Academic journal article Human Organization

Alpaca Sweater Design and Marketing: Problems and Prospects for Cooperative Knitting Organizations in Bolivia

Academic journal article Human Organization

Alpaca Sweater Design and Marketing: Problems and Prospects for Cooperative Knitting Organizations in Bolivia

Article excerpt

This article examines aspects of a handknit sweater industry in Bolivia. This industry employs many rural women, and as a result, has attracted funding from development agencies. The focus here is on the dynamics of exporting and marketing Andean handknits. Particular attention is given to grassroots knitting organizations and the problems they face in moving beyond subsidized markets to compete with private entrepreneurs.

Key words: knitting, women's work, craft production, cooperatives, development project funding; Bolivia

"The femininity of crafts lies primarily in the fact that they are essentially time-consuming, provide little income and are not easily upgraded to yield a higher price" (Dhamija 1989:96).

"The key to empowering people lies in confidence and awareness-building and sharing knowledge so that they can take more control over their own lives" (Oxfam Trading 1990:4).

Since the 1960s Cochabamba, Bolivia has become a center for the production of high-quality, handknit alpaca garments through the operations of a number of cooperatives and private businesses. This article explores the limitations which arise from the structural position of indigenous women knitters in the market for high-fashion alpaca handknits. The analysis presented concentrates on the dynamics of exporting and marketing Andean knitwear. Particular attention is given to grassroots knitting organizations and the problems they face in moving beyond subsidized markets to compete with private entrepreneurs. Data for this analysis was collected during field research in Bolivia between 1990 and 1994 and through interviews with individuals in the United States and Bolivia involved in marketing and retailing Andean knitwear and crafts in the U.S.

Knitting Alpaca Sweaters

In the Andes, the seemingly ubiquitous peasant woman sporting a whirling drop spindle, incessantly spinning, is a wellknown fixture in the ethnographic landscape (i.e., Allen 1988: 76). This bucolic image symbolizes a rhythm of daily life increasingly challenged by the reality of contemporary economic and social patterns. In many parts of the Andes, especially in certain towns and peri-urban areas, eternally clicking knitting needles have replaced the spindle in women's hands. Yet, just as the romantic image of a woman spinning may belie the monotony, drudgery and hardship of rural life, the beauty and simplicity of handmade sweaters can mask the harsh and complex reality in which handknits are produced and sold.

In rural Bolivia, as family holdings have diminished in size and productivity through subdivision, over-exploitation, soil erosion and drought, the relative worth of agricultural products has fallen with respect to the cost of manufactured goods and necessary farm inputs. The small amount people are able to produce does not provide sufficient income to be able to afford either the materials necessary to maintain production (fertilizers, seed, pesticides, labor, etc.), nor essentials of modern life (medical care, school uniforms and books, transportation costs, electricity, running water, etc.). To make matters worse, dynamics in the global economy have increased people's "need" for many goods, while simultaneously eroding their ability to satisfy those needs through home production or exchange. This process of impoverishment within the rural sector has been intensified by political-economic processes leaving both the land and people's incomes unable to recover. The need for cash often forces families to sell the things they produce even when there is no surplus, to intensify their production beyond the capacity of their labor and natural resources, or to migrate.

Migration has become so commonplace that in many areas of Cochabamba nearly every household counts members who live or work in Santa Cruz, Argentina or in urban areas (Dandler 1987). Only through migration can households generate the money necessary to continue to engage in agricultural activities at home. …

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