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Masked Cholitas skateboard in La Paz
As we exit (hopefully) the pandemic, it’s worth looking back on how COVID changed the alpaca sweater business for us, and for our suppliers.
For nearly forty years, we have traveled each winter to South America to source alpaca hats and sweaters. This was a chance for suppliers to show that alpaca ruana they’d been working on, and to explore new ideas. In the morning we might spot an interesting alpaca pullover and by afternoon, in some cases, the supplier could produce the same design in an alpaca cardigan. New colorways could be explored, swatches knitted. There is a great value in being able to say, “This Norwegian sweater is an inch too long,” or “Why don’t we try this in a long sweater coat?” At the alpaca sock factory, we could get explanations about the surprisingly arcane details of sock knitting in person, rather than through many tortured emails.
COVID changed that. First, it took a terrible toll on our suppliers, as their brick-and-mortar customers around the world canceled orders in panic. In Bolivia, one supplier saw their domestic business evaporate from one day to the next as the country completely sealed its borders and all retail stores were forced to close. The follow-on effects forced them to halt exports while they restructured. Another supplier, from whom we get nearly all our men’s alpaca sweaters, suffered the death of one of their principals, the extinction of their domestic sweater sales and the loss of more than half their export business. Following that, the surviving partner got COVID and was ill for three weeks. They are still recovering these blows. Imports of Peruvian alpaca wool became tenuous, shipping costs skyrocketed, and many airlines simply dropped Bolivia, making the country almost inaccessible. We had one shipment from Bolivia to Germany that disappeared in Columbia and reappeared a week later in Portugal on an airline we’d never heard of.
Peru fared slightly better, though shipments went out late and once they went out, they often followed a slow, circuitous route to their destinations. The courier DHL, which used to be somewhat reliable, became nearly non-functional, unable to correctly clear shipments and unwilling to help when things went wrong. We are still straightening out overcharges from eight months ago.
Worst of all, in both countries, many rural knitters, who tend to be older women, perished due to the lack of vaccines and of quality health care. In families that already have modest resources, this is especially cruel.
CASHMERE DURING COVID
The situation for cashmere sweaters was equally bad, though fortunately without the high quantity of deaths. China went into total lockdown, and even when they emerged and were living life normally, all visitors were required to quarantine for two weeks on entering the country. For those wondering what quarantine in China is like, imagine being shut into a not-very-nice two-star hotel room with no outside contact and having food brought to your door three times per day, all the while footing the bill for everything. This was enough to discourage any visit. We had previously cruised the cashmere markets in Shanghai, looking at myriad types of sweaters, buying samples and then modifying shapes and stitches to come up with new cashmere cardigan sweater or pullover designs. This was now impossible. To make matters worse, just as we were doing our product development for this year, our Shanghai suppliers were again forced into total lockdown and never left their apartment for 78 days, during all of which time they continued to pay their entire staff with no help from the government. Spinning factories went bankrupt, or didn’t refurbish their stock of yarn, and many cashmere suppliers were driven out of business. Thankfully, our suppliers survived the shakeout.
These are small issues in a global tragedy, and we are not complaining. Merchants have had their businesses disrupted by plague, war or economic collapse for millennia, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate. We take our brief moment of globalism for granted, and we may miss it when it's gone. Meanwhile, most of our suppliers have recovered, and the problems of 2021 forced us to learn and grow. 2022 was our most ambitious product development program ever. We’ll tell how we adapted in our next blog.