Threads of Change
Karen Piegorsch ’80 introduces ergonomics
to Guatemalan backstrap weavers.
By Keith Davis
Lying immediately south of Mexico, Guatemala is distinguished by its highlands, a 150-mile-long arc of the Sierra Madre, running parallel to the Pacific Ocean. When the first conquistadors made their way into that part of the world, they found beautiful lakes, breathtaking peaks, and, more to their purpose, a Mayan civilization past its golden age but still prospering. Today, nearly 500 years later, those highlands are home to the ruins of ancient Mayan cities and the scattered villages populated by Mayan descendants.
“My first time in Guatemala, I was in a car with some other people, following a winding road through the mountains,” says Karen Piegorsch ’80. “I was on my way to a village to meet a group of Mayan weavers, and suddenly this amazing lake came into view. It was rimmed by volcanoes, and the water was the deepest blue. It was drop-dead gorgeous, and all at once silent tears started to run down my face. I felt both joy and sadness, and the chatter of my companions seemed far away. I’ve analyzed that first reaction as much as I can, and though I can’t wrap it up in a rational package, I know that in that moment I experienced a profound connection to the land and its history.”
Guatemala’s 12,000-year journey out of the Stone Age has featured the rise and fall of Mayan and Spanish empires, subsequent dictatorships, a 36-year civil war, and its current fledgling democracy. In terms of a winding road, the country’s history parallels the circuitous trail of life choices that brought Piegorsch to that beautiful lake in 2003, 23 years after graduating from IC with a degree in physical therapy.
“As an undergrad, I knew I had to put money in the bank, but what would be the best way to spend my time and energy doing that?” Piegorsch says. “The answer was a service occupation in a mainstream field, and for the first 11 years after graduating, I worked as a physical therapist in clinical practice settings.”
Early on, her clients included people rehabilitating from strokes, amputations, and spinal injuries. Later, she owned a private practice where she specialized in orthopedic manual therapy and treated a good number of people who had filed worker’s compensation claims.
“I noticed that the people who’d been treated for work injuries walked out in good shape, but many came back,” Piegorsch says. “I found myself wanting to prevent injuries instead of treat them, so I started to transition into ergonomics by getting permission from my patients and their employers to investigate their jobs. This was helpful, but coming at ergonomics from a clinical perspective allowed for only very limited access to making meaningful changes in the workplace.”
Dealing with problems at their sources led Piegorsch to pursue a master’s in industrial engineering. Her thesis examined ergonomic design for manufacturing in the furniture industry.
“It was a very useful credential for becoming an ergonomics consultant,” she says, “because it added an engineering perspective to my knowledge of human functioning. I formed an ergonomics consulting practice and even continued working with the furniture industry, but an academic and a consulting career seemed like a nice blend of research and practice, so I went on to earn a doctorate in public health.”
But after 10 years on the environmental health sciences faculty at the University of South Carolina, she found it difficult to reconcile practice and research.
“It created an inner conflict,” explains Piegorsch. “Although I respect the importance of scientific research, I found that I didn’t enjoy relating to companies and people as research subjects.”
Around that same point, in 2003, she began to seek out ways for her ergonomics consulting to have a broader impact in the world. She decided to explore working pro bono with artisans in the developing world, and that brought her to Guatemala.
Mayan social fabric
“Handmade crafts from indigenous cultures have always interested me,” she says. “I’m an artist and a weaver myself, so I was especially intrigued by the Mayan women and the beautiful garments they wove. Making those articles requires a backstrap loom, which operates by tying one end to a post or tree and placing the other end around the woman’s hips as she kneels on the ground. Instead of relying on frames and other structures to control the tension on the threads, the weaver rocks her body.”
The loom is part of the culture going back to pre-Columbian days. According to legend, a Mayan goddess invented backstrap weaving and bequeathed it to Mayan women. By joining their bodies to their looms and using local colors and patterns in their weaving, the women could preserve their indigenous traditions and pass them along to their daughters. It’s a nice story, but it has a hard edge.
“Traditionally, Mayan women are expected to weave and do other work while kneeling on the ground,” says Piegorsch. “I had the romantic idea that kneeling was associated with the women’s connection with the earth, but I quickly learned that in mainstream, modern life, kneeling has more to do with gender inequity and poverty than it does with spirituality.”
Still, backstrap weaving has played a crucial role in preserving Mayan traditions — a significant achievement, given that only one percent of Guatemala’s 12 million citizens are descendants of the country’s original inhabitants. In addition, backstrap weaving generates income, which is also significant, since many Mayans live on an annual income of under $800. Weaving sessions, though, have to be fitted between gathering wood, carrying water, keeping up the house, and caring for children. The loom’s portability makes that possible. It also offers low overhead, but there’s a high labor cost. Working repetitively in the kneeling position stiffens backs, numbs knees, strains necks, and wears out bodies.
Those debilitating work conditions were very much on Piegorsch’s mind as she first made her way into the highlands. Was there a culturally acceptable and environmentally viable solution, she wondered, that would enable the backstrap weavers to keep working without becoming disabled? Piegorsch also has a doctorate in public health, so she was thinking about more than the proper alignment of body parts.
“When you’re going into indigenous communities, you need to be respectful and not impose solutions from outside the culture,” she says. “Finding an ergonomic solution to the backstrap weaving problem is one thing. Incorporating that specific solution into supporting the social fabric of a minority community living in poverty has to come through the people themselves if it’s going to have any kind of lasting integrity.”
On the job
Piegorsch approached the village knowing she’d done her homework. The language differences wouldn’t be a problem because her interpreter could translate between Piegorsch’s fluent Spanish (which she’d polished working in a Bronx clinic her senior year at IC) and the local Mayan language (of which there are at least 12, each one defining a different culture). In addition, the women were gathering in the village that day, as they did every month or so, to meet a fair trade organization representative who was going to help the weavers find a good price for their wares. That gave Piegorsch an established network of weavers to tap into. Plus, she had learned to weave on the backstrap loom in order to understand the mechanics of the ancient technology. But there was still a big “X” factor: how would the weavers react to an outsider?
“I was ready to listen to them,” Piegorsch says. “But were they ready to talk to me?”
Stepping into a two-room house to meet the weavers, Piegorsch noted that one overhead light bulb provided the only illumination. The only furniture was one plastic chair that looked like it came from Wal-Mart.
“The women insisted on offering it to me, while they all knelt in a circle around the room’s perimeter,” Piegorsch says. “When I proceeded to ask them, through the interpreter, what their lives were like and how they felt on the loom, they told me about their tired backs and their sore knees and the numbness in their limbs. That was the breakthrough: first, because it’s their culture to be stoic and not talk about how they feel, and second — and this was very moving to hear — a woman said, ‘One of the reasons we don’t talk about ourselves is because no one ever asks.’”
When Piegorsch asked the women if they’d tried weaving in a position that didn’t require kneeling, they took her into a dusty courtyard and showed her another plastic chair they had tried to use with the loom but had abandoned because their rocking motions made the chair hop, and that affected the quality of the weave. When one of the women demonstrated, it was an aha moment for Piegorsch.
“Most of the weavers were barely four-feet tall,” she says. “Their feet couldn’t touch the ground, and the molded seat slants backward. No wonder the chair skipped. It had no stability.”
Looking around, Piegorsch spotted two cinder blocks, dragged them to the front of the chair, folded her shawl on the seat to cushion and level the seat, and invited one of the women to sit. Politely requesting the male translator to leave, Piegorsch motioned for the sitting woman to loosen her skirt just a little, open her knees, and rest her feet on the blocks.
“Immediately her spine elongated, and everything fell into place,” Piegorsch explains. “The weaver could sit upright and still rock back and forth with her loom. And even better, the look on her face told me she didn’t consider this as just some gringa coming in and telling her how to make her life better. She actually started to giggle with amazement, and so did the women around the circle. They knew that this adaptation had potential, and they wanted to pursue it.”
Beginning with the bench
Pursuing the idea would come to mean the development of a two-year pro bono pilot project, conducted with the support of three Guatemalan organizations, to design an ergonomic device that would allow the women to weave in a sitting position. The women’s input was gathered through visits to five weaving communities. It was obvious that one size wouldn’t fit all, so the Mayan weavers’ bodies were measured, and an adjustable range of sizes was factored into Piegorsch’s design. South Carolina woodworker Glenn Smith collaborated to design prototypes that local carpenters copied for testing by 150 weavers, and community educator and weaver Juana Ramos helped develop training instructions. By the time the pilot ended in 2007, they had put the finishing touches on an ergonomic bench that allowed the weaver to rock with the rhythm of her work in an upright sitting posture. An interlocking footrest provided leverage and stability, and because the height of the bench’s padded seat was adjustable, the bench could be shared.
The weavers using the new benches reported that textiles once requiring three days to make now took two, increasing their productivity or freeing up time they could spend with their families. Instead of rising painful and stiff after a 30-minute work period, the weavers reported they could work for hours at a stretch and stop because they need to do something else, not because they’re in pain. The cloth came off the looms with straighter edges, and because the weavers weren’t on the ground, they didn’t have to brush dust off their clothes when the session was done. The bench was a success. But now what? There were 150 benches and half a million weavers.
“The bench was only part of the total solution,” Piegorsch says. “For example, we needed to recognize that many weavers had problems with their eyesight. Even if the bench is properly adjusted, if a weaver has to move closer to the material because she needs glasses, and we don’t take that into account, the weaver won’t benefit fully from the bench.”
Making an appointment for an eye exam in the highlands, though, takes more than a phone call — assuming phone service is even available. Finding ways to pay for an exam, coupled with overcoming a cultural reluctance to travel long distances and trust strangers, had to be found. The issue of adequate lighting for performing fine work in houses equipped with one overhead light bulb also had to be addressed. And, since many weavers live in homes where there is only packed earth for flooring, a way needed to be found for them to use the bench where the ground was dry, level, and smooth.
In addition, objections surfaced about the bench threatening local traditions.
“There are some foreigners who feel that the bench is a drastic change, and we have no business doing that,” Piegorsch says. “They seem to have an unconscious desire for indigenous peoples to stay the same, as though the culture should be kept ‘pure.’ Juana and I face this head-on by talking about how innovation has always been a part of the Mayan culture and how it’s natural for artisans anywhere in the world to apply their creativity to improving their craft. And what we’re hearing from the weavers is that the bench gives them hope to keep weaving long beyond ages when their mothers had to stop. It is actually preserving the culture by making the cottage industry of backstrap weaving more viable.”
When introducing the bench to the local communities, Piegorsch and Ramos have taken care to have the Mayan people do the presentations. “When I’m there, it’s usually on the sidelines, as the Mayan leader’s assistant,” Piegorsch explains. “The concerns of the local people have more to do with economics than with changing traditions. We’ve often heard, ‘If I don’t even have a bed to sleep in, why would I buy myself a bench for weaving?’ I’m so impressed with Juana’s ability to respond: ‘Sure, the bench won’t solve all of the problems in our lives, but the pain we have with weaving is something we actually can do something about, so why not do it? This bench can help you earn more from your work, and with that you can buy a bed, send your children to school — it’s an investment that pays for itself fast.’”
A local and sustainable solution
Introducing the benches isn’t the only challenge. Who would build the benches and how would they be distributed?
“A lot of well-meaning people have suggested designing a business plan to open a factory in China or someplace where labor is inexpensive, manufacture the bench in bulk, and then distribute it commercially to the Mayans,” Piegorsch recounts. “Other people have suggested distributing the benches as a charity handout, but that misses the point. The goal isn’t to walk into a culture and tell people how they should live. The goal is to enable a community to empower itself. The process involves respectfully offering suggestions and then providing educational and technical support while the people in the culture work out the solutions.”
Responding to those big-picture issues, Piegorsch wove her experiences as an ergonomist, engineer, and public health professional into a single fabric, as it were, and in 2007 formed Synergo Arts, a nonprofit organization operated by volunteers who support the bench in all its social, mechanical, and economic implications.
“The role of Synergo Arts is educational,” Piegorsch says. “Although the design is purposefully simple, precision woodworking and a basic understanding of the ergonomic features of the design are necessary to copy the bench well. So we’ve developed startup kits and technical support to help Guatemalan carpenters learn to make the bench, as well as a train-the-trainer program to help weavers learn how to use it. And through outreach activities, we’re seeking to help local communities build their own infrastructure for fabrication, distribution, promotion, training, and financing so that they’re not dependent on any kind of outside support, including Synergo Arts.”
That process of focusing on sweeping, long-term transformation instead of immediate, small-scale solutions has a name: social entrepreneurship.
“I first heard that term in 2006 with surprise,” Piegorsch says, “because I hadn’t realized that there was a name for the practical but innovative approach I’d been taking with the bench. The work of Synergo Arts is my passion. It’s a calling. What I love about this work is that it’s not a response to the latest crisis but a continual effort to realize the dream of making sure every backstrap weaver who wants the ergonomic bench will have access to it.”
And access to the fundamental changes the bench might bring.
“What I’d like to see happen in the coming years is for the artisans to be able to make conscious decisions that value their own health and labor,” Piegorsch says. “If making a certain kind of product is going to hurt their backs or ruin their knees, the artisans need to know how to change to a more ergonomically sound method and to feel capable of negotiating a fair wage that reflects the effort that goes into making the product — or choose not to make it. They’re not there, yet. They don’t always wrap their minds around the concept of factoring their labor into the cost of their product, but I’d like to see them come to the place where they realize they have those choices.”
The bench received a 2006 Tech Award from the Tech Museum of Innovation’s technology benefiting humanity program and the 2007 User-Centered Design Award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Synergo Arts is responding to requests for collaborations that will offer the bench to weavers in Peru, Mexico, and Indonesia.