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Zuahaza: Continuing Organic Textile Production in Rural Colombia

September 16, 2021 30 min read

EPISODE 6 - ZUAHAZA: CONTINUING ORGANIC TEXTILE PRODUCTION IN RURAL COLOMBIA


Michaela from Ocelot Market

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today—one of my first podcast guests braving it with me. I want to ask you for an introduction, for your background and your business just overall. And then please  tell us a little bit about where you're based. 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

I'm based in Colombia. I'm Colombian and Zuahaza is a Colombian business. We work with artisans that are mostly based in the region of Santander. It's a region that's right in the middle of Colombia in the mountains, but we also work with other artisans that are in the northern region of Colombia. And the idea of Zuahaza is really to be able to work with any artisan, any artisan family that wants to join in the family around Colombia.

I grew up in Colombia in the city of Bogotá, the capital. I studied here until high school. And then I had the opportunity to travel, to study and just work mostly in the arts and design. That's kind of my passion and my background. And that led me to study in the U.S. I went to an art school in Maryland that I loved completely. It was an incredible experience because that's where I really kind of fell in love with my craft of textiles. My focus was mostly on weaving and natural dyeing. So I was able to learn just this beautiful craft. And I got really interested in not just making art for a gallery or just making that more fine art, experiential art, but really understanding the culture and the people behind the history of making textiles. That's kind of what's my interest. 

So shortly after school, I had the opportunity to mentor under some incredible women and other enterprises and nonprofits that were already working alongside the creative arts and design and the social work that I was really interested in too. Basically at that time I just was so drawn to how they were able to be creative and work in the creative field, but for a good purpose. I found myself in a difficulty of trying to find or apply even for jobs that probably were great for my resume, but for me as a person, it just didn't really fit working for a big corporation and for big labels and being so detached from where the products were going to be made.

And so that was the main reason that I was kind of really wanting to find that niche area that I found in the social enterprise work. So after shortly working a couple of jobs in the U.S. and in Latin America and Guatemala and Colombia, I decided to start my own business of following that same model of really partnering together with communities that already have this incredible history of craft of making specifically with textiles. But we're at this point where they were located either in an area in their countries where it was extremely difficult to sell their products at a fair price, difficult to access a market and just in general, under-appreciation for their products. And so that was the opportunity that I saw. I've been living in these other countries. I have these contacts, I've already had some little bit of an experience of the international market. And I saw an opportunity there to work with a group of artisans that really wanted to work with me in kind of connecting to those markets basically. So that's how Zuahaza was born. I came back to Colombia and I met an incredible group of artisans and women that are dedicated mostly to weaving cotton and natural dyeing it. So it was kind of like my language as well. So we just got along really well because we spoke that same language of craft and just through conversation of learning a little bit more about their history of where they were at that moment, where I was— they thought it would be an incredible opportunity to just try it out, to try to launch a new line of products mostly for the international market. And it's been almost two years since we started that. And it's been definitely a wild ride.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

I can only imagine. And you produce primarily home textiles. Is that correct? 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

Yes. The focus is home textiles, like soft goods. We’re starting to expand a little bit into other textile fibers that are not as soft as cotton, such as palm fiber and there's this fiber in Colombia called piqué, which is kind of like a hemp type fiber, because a lot of the craft here in Colombia is a lot of the artisans that work with this fiber work mostly for making baskets and rugs and other textile materials that are definitely different from cotton. So we're starting to expand into that area, but it's all textile making basically in different shapes and forms. 

Michaela from Ocelot Market

From reading a little bit on your website, would you say that you were traveling and you stumbled upon this cooperative? Or did you sort of seek them out before going out on your trip?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

When I came back to Colombia, I was away for almost seven years. So I think coming back, my first instinct was really to relearn my country, relearn what it meant to live there. I left very young. I lived only in the main city. So my experience of rural Colombia, my experience of really knowing about the artisan market in Colombia was very little. So I just came to learn. I came to just travel, learn, really see. See it for myself and see what was out there. So with that in hand, I really also together to wanting to find just partners to work with me. I was also trying to find fiber that was as sustainable as I could find in Colombia. This region I learned that was very famous for organic cotton growing back in the day, back in the 1800s, like a long time ago. But sadly with history and it goes through a revolution and all that, all of that dropped. And so there's still some organic cotton farms over there. And that was kind of just all I knew. So through my search to find organic cotton, that's how I actually found them and realized that there was this cooperative of women that had been working for over 30 years, restoring the craft of spinning the organic cotton, making it into yarn, dyeing it with natural plants and all these natural processes. So it was kind of like through the search of the most ideal fiber that I could find in Colombia, I was able to find this group of women that were already doing incredible work for years over there. So it was just an incredible, great circumstance at the right moment, like joining together.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

That's awesome. What is a typical day like for you? It sounds like you're doing everything from marketing to fulfillment or overseeing fulfillment, depending on where that is, I think you ship some items out of the U.S…so what's a typical day like for you? And then I'll ask afterwards how that's changed with the pandemic, if it's changed. 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

I'm definitely wearing a lot of hats. So a typical day would just, it's different depending on the month on production cycles. But to give you an idea, when we have months where we have orders to fulfill and production to be made, and basically just prepping all of that, prepping the lists for the artisans to know how many of this pillow, how many of those throws you need to make. So a lot of prep and a lot of quality control. I do a lot of that prepping. And then some weeks I am literally just looking at pillows, making sure that they have at least the measurement standards and the things that can be standardized, obviously it’s handmade and as you know, not everything's going to be equal, but at least making sure that everything fits our quality control. So sometimes I am literally just picking up little tiny things that come from the natural cotton, like little pieces of leaves and stems.

So sometimes it's like that. Other times it’s my favorite part of my job, which only happens a little bit during the year, which is working alongside the artisans together on new designs and sitting down with them, looking at ideas that they have of different weaves and colors that they've experimented with and sitting together and doing it for a new collection. That's definitely my favorite and they're really busy weeks, but weeks that we get to just work together every day. That happens only maybe twice a year, very intensely, but generally the overall day is just sitting at my computer, making sure that orders are fulfilled. If orders come in, just fulfilling those orders, looking at product quality control over that. And then definitely working with my team, we have a really small team at the moment that starting this year, we were able to start working with two girls that are very part time, like just a few hours a month. But with them it's been incredible because they've been able to take on some of the marketing and some of the sales tasks. So that's been great. That's like definitely having a team to check in at least once a week and giving them some tasks that I'm terrible at. And I'd rather just give to someone else so that I can have more time to design a product, product quality control and all that. So I would say that maybe my focus is mostly QC, the fulfillment and then ideally I would like to focus so much more of my time on design, which is my passion.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

When you work with the artisans and you sit down to design things, how do you figure out or determine what's going to work in the international market versus something that's not going to work? 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

I don't think I'm an expert in international trends or anything like that. I think it's mostly just looking at different ways that we can create new textures, combine new colors that are available to us through the natural dyes that we use and making something that it's a little bit more innovative from what we'd done before. So for example, to give you context, the artisans, they work already with a line of products that they make and sell in their small shop in their town. These products are beautiful, but they're mostly very targeted to local communities and they are more traditional. They don't even do home textiles. They do mostly garments. So they're like this kind of poncho and different types of shirts and pants that are just targeted to that market. So when we decided to do something different, we decided to go mostly into the home textiles part to focus a lot on the textile of the product, making sure that something is as soft as possible.

You want something that looks beautiful, but also obviously feels extremely good to just have on your couch. And that was super important. Like just making sure that whatever we're designing was super soft and high quality. So based on those two things, we just sit down and literally just start looking at different ways that we can weave new patterns in our looms, weaves that are new, like not technically new, but that we are using in a new way combining with new colors possibly that they haven't tried out before. So we try new colors and then we have a general idea of what our global trends are, but I think it's mostly just in the studio. We like to really experiment and try to get something out that is new and that we all like and feel proud and happy of. 

And then the whole, I guess, international market part of the project really comes after the product to really take good pictures, make sure that we're taking pictures that are in context of whatever country we're selling to. So like in Colombia, for example, it's very warm here. We don't have seasons for example. So sometimes we've got to, like our first two collections have been extremely summery and spring, which is great. But now that we're growing and we're trying to have two collections a year, we're trying to start to see how can we market this product that has a very limited color palette, but they can definitely be marketed and taking pictures in a more fall or wintery way. So I think that comes after we design the product. It's mostly just contextualizing it and speaking the same language, I would say, to the people in other countries that have different climates and use different colors or just decorate their homes in a different way from warmer cultures.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yeah, but I could imagine how that would be a very fun part of the process. I wanted to ask you a general question. Why do you think the work you do is important in terms of supporting the indigenous production techniques? Like the handmade techniques that the artisans work with and especially in terms of working with organic cotton, as well as natural dyes and providing work in Colombia. And it's kind of a little bit of a three-part question, I guess.

Tatiana from Zuahaza

Yeah. I mean, I think what drives our work is two things mostly. One is the general passion that we have for craft, general passion that we have for creating. And in working specifically with this community, I've gone to learn that this language of textile making is not just a way of income for them. It's part of their culture, it’s part of their ancestors. It's just part of who they are, to make fabric and to design and to use these looms. So part of it is that just passion to create, to make something just beautiful. To create something meaningful with their hands. 

And then the other part of it, the second, I would say, that is understanding this craft as something that is worth preserving. Obviously we are living in a time where machines and, you know, you can make something exactly the same, probably as our pillows in a machine with different materials and everything to a third of the cost. And we know that. So we are not competing here with price. We're not competing here with volume. We are here having something that drives our work that's more than just over production and consumption and just volume and let's just have a lot of products so that we can create a lot of employment, for example. It's more of the idea of we're making this product as really a piece of artwork that we're trying to sell to our customers. That instead of buying a painting from an artist you're buying a pillow or a throw that was handmade by a woman that has not just mastered this craft for all of her life since she was a child, but she was taught by her grandparents and grandmothers how to weave this fabric perfectly, how to understand the plants and how to take dye out of it.

So you're like taking home something that adds extreme cultural knowledge and value to your home. So that's kind of the more cultural part that I think is extremely important, especially with having so many things that are machine made and a huge focus on, you know, just like exploiting all of our resources and people and everything. I think it is important to preserve that human hand, that humanness, that raw work taking cotton, spinning it by hand, remembering where we come from as humans. So I think that's extremely important to preserve. And then obviously the part of it that is understanding that it also has to be sustainable in a financial way. Like we need to provide jobs, we need to be able to live by making this. So that's kind of the heart of the project is how can we create something that is beautiful, that we market in such a good way that captivates people to really pay thoroughly for it so that we can preserve this for generations.

The majority of the women that work with us are actually older women. And we have only two or three women that are under 25, which is incredible because more women, more young women are coming into the cooperative and wanting to learn and actually dedicate to weaving. But unfortunately like the majority of the youth in this town and in rural Colombia as a whole, they are just wanting to go to the cities, get more opportunities. Completely understanding why. So the idea is how can we show the younger generation that, hey, we can make, not just a living, not just pass by in life, like getting enough to eat, but actually how we can thrive in making these beautiful products and have a good income and encourage the younger generation to take it on. I know that they can live a good life by practicing their craft. That's the goal.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

That's awesome. Can you walk us through how long it might take to make some of the products? Cause I'm curious. I think that's something I often find myself sort of walking through with new customers in terms of the products being handmade, especially the weaving techniques used. It can take quite a long time, like a pair of shoes might take a day or more if it’s complex versus being able to output hundreds per day. Like a square pillow on your couch, how about that or a throw, do you have a general sort of sense of how long it takes?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

So let's say that for a pillow, for example, we need to understand that a pillow is woven on this loom. It's like a big machine where you just weave fabric. To weave one pillow you obviously, you need to weave more fabric for your time to be worth spending all of that energy and putting every single thread through the loom. So for example, you have over a thousand little threads that you have one by one to thread through the machine so that everything is kind of set in place, so when the weaver comes, that's when the yarns come up and down. So to be able to weave one pillow you really need to prepare your loom for multiple yards of fabric so that the pillow actually does not end up being expensive in terms of time consuming. 

So prepping the loom, I call that step, preparing the loom. Depending on how big the loom is, if you're [using] the standard loom that we use that are around 1.5 centimeters wide, that can take up to at least two and a half to three full work days. So from like 8:00 AM to like 5:00 PM, because of all of the threads that you have to just work through. And that's one person. Generally, there's another person helping, you can halve that time into at least one and a half days, but it’s 12 to 18 hours of just passing threads through the machine to prepare it to weave and that's not even weaving it. Then weaving it, it depends on how complex the design is, but the weaving part is actually faster than prepping the loom.

So I would say weaving, I don’t know, maybe a meter or two of fabric can take up to--only depending on how complex the weave is--one and half to two hours, maybe. It goes a little faster than prepping it. Then after that you have to cut the fabric and wash it and dry it. So if it's a lot of yardage, obviously that can take up to two days because you have to air dry everything too. And then once that's done, we cut the fabric and then we make it into a pillow. So the sewing is obviously pretty simple. So sewing is maybe max an hour of sewing into a pillow. But yeah, let's say it's a general average of maybe a week to weave, not just one pillow, maybe multiple pillows at the same time weaving it. But it's an average if we're working on it all the time, every day. So it is pretty complex and that's just the making side of the actual fabric. Obviously there's all this while they're prepping that we do design wise, making sure that the weave is functional, durable. So there's just all this other time that we don't really talk about or account for, but the actual making of it can just be at least a month of prepping everything to have a really good quality woven pillow or throw.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

It doesn't even include imagery, and afterward, trying to just get it ready for shipment. Wow. Pivoting back to what we were talking about before in terms of the women you work with, how have you seen your work impact the women artisans who you work with?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

We have, say a year and a half out in the market. So let's say we started working on samples and the project back in early 2019, but we didn't start really to sell our products until November 2019. That's when we started, right before the pandemic. Definitely those first months were crazy as a new brand getting out and, you know, just making a really small stock, trying and testing everything out and then the pandemic hitting. So the first, let's say, six to eight months were extremely difficult, really hard to really see if the project was going to function and especially with all of the difficulties around us and being such a new brand and trying to get out there with all the other loudness around us. So that was really difficult. But then let's say about a year ago, like in July and August, we started to see so much more consistency, so much consistency of orders coming in, more boutiques and stores finding us and placing orders.

And so let's say that from a year to date, we've definitely had at least like our main goal was to have at least a monthly income, monthly production for the artisans, more work. And that has been happening, which is incredible. We are really happy that we're able to just organize our orders on a monthly basis. I send them the production list and they can work on it together with obviously designing new products and new things. And we see the production list just increasing in number every month. So that's been incredible to see from my side. Talking with that, we do always kind of try to do quarterly checkups, just talk with the team in general, see how it's going. If we should change things or what, just in general checkup. They've definitely expressed how happy they are to be able to work on a project that has consistency for them.

Because I think that the hardest thing for them before was that inconsistency. They live in a small, small town that is not really that touristic, drives very little tourism and the tourism that it drives is just local tourism that generally won't spend all their money on a throw or a beautiful pillow. So they would rely on art fairs that they would go to, to the main cities once or twice a year. Those would cost so much money just to even go. And yeah, they said it was worth it to go at the end. They would make enough sales to offset the cost of going, but it was just so much work just for that one event. And then there were months of the year that were just completely silent and with the pandemic on top of that was even worse. So for them, we're happy to have consistency of work. We're happy to have something to work on every month. And there's months that we're even tired, cause it's so much work to do, which is awesome. And we're starting to talk about those growth pains of, okay, if there's so much work, we need to start figuring out a way that you're not burning out, which is another problem in itself. But that consistency has been an incredible thing to see in one year.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

That's great. What does a typical day look like for an artisan woman who works with you? Does she live near where the production site is? More just trying to wonder in terms of how they incorporate time off and what does a typical day look like?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

So they all live in a town that is pretty small and they will live either inside the town or very, very close by. And a typical work day would be, they all have different schedules. Some of them will come in earlier or later because a lot of them would help out with other tasks, not just as mothers in their families, because this is a region that is very agricultural. So they have coffee growing, cotton growing. So a lot of them, depending on the season [say], “I have so much work to do in the field. We have to pick all this coffee. So I can't come in this next two days.” So, you know, it just depends on what else they are involved in. But generally they would come in the morning and they work on different projects. So for example, we are doing a partnership with them, we’re sister companies or sister organizations, let's say it that way, but they do also have their other clients that they work with.

And this is amazing because it keeps things flowing. There's probably months that we have very little orders, so they have other orders coming in. So it's really great that they are independent and making sure that they are organizing their time and have production coming in from different sources. So yeah, they would basically just work on whatever production is ready for the month. But there's not really a hierarchy with them. Like there are artisans that work with maybe design machines and others that are more in the weaving or in the dyeing, but all of them kind of step in when one is not there. It's like, okay, well, no one's here, we've got fabric and we need to finish it. So I'll go and weave it. So it's really nice because it's very community oriented, it's very much let's all work together in this.

They'll always take like three coffee breaks. It's super important to have your coffee break. So we sit down, have our coffee break. They have a little time of gossiping about the town and you know, it's like the best to be there and just witness this really fun dynamic that they have there. And then a lot of them would leave. Actually they generally have at least a two hour lunch break because they have to go home and make lunch for the whole family, come back. And then when they come back, they continue to work on whatever projects there are in that moment and then close around, like maybe 6:00 PM. So they have really full days of work, but it's amazing to see that they incorporate all of their cultural aspects into their workday. They arrive at a certain hour because they were picking at cotton or coffee super early in the morning. They leave like a chunk, a big chunk of time in the afternoon because they need to go and help out with the family tasks. So it's really working within their rhythms, which is something that I've loved to learn coming from a city coming, you know, from the busy-ness of just work all day and your computer, like you eat lunch at your laptop kind of style. It's just been a privilege to really see them work within their other really important tasks in their lives. 

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yeah. That's great that they're able to incorporate everything in terms of their familial needs. I also imagine that they have amazing coffee because it's so fresh. I could imagine wanting to drink it. So I guess the obvious question that I haven't asked you is how has the pandemic impacted the business? And I guess in the area you work in, have there been lockdowns?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

So yeah, the pandemic has been very intense. Last year, Colombia had one of the strictest lockdowns in Latin America. So from March till September things inside the country were completely locked down. Obviously there was this maybe from July on, they started to allow certain businesses to open, certain things to operate. So there was a gradual opening, but like the actual lockdown itself was from March til September. And so yeah, like travel wise, that was the hardest part because the main roads that connect every city and town were completely closed. You couldn't go. You had to go if you have permits or if you worked in the medical field or whatever. There were some exceptions, but unless you were not in those exceptions, it was not like, “hey, I have to go work with my team.” It's like, “no, sorry, you can't.”

So that was one of the hardest things, that we couldn't work together. We couldn't see each other. We had to kind of just try to figure it out all through pictures and things and which is doable. But I think our model is very much a sit together, talk through things like work together as a team. So that was really difficult for our last collection to just have that kind of soul of let's sit together and do this together. So that was one difficulty. Another difficulty that they experienced specifically was that for the first month and a half in Colombia, it was really difficult, like really, really hard lockdown. So no one could open their offices, nothing. Their workshop had to be completely closed. So they weren't able to fulfill orders for other clients; other clients didn't pay them. So they didn't have any monthly income for two months. That was really, really hard. So we, as a team just kind of had to pivot really quickly, see what we had in stock. Thankfully, we had some stock in the U.S. ready to ship so we didn't have to struggle because we didn't have production.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Is your production back up and running ? I will say that the news from Colombia is definitely saying that you guys are getting hit hard by COVID.

Tatiana from Zuahaza

A year ago it was more difficult because of the lockdown I would say. But then we were able to figure out different ways to just sell our inventory, just to buy groceries and basic things. So that's kind of like in the beginning of the pandemic, then once things were opened and they were able to go back to their workshop, the production part was kind of fixed in many ways. But yeah, there's been kind of gradual lockdowns. So economically Colombia, a lot of businesses, small businesses, and just economically it's been really hit hard already with a very difficult political situation that was very unstable. So that has brought a lot of protests and a lot of political instability. So that means that roads again have been closed, but just because there's protests or strikes, like they don't let anyone pass because there's a massive truck blocking everything.

So we are seeing more of the repercussions, like all of the things that last year are created now with just extreme poverty and a lot of people just not having work a lot of the time. Just not good responses from part of our government to really help. So we're kind of seeing that now. And therefore a lot of the main cities are not wanting to put a strict lockdown like last time, because we just can't afford it anymore. We can't just close everything, but that is increasing COVID cases. And we don't have obviously, you know, vaccines or all of this, you know, vaccines to start vaccinating everyone immediately. So now we're seeing a lot of COVID cases, death toll rising. So right now we're in the third wave, like really, really difficult third wave. All COVID but with no lockdown. So it's kind of like everyone just figure it out, like do whatever you can to just live. And I don't know. So it's a mess right now because there's kind of no structure of nothing. Like everyone's going to businesses, just putting their masks on being as clean as possible, but it's a tricky situation. There's not really right or wrong right now. It's mostly like, we're just kind of trying to survive it as we get more vaccines slowly.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Have you seen this impact at all on your ability to ship out of the country? 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

With the protests, we had a month and a half of delays because products couldn't arrive to the main city. So the airport is working fine, but everything needs to get to the main city and things were not arriving to the main city. So that definitely has caused difficulties in fulfilling orders on time. Like for example, seeing it on the other side, part of our cotton, we use cotton from Colombia, but we also use cotton from Peru. We have some partners, artisan partners in Lima that help us with organic cotton because the quantities of cotton here are not enough, basically. It's just very small. Yeah. So dealing with imports right now with COVID is also a mess in Latin America as a whole, like COVID has had different impacts, but in Peru with the organic cotton industry, it has impacted them a lot. The prices are rising. There's not as much. So obviously that delays us in making our product. So it's kind of like a wheel of different things affecting each other.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yes. With this type of business, do you find that the best approach is to sort of just communicate that with the customers and that they're generally understanding?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

Yes. We have been so thankful for every client that has had delays either a direct to customer that was expecting something and they had to wait for two weeks or a wholesale client that placed a big order and we couldn't finish it on time or something. So everything, everyone's been incredibly patient and understanding, which is just the best for us. Right now our job is to be as transparent and communicate as often as possible because it's just circumstances that are completely out of anyone's control. All we can do is to really tell it, “Hey, this is happening.” And I know the realities of COVID are so different in different countries now. So sometimes if I'm not communicating, “Hey, like in Colombia, this is happening right now. So that's why we cannot send this at this time.” It's easier for them to be like, “oh, okay. Like I understand that.” Because if I just say, “Hey, this is delayed” or I don't say anything it's like, I don't want to assume that someone in Germany is understanding everything going on in Colombia. I have to be extra, like more communicative and extra transparent I would say this time.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yeah, for sure. I have two final questions for you. And then I promise I'll let you go.

Overall, starting a business like this, where you’re starting from scratch and shipping and trying to get into the international market, did you face any major challenges in terms of launching in the U.S. where you run into, for example, Amazon expectations? Or just in general, any challenges in launching in the U.S., even just explaining sort of how the products are made?

Tatiana from Zuahaza

Yeah, no, for sure. I think definitely we had to think about who we were selling to, and knowing that in the U.S. there's this crazy efficiency that does not exist here and understand that that's kind of what people are used to. And so they're used to that. We need to be, obviously on our part, try to be as efficient as we can, like in responsible ways--that we can ship things on time and on a timely manner, just fulfill orders and have just kind of the standardized times that we can communicate, but then also educate our clients on, “Hey, this is our story. This is this, this is our products made all the way in this other part of the world. And these are products that, as I explained, just take all of this time just to have one thing,.” Kind of all of that back story, make sure that’s on our website, that it is on our hang tags, that it's literally everywhere.

So we're able to just let people know what we're doing. It's more when you choose to buy from us, you're not, you're choosing to not buy something from Amazon because you need it now because you need a quick gift that cost you nothing. Like just very, very quick buy to get out of a problem that you're facing in terms of getting something quick. You choose to buy from us because part of it is the product. And, you know, you probably liked the picture that you saw online, but it's also the story. It's that you're actually investing in someone's family and in this country, in employment and all of that. And with that, it just means that you have to be a little bit more understanding in terms of time and that we will ship things probably between, if it is in our warehouse, between three to five days, also knowing that we're tiny and, you know, like we're all wearing [many] hats. And so I can't be fulfilling orders every five minutes of the day. Like I need to do other things. So maybe I'll take a little bit longer than normal if there's a product that we clearly state on the website, “Hey, this is a really large rug. We don't have 50 of these because it costs us a lot to just store them. So we need to make them once you place your order, we'll make it, that takes, you know, maybe a month or two.” So we just have to communicate as much as possible. All of those things and slowly educate the client that these handmade products are not just stored in a random warehouse in Amazon, like you said. My thing is also time and going against our efficiency culture.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Do you find that your international clients are receptive to the made to order aspect of the rugs? And they sort of just go into this knowing that it's going to take a little more time? 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

I would say that, yes. Like we have had, obviously, they're like larger items. They're a little bit more expensive, so we don't have as many orders of these ones, but we've definitely had orders on our rugs and people waiting like a month to receive them. So that is good. We know that made to order is not the ideal time for everything, cause sometimes you just, and me as a consumer, I sometimes just really need a gift in two weeks. I need to get it soon. So it's not ideal for everything, but we just try our best. For example, with the fabric, as I said, if we are going to make one pillow, we can make five pillows. So in that way we can store some inventory that it's not difficult for us. But a rug which is a more expensive item, in that way we just try to explain that. These are just more delicate, expensive items that we just can't afford to have five of these in storage. So in that way, I think people have understood this and they have bought from us made to order, which has been an experiment because it's kind of going against the “get it quick.”

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yeah. It's been a really challenging thing for us to crack. We’re reached out to by a lot of artisans and I do have a lot of brands that I know will produce amazing products, but they're made to order. And I've just found it's very hard. I think when you do a better job, like you're saying, putting it in your face that it's made to order, it’s just much more like “you are not going to get those tomorrow.”

So my final question for you, and then I promise I'll let you go, is just if someone wants to start a similar business, not necessarily in textiles, how would you recommend they sort of go about finding the right production partner? Would you recommend they go visit? Would you recommend starting just with Google? How would you recommend they find the right makers? 

Tatiana from Zuahaza

It depends so much. And where you're at. I had a great foot in the door in terms of that I'm from this country and I moved back here. So for me, you know, traveling in a car just a couple hours away from the city, it was pretty quick and simple and so much easier because people are still way more used to here to instead of sending messages or putting up websites, they're more used to, “Hey, like visit us here and we'll meet.” So one of the things with the handmade market or just artisan world is that people don't, I mean, it's not that they don't have websites, but the majority of them don't have websites. The majority of them are not going to tell you this beautiful, crafted story online. So it's really difficult to find producers online.

You obviously can find them. But I think a lot of the incredible small cooperatives, the small artisan families don't even have an online presence. They just build relationships locally and you work with them. And meeting them face to face is kind of like the best way to go about it. Obviously that requires getting to, first of all, the country that you're really wanting to work in and spending the time getting to know them. So, yeah, I mean, it's difficult, but I would say that if people have really the heart to work in this sector, I would say really invest in that first trip or experience of connecting face-to-face. Not just for you to obviously know, oh, these are the conditions of the place that I'm going to. This is how they're living and understanding really where products are made and seeing that in real life, but also for the artisans when you make the effort to go all the way there and to say hi, like I want to work with you it's really, really respectful for them. And they actually really appreciate that people came all the way there because they heard about this craft in this town and they want to see if they want to work together. 

So I think those first meetings are really meaningful and that would really help you build a good strong foundation. Obviously setting up the whole business is really difficult as a whole and has like a lot of little, tiny little things in there. But if I reflect on our journey, that is being really short. But that year I spent eight months being in Colombia going to different parts, meeting different people that were great, but were not a good fit. Just all of those things it's completely worth it because I'm so happy with the team that I have now, that we met, that we were able to just be face to face, be together. And it's really hard to get that when you try to just look online or try to email someone. You might get a good foot in the door and a good start to maybe go travel and see them eventually. That would just be my suggestion. I know it's difficult and hard and people can't really, you know, go ahead and do this crazy trip somewhere all the time. But if you can, I think just those face-to-face moments and meetings are truly incredible to really help you, not just create those relationships, but it really helps you with your meaning behind your business. Like these are the people that are going to be working with you. So you want to meet them.

Michaela from Ocelot Market

That's a good recommendation. And recommending to travel is never bad.

Tatiana from Zuahaza

People going into this sector generally like travel. So I don't think it's like, “ugh, I've got to do this.”

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yeah. I've definitely heard the recommendation in terms of your example before that the production partner you have goes to craft fairs. I definitely found myself when I was traveling in Mexico a couple of years ago [at art fairs you] stop and ask them, “do you make yourself” and sort of just start even there.

Tatiana from Zuahaza

Like if you're here in Colombia, you've no idea where to find people, how to connect with them. So we have some really good art fairs that are once a year, big art fairs. People come from all over the country and the world. And that's a really good way of just at least meeting them somewhere instead of having to figure out like, oh, they live in the Amazon, so I don't know how to get there. 

Michaela from Ocelot Market

Yeah. And traveling. Cause you don't know what you don't know too, in terms of there could be amazing parts of the world you've never heard of that you'll find the best production partner. Well, thank you very much for taking the time!

SHOP ZUAHAZA