When we came across Thread Caravan a year or so ago, we felt incredibly excited at the prospect of combining local craft and travel. The company, set up by Caitlin Ahern, runs trips to Central America which enable travellers to combine learning and creative craft with the exploration of a place and insight into local cultures. Thread Caravan employs local artisans to teach each workshop, which enables them to continue practising their craft without the pressure to sell the goods they produce. As their website emphasises ‘This allows for appreciation of the process, rather than an emphasis on the end product’. While it’s a simple idea, it is a revolutionary way of thinking about indigenous craft and travel – and how we can combine the two in a more ethical way.
Thread Caravan trips combine craft workshops with exploring volcanos, lakes and ancient ruins. Their upcoming trips include textile making in Guatemala, embroidery in Panama and ceramics in Oaxaca, Mexico. With sustainable fashion, plastic reduction and ethical eating on everyone’s minds lately, Thread Caravan are leading the way towards a new branch of sustainable travel businesses. This is the way we want to travel – discovering local cultures through crafts they have been practising for generations.
In this interview, we talk to Thread Caravan founder Caitlin Ahern about the inspiration behind the company, the benefits of the trips to the local artisans and what you can expect from a Thread Caravan trip. It only makes us want to hop on one of these unique workshops even more.
How did Thread Caravan begin? What inspired you to set up a travel company with an emphasis on local craft?
I’ve always been interested in art and making things by hand. During university in New Orleans, I studied Sociology and thought that working with fairtrade organizations might be a good way to combine my passions for both sociology and craft.
At closer examination, I didn’t like that the fairtrade model is dependent on consumerism. I’m admittedly a pretty big consumer, but it didn’t feel like a sustainable way to provide employment for artisans, especially when most consumers didn’t understand and value the complicated processes that go into creating handmade pieces.
I felt stuck with that particular path and decided to switch gears temporarily. After university, I taught second grade in Cambodia, and nannied in Hawaii, while having a small side business upcycling clothing. It was during this time that all the dots connected — artisan craft, education and travel.
At the time, nothing like it existed that I was able to find. It seemed necessary: to provide a platform for cross-cultural connection and for artisans to share their stories and processes.
Your workshops take travellers to wonderful places and enable them to learn about traditional craft production in local communities. Why do you think this is important and what can travellers learn from travelling on one of your trips?
With such a diverse experience, each person gets something different out of it depending on what they need at that time. For some, it’s to be connected to strong and inspiring women so that they can feel more confident in their own path. For others, it’s more about the actual craft and learning about the people behind it, where they come from and why they create. (*Oakland-based fiber artist Lise Silva just wrote a nice summary about why it’s ethically important to also value the people behind the craft). For the artisan instructors, the experience can be a beneficial way to get design inspiration, an outlet for work, and/or cross-cultural connections.
What does a day in the life of a traveller on a Thread Caravan trip look like?
We always stay at either boutique hotels or private homes. Breakfasts are usually unregimented so that people can sleep early or late as they choose. We usually take off after breakfast for a full morning and afternoon connecting with local artisans of various crafts — weaving, ceramics, mezcal-making and more. Afternoons are dedicated to exploring things that are special to each various location (swimming at Lake Atitlan, visiting mezcal farms, etc.), or to just relax and soak in the day’s experience. Dinners are family-style group dinners at either our favorite restaurants or home.
Caitlin wrote a previous post for ROAM on one of Thread Caravan’s trips to Oaxaca, Mexico. It features beautiful photos by Sophia Mullin and you can read it here.
What drew you to Central America, and to the particular areas you visit on the trip. What is special about these areas and the artisan crafts produced there?
I first started hosting workshops in Guatemala for a few reasons. First, a Guatemalan friend from my time in New Orleans, Fede, was living in Guatemala again and was happy to help me with the tricky first logistics like finding reliable shuttle drivers, translating, etc. Second, friends of a friend, Travis and Sophie, had a company working with weavers to make shoes for their brand Teysha. I reached out and they were happy to share resources and connect me with weavers in Guatemala. And finally and most importantly, Guatemala is a country with very deep-rooted textile traditions. They also had a very recent genocide against indigenous communities in the 80s and 90s, so it felt more important than ever to boost indigenous communities up — to show them respect and gratitude for the work they do and their persistence to keep doing it through such challenging times.
Once we were in Guatemala, connections in Mexico and Panama naturally arose — so we hosted pilot workshops there and then launched the workshops officially. The more time I spend in each place, the more connections and opportunities for growth present themselves.
What is the process of setting up a Thread Caravan trip? How do you find the artisans and build a relationship with them with leads to them being a part of a Thread Caravan trip?
It’s really a combination of two things: being there on the ground — being open, meeting people, asking questions, seeing who wants to share and connect. And, support from our network of friends around the world who have various connections to artisan communities and suggest groups to work with.
How does a Thread Caravan trip benefit the artisans and the goods produced in these areas?
For starters, during workshops, we employ artisans as instructors. They are the craft masters and teachers, while the Thread Caravan team is there to help organize, translate and facilitate.
After gaining more insight into an appreciation for the craft processes, travellers also inevitably wind up purchasing things the artisans have made, allowing them to sustain their entrepreneurial artisan work and thus support their families and communities while preserving the craft traditions specific to their culture.
In some instances, travelers and artisans remain connected after the trips. For example, one past traveler specializes in foot loom weaving and is planning to return to Guatemala to stay with the family of backstrap weavers we work with and teach them about foot loom techniques.
In addition to working with many female artisans, all your trip guide leaders are women. Was this an intentional decision and how does having a female-led trip affect the local communities and economy?
This decision was actually unintentional but feels right nonetheless. We have had men on the team in the past — specifically my friend Fede who helped me get the workshops off the ground in Guatemala and was a wonderful addition to trips.
However, I think it has felt more natural to build a team of women, as travelers and artisans are oftentimes women and there’s just this amazing synergy that happens when a group of women from different backgrounds come together to share stories and experiences and learn from each other.
While each trip has an obvious cultural and art exchange, there are also some organic exchanges that occur when people become vulnerable in a way that they do in a new setting with a group of new friends.
I also strongly believe that it’s important for the world to have more women in leadership roles and I’m happy Thread Caravan is able to provide some of these roles.
What does the future hold for Thread Caravan? Will you be introducing new trips to other parts of the world? What are other areas of the world and particular handicraft produce which you would love to incorporate into a Thread Caravan trip?
Definitely! We have a handful of travelers who have attended trips in both Guatemala and Mexico and are interested in going to new places with Thread Caravan. And of course, there are talented artisans who want to share their work all over the world.
I had big visions of hosting workshops in the Middle East, as a way to shine a more positive light on the region and provide a platform for positive cross-cultural engagement. I would still love to do that and to offer workshops in other regions of the world. However, as I’ve gotten closer to the communities in Guatemala and Oaxaca, growth has taken a slower and more intentional path, in a way that I am very happy with. I don’t feel the desire to expand to new communities unless I know the relationships we build there can be lasting and positive. We are focusing on slow growth, expanding to places where our network exists and can help connect us with local partners that we can build long-term relationships with.
Caitlin Ahern of Thread Caravan
All the beautiful photographs in this post were taken by Paula Harding, Drew McGill, Karim Iliya, Kelly Framel, Leah Pellegrini and Corina Brown.
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Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.