backstrap weaver in Guatemala (photo courtesy of Proud Mary)

Backstrap weaver in Guatemala (photo courtesy of Proud Mary)

The next step in advanced weaving technology might be the backstrap loom.  This loom gives the weaver more length to the warp, thus added capability to weave longer fabric.  The backstrap loom is worn by the user.  One end of the warp is tied to a tree or a post, and the working end is strapped around the weaver.  The weaver stands far away from the tree as possible, in order to hold the tension of the warp threads. Set up is fairly quick. Patterns can be woven, if the warp yarns are hand manipulated.

Japanese floor loom in Janelle's studio

Japanese floor loom in Janelle's studio

A floor, or table top, loom offers the weaver even more options.  The heddles and shafts of the loom allow the weaver to create patterns in the textile much quicker than backstrap or frame looms.  Many yards can be woven, which is a plus.  The drawback of these advanced looms however, are in the set up.  Dressing a loom can take hours or days, and could require more tools and equipment to aid the process.  Within floor and table top looms, there are even more options - the number of shafts affect the limitation of patterns that can be created.  Even though a floor or table top loom is advanced technology, weavers who use them are often called “hand weavers”. 

(a side note from Harper...artisan-made textiles are made with the backstrap loom, floor loom, or vertical loom using their hands to manipulate the weft across the warp fabrics to create the cloth)

Machine looms at Cone Mills in NC

Machine looms at Cone Mills in NC

Electric or Power looms are used in factories to create massive amounts of yardage.  This is the highest level of manufacturing.  Electric looms can be operated by actual people who turn on the looms and monitor the weaving, even switching yarn colors to create stripes or patterns.  Electric looms can also be operated by computers, creating complex patterns with many many different yarns and constructions.

So there is an introduction to fabric/textile production from a craft level, to large scale manufacturing. Of course, there are variations, like new technology that can does things like increase speed, create intricate patterns and jacquards. There are even computerized machines that knit whole garments without seems or pieces.  This is just a briefing, but I hope it was a bit informative.

AND now you know! So, the next time you are told a garment has been "loom woven" you'll know better than to buy into the gimmick.  Of course it's loom woven. All fabric is woven on a loom silly!