Artisans On A Mission To Bring Unity To Colombia
Tatiana Ordoñez founded Zuahaza in 2019 in Bogota, Colombia. She tells us the story behind her business Zuahaza, an artisanal collective making gorgeous textiles.
Tell us a bit about Zuahaza and how you started? Zuahaza is an artisanal collective dedicated to creating sustainable employment opportunities for Colombian artisan communities by revitalising traditional crafts through a soulful collaboration of mutual knowledge exchange. In 2018, I made a trip to Charalá to learn about the rich history of cotton growing, spinning and weaving in this region. During my trip, I met with Corpolienzo, a cooperative of artisans. On the trip, we decided to create a new line of textiles, born of the artisans’ extensive knowledge and of my desire to share creative, innovative textiles with the global market. I then founded the brand in 2019 in Bogota, Colombia.
We love the name Zuahaza, what is the story behind it? Zuahaza means “my sister” in the Muisca language of the people who lived in the Cundiboyacense mountain region of Colombia. As a social enterprise, Zuahaza strives to embody collective sisterhood between women in Colombia.
Following an era of intense conflict, which continues to shape and affect Colombia today, Zuahaza seeks to participate in the peacemaking efforts to reunite and heal our country. Zuahaza strives to connect women from across Colombia, and to create unique products that reflect our diversity, history and dreams as statements of the unity and peace to come from Colombia. This is what sisterhood means to us.
What have been some of the milestone moments since starting Zuahaza? Milestone moments will definitely be meeting the artisan cooperative I currently work with. I came back to Colombia with nothing, no job and no idea of where to start. I decided to start travelling to different regions that were well known for their crafts. After meeting with multiple communities and truly wanting to find the right people to collaborate with, I met the cooperative of weavers of Santander. We immediately connected. In our values, in their dreams and mine. We were a great fit to work together.
Craftsmanship and sustainability are at the core of Zuahaza. Tatiana shares how she preserves traditional practices while including technology to support her business.
How do you select the natural dyes and organic fibres? It was all part of the artisan cooperative’s cultural background. When I started to look for an ideal sustainable option, I thought of sourcing organic cotton. That is exactly how I found the artisan group I currently work with. They have a long history of harvesting, spinning and weaving with their local organic cotton and dyeing it with local plants. Their indigenous ancestors were masters in using this material and a dream of the cooperative is to go back to harvesting cotton organically and revitalizing the art of dyeing with natural dyes.
Do you feel craftsmanship is being lost in local communities around the world? What can people do to keep traditions alive? Yes, completely. Our industrialised world has made products at a faster and cheaper rate than humans could ever compete with. This has caused many traditional craft techniques to disappear and cultural knowledge has been lost as well. However, I do see an increased interest from younger generations to preserve important cultural traditions, and that includes craft. Support it! Buying a traditional textile or ceramic piece from a community that has been making these for centuries is a privilege. When I purchase something that is handmade, I see it as investing in an art piece. It might not be as cheap, but it definitely has an added value to it that no machine made object can ever create, that is the human imprint.
You mention craft and technology working hand in hand, how do you harness the best of both in the products you create? We know the complexities of working in the 21st century and dedicating ourselves to preserve traditions that seem working against technology. We actually believe that technology is a great way to preserve traditions. The handloom is already a man-made machine artisans have relied on for centuries to make fabric. The spinning machine is also a great technology that has made the hand spinning process of yarn faster and saved hundreds of hours. So, we think it is necessary to keep up with basic technology to make sure we can still compete in the business world without losing the essence of the human hand. If there is a tool that is easy to use and will help us dedicate more time designing and making our goods at a higher quality, we think it is worth investing in it. When the machine starts replacing the craftsman/woman work, that is when we know there is a limit we will never cross.
Along with craftsmanship, sustainability seems important to you and your brand - how do you keep this at the core? For our team, sustainability comes hand in hand with caring for each other. After caring for our team, we make it our priority to care for the environment. This means every decision we make is guided by sustainable principles. For example, we invest in materials and dyes that are 100% biodegradable and are long lasting. When your product is at the end of its life cycle you can basically send the entire fabric to the compost. We also have found that these organic practices use less natural resources than regular cotton crops, saving water and energy during its production phase. We also design all our products with minimum waste in mind. Meaning we try our best to have the least amount of textile scraps. With the scraps that we do end up with, we design smaller accessories like pouches and clutches (coming super soon to our store!) Making it a circular design model.
What learnings can you share so other brands/people can better adapt sustainable practices? For brands, I think is looking at your current production and materials and starting with one thing at a time. Practicing sustainability is difficult and there is no perfect fiber, or perfect production that aligns with every brand's budget. So, set some initial goals and work towards it slowly. Are your fibers natural or synthetic? Make that change if possible, or look for recycled options, if using synthetics is important for your product. Are you wasting tons of scraps in the production phase? Start designing from the beginning to cut out that waste! Alter your silhouettes or sizes to accommodate less waste.
Tatiana of Zuahaza shares her experience of living abroad and coming back to her roots, as well as advice and support she has received along the way.
Tell us about who supports and inspires you. My family and my faith have always been pillars of inspiration and support. My family has never doubted my dreams even though you can tell I am not the ideal “business” woman to be running a business. I think they believe that my intentions and goals are greater for a business, than having all the skills to get the numbers working properly.
What is some of the best advice you have ever received? The best advice I have received from my husband is, don’t compare your business. Ever. He says, you are right where you should be, working alongside other women and starting something special. Don’t let what others are doing make you feel less or not successful. Success is not measured by numbers and sales. Maybe to some, but for me success is creating something genuine, a space where we are working towards integrity for real change.
How do you get inspiration for your designs & collections? My country. My country is my main inspiration. I have always loved the diversity of Colombia. We have deserts, mountains, oceans and jungles. We have so many flavors that grow year round. We have people from so many ethnic backgrounds bringing unique flavors and music to our culture. I love taking what Colombia means to me and translating it into fabrics and abstract weavings of color. To me, Colombia is passion, joy, colorful landscapes and cultures. My designs tend to always emulate that joy through texture and color.
How has your experience of working in the US & Latin America influenced you and your brand? A lot! I grew up in Colombia and then moved to the US for college. Then I worked in Guatemala for a year before coming back to Colombia. Being able to live in another country and experience other cultures is one of the greatest gifts God has given me. I think I was able to learn to see my life and culture from a different perspective and that actually gave me the push to come back and invest in my country. Many people leave Colombia because it is a difficult place to live, there is conflict and little order. That was my experience growing up.
Then you live in another country and you start appreciating what you have and never saw. We live in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. We have two oceans, and the Amazon jungle. We also have the Andes mountains and a coastal desert. We have fruits and vegetables growing year round. We have some of the most delicious coffee and cacao in the world. I never appreciated that until I moved to a country where these things were rare. Living abroad opened my eyes to see the beauty of my country. I decided to come back and invest here because I want to tell the whole world about how precious my country and its people are.