The #1 Problem Working with Artisans as a Brand

Note: This piece expands on the thoughts published on Eco Warrior Princess a few months back: “4 Most Common Dilemmas of an Artisan-Made Brand”

Being part of the handmade process is amazing, and it’s fantastic to support traditional crafts when working directly with artisans.  But I’ve noticed a common problem among businesses working with artisans here in Guatemala (and probably around the world, too), and I’d like to share my thoughts on the topic: the protection of designs for brands.


Our Quetzal Wraps are a product of a design collaboration with our partner cooperative of weavers at Corazón del Lago.  We tried new ikat designs and naturally-dyed colors as well as dimensions and thickness of the woven textile to make these scarves.  Watch our video to learn more about the processes.

Is it true that businesses need to protect their designs?

This is pretty simple.  As a business, you don’t want your competition to copy you.  Got it.  But when working with traditional crafts, can a business claim a design as its own?

Though I understand why a brand might choose to protect their products, this is a slippery slope.  As artisan-made brands, our common goal should be to support local talented artisans, and elevate the traditions as a whole with respect.  This, to me, means that we should not limit the artisans.  If something works, they should be able to continue it themselves.

AAE Logo square

We’re proud to be part of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise!

With that said, exclusivity contracts exist and are used between the designers and producers here in Guatemala.  By signing the contract, a weaving group promises not to weave the same designs for other clients or for themselves to sell directly.  When I was invited by a Confederation of Cooperatives on a rural trip as a designer here in Guatemala, the patterns that stood out to me were protected with such exclusivity contracts, and without training on product design, the artisans were left to continue with their “same-old” designs, overdone and found everywhere around the country.

I’m going to take a leap and share some trade secrets with you.

We don’t have exclusivity agreements with our artisans.  Actually, we encourage the weavers, embroiderers, leathersmiths and silversmith to pursue their own designs, taking our collaborations in mind.  Our leathersmith is professional enough to not make footwear exactly the same, but he is producing more and more boots with textiles of his choice after working with us.  Good for him!  And our partner weaving cooperative is exploring new patterns and color combinations after seeing how beautiful our collaborations have come out.  How wonderful!

Innovation is a very tricky thing for rural artisans.  Things have been done a certain way for so long, and change doesn’t come easily here in Guatemala.  I can tell you from my experience as a teacher that the education system here is more focused on memorization and following orders rather than critical thinking and creative problem-solving.  So when something works, we as social enterprises working to support and elevate artisan traditions, should not be so selfish with these new ideas.

Kakaw Designs with partner weavers

Maybe I’m not business-minded.

Hey, that’s okay with me.  I didn’t start Kakaw Designs to get rich.  I wanted to work with artisans, and make beautiful things together.  I wanted to support them with new designs, quality control, and access to a larger market.

We’re fortunate to have found artisans who get excited about new designs.  I wouldn’t have it any other way, and exclusivity would change the dynamics… we’re collaborating together, and we want the artisans to benefit from the experience more than through the orders.  We want them to get excited about new ideas, and pursue their own, too.


Our beautiful booth at Renegade, introducing handcrafted treasures to the lovely people of Chicago.

Thanks for your support, everyone.  Your orders contribute directly to keeping traditional crafts alive and providing a livelihood to the artisans we work with.  But more than that, by working together, we hope that the artisans will continue with creative ideas and thus take on a more active role in adapting to a changing marketplace.  It’s their future more than mine, and I’m just here to help (and have fun too).





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