are Otavalo Indigenous people, as are the people they work with. Their first language is the ancient Inca language of Quichua, though most speak Spanish also. Otavaleños put a high value on travel and learning, so it’s not unusual to meet Otavaleños who speak three languages, as well as to meet those who only speak their indigenous tongue. They are a fascinating mixture of traditional indigenous culture and worldly curiosity, thriving in the gorgeous Andean town of Otavalo.
Production in Otavalo is organized completely differently from that of suppliers in other countries. Rather than a factory or workshop, their production is dispersed in the rural countryside that surrounds the small city. They work with various knitting cooperatives and weavers, who distribute the yarns and designs and collect the finished pieces. These cooperatives have female business agents, also indigenous women, that set the price for each piece. The knitting is done by families who work in their homes.
The sewing in of zippers and linings, as well as quality control, is handled in-house by Lucila and Jose’s family members and temporary employees who come together when a shipment has to go out. After that a shipping agent moves the freight by truck to Quito, where it goes out to the world.
Owned by . . . Jose Lema & Lucila Maigua Location . . . .Otavalo, Ecuador
Craft . . . Wool Sweaters and Accessories
Years of relationship . . . 15 Founded in . . . 1985
Super power . . . Cultural Navigation: Absorb any culture and still remain true to their own
Jose and Lucila are the result of the unique Otavalo indigenous culture that values trade, travel and learning. Otavaleños travel all over the world selling woven goods and playing Andean music. Resourceful and creative, you can spot them on the streets and at fairs in Europe, the United States and South America wearing their traditional clothing and selling handicrafts.
Lucila’s father was one of the progenitors of the sweater export business. In the early 1980’s he began buying raw wool and having it spun into yarn, and was among the first to start dyeing it. The popularity of his kettle-dyed colored wool led the spinning factories in Ambato to start buying equipment and dyeing the yarn on an industrial scale, and the industry took off. He’s still in the wool business.
As to José: it’s best left in his own words, translated from Spanish:
“My name is José Lema Lema, of the community of Quinchuqui, a very old community of Otavalo and a cradle of artisans and travelers of the world by tradition and history. I come from this community and my entire family were artisans and merchants by tradition. I grew up in the midst of this, and thus in the year 1974, at the age of 13 years, as soon as I finished my primary education, I began to work with my parents in the capacity of helper.”
Having traveled all over Ecuador selling handicrafts, in 1985 Jose decided to try his luck in the United States. He landed in New York with no English and knowing nothing about the country, but after many setbacks, he began to figure it out. Realizing he needed more production than his own family could provide, he began farming out the work to other families in nearby villages such as Carchi and Azuay, providing an important source of cash income for rural indigenous campesinos with little other opportunity to get currency. If you are in the Eastern United States in the Fall, you may see Jose and Lucila selling their sweaters.
Things we talked about on the last visit: Their eldest son Marcelo. Ecuadorian government obstacles to business. Our own lives. Business. Otavalo politics.
In a typical knitting household, the husband knits, the wife joins the pieces together, and the adolescent children embroider after they return from school. This is generally done amidst other farming or animal husbandry tasks, not as a full-time job. Families in Otavalo have been working together in this way for millennia, and it does not interfere with schooling or the pursuit by young people of other careers. While an adult cableknit sweater can be needle-knit in 24 hours, these hours may be spread out over a week or longer. Children’s sweaters are much quicker, as they’re smaller and made on sweater looms.