Written 1996


sweater solutions
 The Tejedoras of Zhidmad

     by Ethan Adelman
     Wednesday, August 28, 1996

     The women of Zhidmad face the same problem as many women in the Southern highlands of Ecuador. Plagued by poverty and barren mountain farmland, huge numbers of men from this region have migrated north to larger Ecuadorian cities, Mexico and the US in search of work. Left behind are the women, who in addition to raising their families alone, must also assume the economic responsibility for the family. Unfortunately, few employment opportunities for women exist in this once male dominated area. The massive migration has created a new economic challenge as well as a desparate need for new economic solutions.

tejedora of Zhidmad
knitting a sweater
     Many of the women of Zhidmad, who call themselves tejedoras, or knitters, were trying to make a living by making sweaters. But limited to low quality resources and unfamiliar with popular styles, they had trouble making enough to survive. On average the women produced one or two sweaters a week, selling each for about 75 cents.

     An organization called Ayuda en Accion, along with the Fundacion Esquel de Ecuador, found a solution for three hundred of these tejedoras. Ayuda en Accion and Esquel helped organize the sweater makers into a cooperative, created workshops where they could improve their craft, constructed a wool factory and set up a store in Cuenca to sell the sweaters. Once organized, the tejedoras organized themselves under the name Indigenous Designs, and quickly produced higher quality sweaters in marketable styles.

a teacher in a workshop
for tejedoras
     One reason for the improvement in quality is the knitting workshops where women learn about popular styles and new knitting techniques. Although they have knitted their entire lives, the tejedoras are open to learning how to improve their art. After talking with commercial consultants, the tejedoras are more familiar with what type of sweaters will sell in US markets and how much they can expect to receive for them.

     In addition to the workshops, the opening of the wool factory has also been a major catalyst in the improvement of quality. Through funding, technical assistance and commercial consultation, the Fundacion Esquel helped construct a wool factory, called Empresa Hilandera Zhidmad, where better quality wool could be produced and distributed to the tejedoras for lower prices. Here wool is cleaned, treated, spun and dyed.

wet wool hanging to dry

     Esquel's contribution to the tejedoras of Zhidmad is an example of their commitment to improving the lives of Ecuadorian women. Esquel not only wants to create a thriving sweater industry for the
Natacha Reyes, coordinator of
gender areas for esquel,
talking with the tejedoras
tejedoras, but also improve their decision making capacity and self esteem. According to Natacha Reyes, coordinator of gender areas for Esquel, the work of these women is more important than many of them realize.

     "When you make a sweater," said Natacha to a gathering of sweatermakers, "you give a peace of your life to the world. These are not just sweaters, they are pieces of you, pieces of Zhidmad and pieces of Ecuador, for the entire world to see. You should be very proud of what you are producing."

     In addition to selling their sweaters in a store in Cuenca, the sweaters of Indigenous Designs have also made it to US markets. Along with insuring the survival of their families, Esquel and Ayuda en Accion have introduced these women to new global networks that put power in their hands by eliminating exploitative middlemen. It is another way in which Esquel is working towards improving the lives of Ecuadorian women. Although the image of an old women knitting may not evoke thoughts of valiant triumphs, the tejedoras of Zhidmad have made great progress. In their eyes and their smiles you can see a sense of newfound pride and confidence.

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Written 1996