On entering the building, we were very warmly greeted by the ladies of Grupo de Maes - there was a very obvious warm energy and mutual caring between the two groups.
Grupo de Maes stemmed from a sewing course given by a local cultural NGO (OCA – Escola Cultural). It became evident that this was a common theme in Brazil - an enterprising group taking skills they’d learnt from a social investment and spinning out into a business of sorts. In this case, a collective of seamstresses had been upskilling over a number of years, including obtaining funding to share cultural experiences and skills with other groups across Brazil. One area they had become strong in is the embroidery from the Pernambuco region in the north east of Brazil. Traditionally, it was produced by slaves based on European stylings – one of the techniques was even named after Louis XIV.
Some of Grupo de Maes' handiwork
Ecotece has been helping Grupo de Maes to become more commercially savvy, move to more sustainable inputs and access brands and markets. For example, they have been pushing the women to move from incredibly delicate but time-consuming designs to new ones that are far quicker to produce (per given unit area). This brings the costs down to make it viable for brands to source from them. Typically a 10cm by 10cm piece was easily taking 2 hours, through simplification, enlargement and iteration, they were getting down to 30-45 mins. The most difficult part of this change was behavioural because the Grupo de Maes women felt they were making far less intricate and beautiful designs – ‘selling out’ essentially. Ecotece helps to manage this transition and also supports with basic electronic record keeping and process mapping.
Prototyping new designs (note upcycling dog food packets for the base fabric!)
Today was an important showcase day with the visit of Fernanda Yamamoto, a very well-known designer and brand who had been particularly taken with Grupo de Maes' embroidery. She was interested to see the updated embroidery and the environment where the women worked. She arrived shortly after us with her team and then we were all treated to a tour of the building and an extensive review of the various products – first the older intricate designs, and then reluctantly the newer formats. There was much discussion of the history, approach, process and challenges of various pieces – a lot of which was lost on me partly due to my fashion inexperience and my lack of Portuguese. Cecile from Ecotece as ever was very helpful in giving a running commentary.
Show and tell about OCA, Grupo de Maes and their embroidery work
Tour of the building
This show and tell then lapsed into a tour of the rest of the building owned and ran by OCA who support youth education and women in the community. The building was of a lovely open design acting as a community hub for local children and mothers to relax, learn and be creative - it is of a somewhat haphazard construction which suited the organised chaos of kids running around having fun. It resides on a heritage site just down a gentle slope from the best preserved Jesuit village in Brazil dating back to 1580. The building itself is extremely fit for purpose with large open spaces for activities, maker spaces, a library, kitchen and a long series of wardrobes to keep all the various costumes for the children. Further, the building itself was an example of social circular economy with the majority of the construction being produced from donated telegraph poles from the nearby town of Itu. Luckily, the founder of the organisation was a professor at the architecture department at FAU-USP, a university in Sao Paulo. He well understood the design requirements for using reused materials and the need to construct something that was appropriate to the surroundings and respect the heritage of the site.
Surrounding area: around the building, Jesuit village (including upcycled art) and local area
Then to cap off the tour, we walked up to the Jesuit village and then to the local park. Interestingly, a park of this nature would not usually survive in such good condition in most favela/periferia areas as they tend to be exploited (understandably), typically as illegal landfill sites or habitation. Being part of or at least adjacent to the heritage site likely helped it stay relatively untouched.
We ended the day back in the OCA building with a traditional “lanche”, afternoon snacks of coffee, corn cakes, bread and other knickknacks. I was variously poked by laughing kids at this point who wanted to test (shout?) English greetings – as good as my Portuguese.
It was a lovely day, getting to see the community and observe how Ecotece works on a typical day. A big thanks to Cecile Petitgand of Ecotece who has been unendingly helpful with translations, connections and general pointers.