Soon after we arrived in Bolivia we met Diane Bellomy. Diane’s work was very interesting to me since she owns a Fair Trade business called Artesania Sorata, producing and selling hand dyed and handmade alpaca clothing, accessories and home wares that are generally made by women. Here in La Paz there are very few places that sell genuinely handmade, genuinely Bolivian or genuinely Fair Trade alpaca wear, despite the numerous shops in the tourist street Calle Sagarnaga claiming some of these. So, before long I started volunteering unofficially around 3-4 days a week, for around a year. During this time I met many of the women working for Diane, learnt their stories, deepened my understanding of Fair Trade and helped organise a few aspects of Artesania Sorata.
Diane is the only Bolivian Story we’ll post of a non-Bolivian. She’s American, but she’s been in Bolivia for over 35 years, working with and for Bolivians. In 1977, disillusioned and unsatisfied on some level with the political, economic, and cultural realities of the United States, Diane was drawn to the indigenous cultures of South America. In 1978 after settling in the village of Sorata, and making friends with the local Aymara [the indigenous peoples in the altiplano and valleys of northern Bolivia] she realised that many of the ladies there were in need of income, basic skills and support systems. From humble beginnings, of a few cholitas [indigenous women wearing traditional clothing] making rag dolls and the village children making pictures from fabric scraps, a handcrafts group, Artesania Sorata, was created.
Diane was driven by some very core values. She feels everyone should have a right to provide basics to their families – education, nutritious diet, good health care, etc. Here, especially in rural areas, people may wish for these things but usually they don’t have the opportunity to make them real in their lives. In both rural and urban areas of Bolivia, despite hard work a family can’t always provide sufficient income to properly nourish, educate and provide medical care.
Artesania Sorata supports the empowerment of women and the vulnerable, focusing on those living in poverty and with disabilities. They are a firm supporter of indigenous identity and the value of living a sustainable lifestyle close to nature. By helping the women of the family create extra income, Artesania Sorata creates opportunities to be creative and productive, empowering these women whose abilities are often denied their true value in today’s society. The artisans enjoy being part of Artesania Sorata because it allows them to work from home and be there for their children. They feel it improves their lives to have their own money also. Positive change for these women is very much linked to being able to knit, sew or weave at home and take care of their children while earning a living wage for their work. When mum is at home their children are less at risk of abuse and exploitation. The mother-child connection is so strong that every artisan I have spoken with mentions their children as their reason for working. The flow on effect is huge! These women, who perhaps didn’t have the opportunity to finish their own schooling, are now able to provide a better education for their children than was available to them when they were young. It has been shown time and time again that empowering women by providing opportunities for women and girls through education, health, and access to jobs and financing is the best way to reduce poverty and increase economic development, creating invaluable benefits that ripple throughout an entire community.
At Artesania Sorata the artisans create textile art in the form of dolls, cloth pictures, homewares and alpaca clothing using traditional skills of natural dying as well as hand weaving, hand spinning and hand knitting. By using the traditional methods of production Diane provides income to an increased number of people but also encourages value in traditional native skills. She says she has found that “artisans flourish and develop skills and creativity” this way. The artisans are inspired by their daily lives but also use their creativity to give voice to struggles on poverty, migration and the search for greater opportunities. Their textiles represent expressions, statements, visions and dreams.
Textiles have always been an important part of Bolivian tradition. Since childhood the Aymara learn to tend sheep and alpaca, spin, weave and dye yarn to make their clothing, blankets and ‘carrying cloths’.
“In this changing world their Aymara traditions have been falling into disuse in their search for identity in a culture superimposed upon them. In order to revive their traditional techniques and express their personal creativity while generating income for their families, the artisans of Artesania Sorata are working together to present their artistic interpretations to the world”.
Over the years the artisans have deepened their understanding as to why this kind of work is important too, especially as they see positive change in a very practical and meaningful way. It has been proven many times that women involved in fair trade work have better access to health care, job rights and freedom from harassment. Not only does Artesania Sorata provide income, but has helped in providing other forms of life skills. Diane realised shortly after she began working with the Sorata artisans that most of the women she was working with hadn’t had the opportunity to go to school, therefore didn’t know how to read and write – so she started providing literacy classes. She also organised for a nurse to come and address various health issues – from sexual health to respiratory illnesses and intestinal problems. More recently, the focus has shifted more towards families and children with disabilities as that’s an area where there is very little support in Bolivia. Diane says “it feels so right to be able to bring something from the modern world [hearing aids] and help people here have a more productive life”.
During my time volunteering for Artesania Sorata I decided to help Diane market her products by organising a photo shoot, styling her products in more modern ways. A friend, Elaine Santana, agreed to collaborate with me by taking some of the photos. I managed to convince volunteers to model for us in the streets of La Paz! Below are just some of the images we achieved.
If you would like to see more from our photo shoot here are the links to the ‘fashion’ look book and the ‘homewares’ look book. Here’s a sneak preview of the homewares…
The fibres used by all the artisans at Artesania Sorata are dyed by hand using traditional and natural ingredients. The years of experimentation have resulted in a wealth of knowledge and range of colours they are very proud of. The natural dyes used are kinder on the environment and ultimately kinder on the skin of the wearer. Working this way is a beautiful process of adapting to the ever shifting seasons and learning to work with the earth in a non-harmful way. The experience itself of gathering the leaves, seedpods or plants and cooking them to extract their colours is something very close to magic. Artesania Sorata produces rich browns from walnut leaves, yellows from onion skins, purples to violent reds from cochineal [a beetle that feeds on the red fruit on cactus here] and shades of vibrant greens from carrot tops and eucalyptus.
I became fascinated with the natural dying processes and materials that they use at Artesania Sorata. I decided that if I was backpacking through La Paz, visiting Artesania Sorata’s workshop, meeting the artisans and learning about natural dying is something I would love to do. For this reason, I put together a tourism concept for Diane which we trialed with some friends who were visiting La Paz. Below is the video that I created about this. The tour is yet to be a regular event but I still believe it would be a wonderful way to generate a little extra income whilst giving tourists a more authentic and personal experience in this chaotic city.
Working at Artesania Sorata really deepened my understanding of Fair Trade. Diane believes that Fair Trade is a philosophy that can create lasting change and is not just a cliché. “The only way that we can have a peaceful and sustainable planet is to think each act of production and purchasing through and make educated decisions based on the ideals that give us the satisfaction that we are making responsible decisions with each act, no matter how insignificant it may seem.”
As I’ve learnt more about Fair Trade it has become clear that it’s not just your individuality that suffers when you aren’t conscientious about what you buy… cheap clothing and items mean you don’t always know where they are made, who made them and under what conditions they were produced. I’d like everyone to think about this more and I’d like to share the Fair Trade principles with you to think about too.
Whilst Artesania Sorata is an accomplishment in itself, Diane hasn’t stopped there. She has also helped children with disabilities, especially those with hearing loss. Together with a state program she organised a campaign to identify children with hearing loss who were in need of hearing aids and educational opportunities. With the help of volunteers, Diane raised funds to provide transport for children with hearing loss to the only school in La Paz with teachers trained in sign language. They also made contacts with organisations to provide donations of hearing aids for these children. Artesania Sorata continued to help this population in many ways, including raising funds for signing interpreters, enabling deaf and hard-of-hearing students to attend regular high school. Diane has also arranged for international professionals specialised in these areas, to volunteer.
During my time with Diane I also made her facebook page more active, took numerous photos of products, added her to Trip Advisor, put together a database of customers linked to a newsletter, completely updated her pricelists with photos and helped in whatever ways I could in designing new products, rearranging the stores and generally supporting her with her work. We are beginnig to see the results of my efforts, yet business in La Paz has become difficult. It’s hard to compete with the Peruvian, machine made, alpaca-synthetic blended items that line the street on either side of Artesania Sorata. Fair trade products are more expensive and often the fast-moving tourist does not easily distinguish between factory made souvenirs and a labour of love and values. Diane has struggled as of late to maintain financially, which is unfortunate given the wonderful work she does to support local woman and children. I encourage you to help the valuable work that Diane has dedicated a lifetime to here in Bolivia.
You can do this by passing the word about Artesania Sorata to visitors to Bolivia or businesses who might be interested in acquiring the unique products that are made by the artisans who work with Diane. Also you can make a donation that can be used directly to train women in handcrafts techniques or help children with hearing loss to achieve their full potential through education and hearing aids. This can be done through her website which has a PAYPAL function at the bottom of this page:
Or, if you are interested in purchasing some of Artesania Sorata’s products, simply request a price list from Diane by emailing her at email@example.com and you can make a purchase on the products page of the website, where at the bottom of the page is a PAYNOW button.
I’d like to leave you with a quote of Diane’s from another interview she did, with Matthew Goethals:
“A perspective that I don’t think is promoted enough is one of investing in our society rather than just our own personal gains. If our society is strong – of a greater quality, and people are treated fairly, and you build a peaceful society – there is tremendous value in that. Most people don’t trust the progress that society could make, so many people don’t want to invest in it. But again, if we had more people who considered the value of a harmonious society, and invested more in that… I wonder how much better off we would be.”