Weaving a Tale

By Nora Zelevansky / January 19, 2015

Fans of these Fair Trade Guatemalan scarves include Natalie Portman and Rachael Leigh Cook

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree—especially when it’s organically grown.

Maya Colop-Morales is living proof. After watching her father oversee agricultural and educational programs for a nonprofit, and her mother work as an artist and businesswoman, socially conscious fashion was like a birthright. Now, her Fair Trade accessories line, Ketzali, is a huge success, employing and training local artisans to use traditional Guatemalan techniques for modern fashion. Pieces from alpaca scarves to 100-percent cotton throws are stocked by the trendy likes of Free People and W Hotel boutiques.

Colop-Morales’ interest in weaving started early in her home country of Guatemala. “As a kid, sometimes, while my father was on projects, he would take me with him and the ladies there would be weaving,” she says. “When I was seven or eight years old, I got my first little loom.” The rest is history.

The designer honed her skills during a stint at London’s elite fashion university, Central Saint Martins. Next, she headed to Florence, Italy, to study design and then to New York City to learn about merchandising. That’s when she began to create scarves for friends and acquaintances. But it wasn’t until a family emergency in the fall of 2010 that Colop-Morales reassessed her priorities and decided to move home and start her own company in earnest, giving back to the people of surrounding communities. “I’m grateful for the scare because it made me turn to something I’m really passionate about,” she says. “When I returned to Guatemala, I started the business for real.”

At first, the designer planned to create textile-lined bags, but wasn’t wild about the aesthetic. She was already so excited about working with the artisans she’d met that she decided to start with scarves instead. She named the company for a sister who passed away when she was one week old. “‘Ketzali’ actually means ‘treasure’ in the Mayan language,” she shares. “You have to name a business for something that motivates you. Because of my sister, I keep on fighting for it.”

Photo caption: Ketzali founder and designer Maya Colop-Morales

Photo caption: Ketzali founder and designer Maya Colop-Morales

Colop-Morales visited markets and drove around, knocking on doors with her parents who could speak the native Quiché. She paid for artisans to create samples of their work to be evaluated. Initially, she was a softy when it came to their creations, but that had to change: “My parents sat me down and said, ‘You need to run a business like a business. Otherwise, you’ll lose everything and not be able to hire these people!’” she recalls. “I decided to use Fair Trade principles; that’s super important to us. We don’t accept bad quality, but we pay nicely.” (Ketzali also uses sustainable packaging and recycled hangtags.)

These days, the company relies on 57 local artisan weavers, some of whom belong to women’s collectives that use traditional back strap and foot looms to create handmade accessories, from scarves to throws to sarongs in cotton and alpaca. “My goal is that all my artisans are at full capacity with enough work before I bring anyone else on,” says Colop-Morales. “The foot loom [weavers] have helped with orders of larger quantities for stores like Anthropologie.”

The artisans are trained for a week before they begin work for the company, taking seminars on Ketzali’s aesthetic, technique and quality. That is partially because Colop-Morales was looking for different textiles than the traditional. “I wanted a cleaner look; to take the technique, but not the designs from Guatemala,” she explains. “They’re still very colorful and representative of where I come from, but they’re more modern and incorporate pleats and open weaves.” Even at Central Saint Martins, she was known for mixing surprising colors, so the company hit the ground running with trends like color blocking, using natural dyes made from cochineal, walnuts hulls, dahlias, blackberries, indigo and chamomile.

For its latest collection, Ketzali is exploring neutrals and techniques from tie-dyes to deep dyes, and more items in alpaca. It is also planning to incorporate embroidery and florals. “I want to include hand embroidery because you can’t do that with a loom; it’s always linear,” Colop-Morales explains. “I’d love to go to a town on the coast where they have no traditional techniques, find a community in extreme poverty, and train people, so we can provide employment for them. In certain areas, the ladies have to cross into Mexico to pick coffee for $4 a week! Those are the communities where we want to teach.”

The company also has a private label arm, creating woven items for other lines. But no matter how large Ketzali grows, giving back is at the core of its ethos, as is caring for the earth. “We need to offer something that represents us and supports the people who make it; we need to know that we are using materials that protect the environment,” says Colop-Morales. “It’s super important for us to be careful of what we wear.” ketzali.com

 

Nora Zelevansky

Nora Zelevansky

Nora Zelevansky is the author of upcoming novel, Will You Won't You Want Me?, and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, T Magazine (The New York Times), Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York.
Nora Zelevansky

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