It seems like handwoven wraps are all anyone talks about nowadays, so with all the chatter on thesubject, I am always surprised at how little I hear about IndaJani. IndaJani is a brand of woven wrap that is coming out of the state of Oaxaca in Southwestern Mexico, based on a traditional rebozo shawl -common with many of the indigenous groups of Mexico, Peru and Guatemala. IndaJani has taken one of the oldest baby carriers out there and transformed it into something beautiful, simple, functional, and modern. Being of Mexican ancestry myself, I was particularly interested in these rebozos, and drawn to the idea of sharing in this tradition that had long been a part of the lives of the women of my family. I had to know more about how this company came to be, so I reached out to the owner Erika Mendoza. She was nice enough to take the time to share the story of her company with me, which I am happy to share.
Erika left her Philosophy studies and retail jobs in Mexico City, to escape to a more rural town called Miahuatlán of Porfirio Diaz in the state of Oaxaca, to focus on her jewelry making passions and start a family. She confessed that she was met with much confusion for this unconventional decision. Most people in her region sought the big city life, a return to rural life was seen as a very unpopular choice. Still Erika felt this draw to a simpler, more agrarian lifestyle, and decided to begin her family in this little town.
Before long, she became pregnant with her first child. Erika, like a lot of new moms, found that after the birth of her daughter, she was longing for a way to satisfy her babies need to be constantly held. Her husband came from a family of Artisan weavers, and he presented her with a traditional rebozo, a woven cloth used in many parts of Mexico as a blanket, shawl, and often as a way to carry babies. As excited as she was to use it, she found she was quite awkward with it. She jokes that the local women laughed at her as they watched her struggle to use the piece of cloth. She could never quite get comfortable using the shawl as a carrier, leading her husband to search for another option. He found a ring sling for her, and she immediately took to it. When she would wear the ring sling around in the streets, women in the town who were used to seeing more traditional carriers – would approach her and ask where they too could get one of these ring slings. Erika felt there was a growing interest in these slings, and she wanted to be able to supply them. She bought a bunch of Rod Rings from a hardware store, a sewing machine, and she went to Oaxaca to speak to her husband’s uncles about weaving her some longer lengths of cloth.
The large European style foot pedal looms that these rebozos are woven on were traditionally used by men, and still today you will find that the majority of Artisan weavers in Mexico utilizing these larger looms are male. In this tradition, Erika’s husbands Uncles (who she affectionately calls her own) wove the first lengths of cloth for her to sew into Ring Slings to sell. When Erika brought her finished product to the women who commissioned them, they were not interested in purchasing them because of their cost. Traditional rebozos could be bought for much less, it seemed. With all these slings and nobody to buy them, Erika’s husband suggested she post them for sale on Mercado Libre, a South American version of EBay. She explains how they decided on the name for their business. “I decided to name my shawls IndaJani, a Zapotec word meaning water born or spring. I chose this word for two reasons. The first is because I had thought of that name for my daughter and the second is because the Zapotec language is the language spoken by my Uncles, the artisans who make these shawls.” A business was born.
A month went by with no takers. Then… her first sale. It started slowly, but before she knew it…orders were rolling in. She stopped using the Rod Rings from the hardware store and switched over to Sling Rings, started asking the Uncles to weave wider shawls, and enlisted the help of her sister – a painter – to design the original Inda Jani logo. Retail and wholesale were really picking up. All the money they made would be used to pay her Uncles for the fabric, and the rest they invested heavily in their blossoming business. It was a family affair, with Erika and her husband handling all the back-end of the business. She would even sew the tags onto the wraps and take all the packages to post by herself. It was a lot of work, and when Erika became pregnant with her second child… she was starting to feel like it was time to lay the brand to rest. She was feeling exhausted physically and mentally, and her daughter was starting to demand more attention as she got older. They made the decision to stop, and made the trip to see her Uncles to tell them the news.
The news was not taken well by the Uncles. They told Erika that they were all relying on IndaJani for their livelihood. Not just them, but their families and community. They asked her to reconsider her decision. It was at this moment when Erika really took a look around and realized how much that IndaJani had grown. Instead of closing it… they decided to grow it. Everyone was depending on them. They started to create a corporate image. They designed a website for themselves, and she took a chance suggesting her mother leave her day job to come work full time sewing for their company. They moved their store to Mexico City, and began to incorporate more artisans into their production line. Many of the artisans that they included were working in areas with little to no tourist exposure, and their crafts were not otherwise available for sale on a larger scale. They made the decision to partner with all these artisans. Erika explains, “We decided that IndaJani would be one team. Because of this we are a Society of Rural Production, where we are all partners and all have the same rights but different obligations.” The Uncles continue to weave rebozos in the rural area of Oaxaca where they are from, and they continue to find new artisans to join their Society and benefit from the brand image that they have created.
And just like this, IndaJani has grown from their first sale in December 2010, to the company that they are now. Erika doesn’t have huge ambitions for the company. Rather than growing much bigger, she says that their goal is to improve the quality of what they are already doing. She expresses a longing for the simpler days, when they were just starting out. Erika shares “Sometimes I tell my husband I miss those days when I sewed two or three shawls in a week and took them to mail out and I ate ice cream with my daughter.” IndaJani has grown way beyond that now, with multiple people filling the positions that Erika once held in the fledgling company.
I can’t help but wonder about the future of IndaJani. With all the proposed United States Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations on the horizon, I worry that many of these smaller woven wrap and ring sling producers may be forced to close up shop… or at least to stop selling their wares in the U.S. market. Their U.S. Distributor Five Minute Recess has already expressed concern over whether or not they will be able to continue to carry IndaJani’s product once these regulations are passed. This is disappointing to think about, but what is the reality of these companies being able to come up with the resources to do this extensive (in my opinion exhaustive) testing and labeling on a product that has been safely made and utilized for hundreds of years? It seems kind of ridiculous to me. Beyond that, I have a lot of hangups with the way the handwoven market has blown up. Why is it that people are willing to mortgage houses over Uppy’s... yet have little to no interest in these Mexican artisans? They are making their livelihood practicing a trade that has been in their family for generations, which is something I personally feel I should support. How can their handcrafted work be valued so much less when it takes the same effort and skill? The average IndaJani rebozo retails right around $100. Anyway, don’t get me started on that. I know my feelings on this subject are not very popular.
I really hope that IndaJani can come up with the resources to keep doing what they are doing, because I love their work. I love being a part of the continuing tradition of these traditional carriers – and I love supporting the Society of Rural Production that they are a part of. This company is the backbone of an entire community – one that I hope can carve out a niche in this ever changing market. Erika has a very positive take on things. She had the following to say about the future of the company she helped to create. “That’s the story of a dream that we never planned. The story of a company that fills me with pride and has given me many joys and satisfactions. I do not know where or how IndaJani [will finish] but I am proud of having started it.”
*** Many thanks to Erika Mendoza for taking the time to share this story with me. The conversation between us relied heavily on Google translate. My 8 years of formal Spanish education was a friggin’ joke. I feel this post accurately depicts the sentiment of the story as it was told to me, though not an exact translation.***