Producer Spotlight: Shupaca

Posted on January 24, 2013 by Alexis Galvez | 0 Comments

Hope everyone is staying warm this chilly winter season! 

Today we're introducing our friends at Shupaca, a husband and wife tandem making beautiful alpaca wool blankets and scarves in Ecuador. We asked Lori to share their story of how design helped reinvigorate a tradition of alpaca wool products and the artisans who make them.

Both you and your husband founded Shupaca. Can you tell me some of the backstory on how you started your company?

Lori: We are both design professionals with trained backgrounds in architecture and share the same passion for creativity and design. When the recession hit in 2008, architecture was one of the first industries to suffer. We took this as an opportunity to backpack across South America, explore different cultures and learn the Spanish language. We were lucky enough to learn the ropes beginning in Ecuador (ironically where we now source a large portion of our products) and finding our way through Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Columbia. In the midst of returning home and our budget completely exhausted, we remembered a great material we had found on our travels... Alpaca! With no background in business we decided to do just that, start a business. Scrounging up money from odd jobs and some help from family we were able to begin the new adventure. We had found another great outlet for utilizing our design skills towards creating modernized fashion and the home textiles products you see today.

Shupaca products are made by skilled artisans in Ecuador using traditional methods of weaving alpaca wool into blankets and clothing. What is the process of extracting, producing, and dying the wool?

The material is created in a similar process as most "wool" products.  The alpacas are sheared once a year which also gives them a chance to cool in the warmer months. The fibers are collected, cleaned and spun into the yarn.  The majority of the colors are natural, produced from plants and local fruits and vegetables. 

How do you employ your artisans? Are there any specific stories you'd like to share about them?

One of our great joys is finding, designing and working with our artisans and growing personal relationships with them.  Our artisans are not technically employees of ours since they have their own businesses, producing various items for sales at South American markets and so forth.  We place orders with them as the demand for product calls for (which has been growing at an exponential rate!).  One story was on our 3rd return to Ecuador, we came to learn that one of the artisan women that we work with was not only pregnant, but days away from giving birth.  They asked Andrew if he could help name the baby, but when they asked Andrew to "help name the baby" (as he had misunderstood their Spanish) they were actually asking if they could name him Andrew. He said no as he wasn't sure how he could help name him.  The boy was born and in traditional Ecuadorian style, the mother was to rest in bed for the first month. We had left to Peru to find more artisans, when we returned a month had past and the baby was named,  "Andres".  We recanted to the story to a close friend of ours from Peru, who quickly pointed out, that not only were we now responsible to the child (as is tradition) being given Andrew's Spanish name, he was more like the godfather! This was a great honor to us and an symbol of respect and emphasized the importance of the relationship we were able to build with them.

How does Shupaca empower employees and what fair trade practices do you follow? 

Create Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized Producers 
The first time I returned to Ecuador to begin sourcing the product I met Fabian. He lived in a house with a mud floor with no electricity or refrigeration and worked from his cousin's house on 1 of the 2 looms they had at the time. Over the years as we have been able to increase our demand for product, and in turn their work load. They now live in a 2 story home and have a workshop with over 8 looms that they own and a team of artisans who are grateful for the work. 

Build Capacity
The success of Shupaca has allowed us to both purchase and/ or finance the buying of numerous looms, surgers and other tools that artisans use to produce the products. This has allowed Fabian and his family to develop production capabilities that afford them work throughout the villages they live, selling a greater number of goods, and generating an income even when our orders have been completed for the time.

Pay Promptly and Fairly
We are often asked "how did you determine a price with the artisan?" The answer to that is we didn't- they told us the price they wanted and we honored their requests. We often also give out bonuses for the well-deserved hard work and help out in any way we can to improve the artisan community as a whole. We have also always paid for product in full prior to its production and strive to improve working conditions and upgrade the tools and machines they need. Our close relationship with our artisans and the years we spent working directly with them, has bonded us with trust and respect.

Support Safe and Empowering Working Conditions 
Currently our artisans work out of their homes, a not only common practice in Ecuador, but actually a local standard. However that is not good enough for us. Our close relationship with the family and the children gives us a great deal of motivation to give them a traditional home environment. We are currently in the process of purchasing property and developing a space for a large workshop, outside of the home, for all the manufacturing to take place (a great opportunity to put our architectural skills back to use!).

Finally, where do you see Shupaca in the next five years?

That's a hard questions as five years ago we were living out of a back pack on a $20 a day budget for two people (though we do feel it was one of the greatest chapters of our lives).  We do see an amazing potential with Shupaca and are going to take it as far as life will let us.  We want to develop a workshop in Ecuador were we can give opportunity to even more artisans though with a communal feeling that is much more than just a workshop.  We want it to be a place for the locals to enjoy with soccer fields, volleyball nets, cooking areas, etc.  We would like to develop a bed and breakfast on site with an Alpaca farm so visitors can see first hand what we are doing and come to appreciate the culture and places that we have been so fortunate to be a part of. 

Thank you so much, Lori, for taking the time to speak with us. We love working with you and your artisans! For more information about Shupaca and to shop their lovely alpaca wool products, click here.

Posted in producer spotlight, Shupaca

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