Here’s what it’s like to visit the workshops where our organic cotton and alpaca sweaters are knit. "You're greeted at the door with a tray of Inca Kola, the neon-yellow local soda," says Julie Rubiner, our Facilitating Manager of Knits. "Then comes the tour."
Industrial knitting machines might fill a converted garage or an added-on room—or maybe two or three. “Brothers, cousins, aunts and neighbors work together taking shifts and watching each other's children," says Julie. “Work is integrated with a focus on family and quality of life.”
This alternative supply chain, which EILEEN FISHER has been part of since 2005, is an entrepreneurial model conceived by Jessica Rodriguez of Art Atlas. "First we give the knitters training," she says. "Then, we give them a knitting machine. And then, we give them constant work. If we cannot give them work, we are no help."
"This is big picture sustainability," explains Scott Leonard, cofounder of Indigenous Designs, the US company that connects brands like EILEEN FISHER with Art Atlas. "It's about sustaining health through environmentally responsible materials and sustaining communities by providing stable work."
Scott and Jessica don’t talk about the number of employees hired but rather the families supported—currently the count is over 600.
That support isn’t easy to accomplish. Here are just some of the logistics: Dyed yarn is delivered to the central factory in Arequipa and then distributed to the network of artisans. Some workers knit sleeves or sweater panels, others are responsible for linking pieces together. Their work is gathered up and sent back to the central factory—colloquially called "the hub"—for finishing, attaching buttons, adding labels and additional small details. Finally, the sweaters are steamed, pressed, packed—and sent to EILEEN FISHER.
Typically a community workshop employs four to sixteen people, though the number might be as high as thirty-five during peak production times. If there are lean times, Art Atlas and Indigenous Designs juggle projects, trying to make sure that the entire supply chain has steady work.
Knitters are encouraged to be entrepreneurial. If they want to purchase additional knitting machines, no-interest loans are available. If they want to improve their skills, training—including a diploma in technical knitting—is provided. "Fair trade is about showing up for the long term," Scott says. "This is not charity but rather a fair wage for masterful work."
But back in 2005, the level of knitting skill was a concern for EILEEN FISHER. "We decided that if we wanted a true partnership, we had to roll up our sleeves and invest in the relationship," says Julie. She and her team started going to Peru when samples were produced so they could point out the myriad small details that make up an EILEEN FISHER sweater. The transition of a rib to a jersey stitch might need to be looser, an armhole should have more of a curve, the drape had to have a certain look. At one point, Julie discovered that EILEEN FISHER had a different way of measuring a raglan sleeve: "We adjusted our specs to their system—it was an 'aha!' moment."
Because work is dispersed across multiple workshops, Peru production requires a longer lead time than a standard factory order. That creates space for what Scott calls the "living, breathing system" of community knitting.
The creative partnership has been so successful that knitters are now working on EILEEN FISHER’s most complicated designs—ones that appear in ads in The New York Times, Fast Company, InStyle and Vogue. When they do, Julie sends clippings back to Peru. "I like to connect the dots," she says. "So many hands have touched these sweaters—and look where they've ended up."