When you dive into Thread Caravan‘s world you are immediately hooked. You scroll through their instagram feed and surf on their website, and you want to take part in each and every of their experiences. You then read through their words, and you fall in love deeply with their honest and solid mission to connect us through travel with artisans from around the world.
I knew from the start that I had to know more.
And now I have the perfect excuse after setting myself with Marbaii Collective a mission to discover and share with you the stories of such inspiring people. And today it’s Caitlin Ahern, the heart and soul behind Thread Caravan. In her words:
I travel to connect with others and have shared experiences
– Caitlin Ahern
If I had any expectations for this interview, they were surpassed infinitely. I would describe Caitlin’s words as enlightening, and I cannot even count how many times I’ve gone through the interview, discovering something new every time I do. Caitlin brings us:
- Valuable awareness and truths on ethical fashion, what it really means and (super) easy changes you can easily make to get on board.
- Dreams and behind-the-scenes on launching a start-up business.
- Creativity and secrets on mindful living.
- One of the ways travelling for learning and impact can look like.
Thank you Caitlin! And to you, my friend,… joyful reading!
All images by Paula Harding, via Thread Caravan.
#1 One of the missions of Marbaii Collective is to marry conscious fashion and travel, and this is exactly what you do with Thread Caravan. Ethical fashion is such a broad concept – what does it mean for you?
Modern day supply chains are huge! In today’s global economy, there isn’t just one source for each good. Each piece often touches many human hands (or machines) before it find its way to the buyer. From the land and people growing the raw materials to the people turning that raw material into a working material, to the people turning the working material into a product.
I think the most important part of “ethical fashion” is communication. Many people market their companies as ethical simply because one link of their supply chain is ethical. As brands start shifting towards “ethical” practices, focus often remains on who’s doing the sewing – where they’re sewing and what they are getting paid. Often people skip over talking about the “where? how? and who?” of the actual textile production. That’s a huge step to skip over.
I also think buyers should be aware of people who market themselves as ethical brands but really just go to a foreign country, haggle with artisan producers to buy their handmade goods, mark them up significantly and then promote and resell them to westerners as “ethical” – often using photos of makers who might not even be the artisan being the products being sold. I’ve encountered a handful companies like this just in the past couple years. This powerful recent article on Fashionista.com explains why that model is unethical.
My point in saying all this is to acknowledge that there is a LOT of information to sift through and consider. Supporting ethical fashion does not have a straightforward path. Keep asking questions. Hold people accountable. Dig for the info.
The Conscious Chatter podcast is a great resource for digging deeper into the details.
#2 One of people’s beliefs about ethical fashion is that it’s expensive. Or maybe the problem is that there isn’t enough awareness. What do you think is the biggest challenge that ethical brands face to reach more people?
I think you’re right about price points being a challenge. I think cost can be a particularly challenging issue when large companies like Target make knock-off artisan products, so consumers can buy textiles with traditional indigenous designs, just factory made knock-offs. Not only does this make it harder for consumers to spend extra money on the real pieces, but it’s also theft of indigenous designs.
Supporting ethical fashion does not have a straightforward path. Keep asking questions. Hold people accountable. Dig for the info.
#3 With Thread Caravan you work with artisans, honouring traditions that have been practiced for generations. How do artisans and their craft benefit from this relationship?
We employ artisans to instruct in their craft. For their instruction, we pay them above living wage. And typically workshop participants purchase some handmade pieces from them, adding to their income. Our workshop participants also understand the value of their craftsmanship and aren’t typically haggling with artisans for lower prices.
As Thread Caravan is just entering our third year, we are still a small and growing business. We have about 6 workshops each year, spread out between several different communities. While I know artisans are happy to have this temporary employment, I envision Thread Caravan growing to a point where we employ artisan instructors on a more consistent basis – with workshops happening about once a month with each group.
#4 What has been the biggest challenge and most rewarding moment of running an ethical business?
The most rewarding part is seeing and sharing the joy Thread Caravan trips facilitate. Before each trip I always get nervous that it might not meet people’s expectations. It’s impossible to anticipate what sorts of interactions will happen between a group of strangers for a week. But workshops continue to be a positive experience for both participants and artisans.
For me the biggest challenge is money. I wish our workshops could be free so that everyone could experience them. But of course I also want to pay everyone I am working with fairly. When paying a handful of people – artisans, drivers, chefs, and all kinds of other helpers, and paying for accommodation, art supplies, food and more, those costs quickly add up. I have to remind myself that the workshops are valuable and worth the cost we’re charging.
I would eventually like to foster a partnership with some sort of non-profit who hosts people living in poverty to have these sorts of educational experiences… Or maybe build in an optional buy-one-give-one model to make trips more accessible to those who can’t afford them.
#5 What does creativity look like for you? Were you a creative child or did your parents encourage creativity? How do you incorporate creativity in your business?
I’ve always had support (both creative and otherwise) from my parents. I grew up expressing my creativity through visual design. My dad is an architect, and I used to watch him drawing as a little girl — my first drawing of a house was from an aerial perspective. I used to change my clothes constantly and tell my mom very specific descriptions of what I wanted to wear — descriptions of things we didn’t have, so essentially, designing clothes.
I learned to sew in a high school class, and then dove deep into exploring that more, designing for the senior fashion show and for several events coordinated for the school. Sewing continued to be my main form of creative expression for about 8 years… until I started Thread Caravan.
While Thread Caravan incorporates textiles, the concept can be applied to any artisan area – from cooking, to metalwork, to textiles… and everything in between. Since starting Thread Caravan I’ve found myself creating things much less, and instead focusing my creative energy on creating experiences. In addition to the trips, I manage Thread Caravan’s website, email newsletter and social media, all areas that provide an outlet for visual expression.
I grew up expressing my creativity through visual design – my first drawing of a house was from an aerial perspective.
#6 Thread Caravan is the culmination of your passion for travelling and your creative self, as well as your love and commitment to honour cultures from around the world. How has the process of launching Thread Caravan been?
I studied Global Sociology and International Business during undergrad and gained a general understanding of business practices via that outlet. I also had a sort of accidental business upcycling clothes for about 5 years. I started by just selling things on Etsy and then it slowly and organically grew into something larger. When I decided to start Thread Caravan, I knew I didn’t have ALL of the business knowledge I would need, but I knew that what I did have combined with support of friends and family would be enough. My good friend Shannon Hill of Thread Caravan’s older sister Yoga Caravan, was an essential pillar of support during Thread Caravan’s start up. Roommates at the time, we brainstormed names, logo, business structure, accounting and more. I’ve also garnered support from my mom (who is a real estate agent and business coach), and multiple friends – Carolyn Canetti of Travel Under the Radar, photographer Karim Iliya and photographer and lawyer Luis Cardenas, my friend Kaleena who is a little marketing genius and so smart with words, and many more!
When I started Thread Caravan, I knew I didn’t have ALL of the business knowledge I would need, but I knew that what I did have combined with support of friends and family would be enough.
#7 How does moving places feel for you? And, where is currently home? Do you have any essentials to make a place home, or something you do to create a ‘homely space’ for yourself?
The first things I try to get comfortable with in a new home are transportation and food. Figure out how you’ll be getting around – specifically, do you need a bike or public transportation pass? Whatever it is, figure it out so you can get around easily from the very beginning. That will help ease the transition and connect you to your new home. The latter – food. Figure out your grocery shopping routine. Meals can be a grounding way to create a routine for yourself.
Also important are friends! You can do everything else on the checklist to make a place feel like home, but if you don’t have a community of friends there, your other accomplishments can quickly become overshadowed by loneliness.
I’m currently based in Atlanta, Georgia (although that’s set to change to Mexico in just a couple months). Because I grew up in Atlanta and have a community of friends and family here, I know it’s a place I will always continue to return at least for visits and maybe for longer term living.
For me, the first things to do when moving to a new home are figuring out how you’ll get around and food – meals are a grounding way to create a routine for yourself.
#8 How do you think travel has impacted your life, and who you are?
I am an experiential learner, so I travel to learn – to understand how people relate to one another and exist in their environments. I travel to connect with others and have shared experiences.
#9 How do you find balance in your life? Do you have any rituals?
Everyday is different – which is something I actually love. One day I might be designing a PDF for a trip, the next day I might be catching up on emails, the next day doing some press outreach, and the next doing something totally unrelated like going camping with friends. But most likely, I’m doing little bits of many things each day.
Most of my rituals change drastically depending on where I am. I have my pup to thank for most of my groundedness. We go on a couple walks each day, and I spend most of my breaks during work days giving him cuddles on the back patio. These little moments may feel like an interruption in work flow at first, but are always much needed for both connection and peace of mind.
Some little moments or rituals may feel like an interruption in work flow at first, but are always much needed for both connection and peace of mind.
#10 What is connection for you?
Being present. Listening. Not living with expectations.
#11 In 10 years time… how do you see the Thread Caravan?
In 10 years time I hope Thread Caravan will have grown into a more expansive network, working more consistently with more artisan groups, particularly in marginalized areas where groups feel that they would like to share their culture with others.
I would like to partner with other organizations in a way that can make trips financially accessible to more people. I would like to have a network of companions leading trips with me. I’d like to be more available for collaboration with artisans in whatever ways might suit their creative desires. I’d like to communicate the stories of our artisan partners and their creative processes in ways that can be shared with more people – books, documentaries, etc.
And so many more ideas, but these are the main ones for now!
A ‘QUICKIE’ WITH CAITLIN//
I’ve been deeply inspired by all of Naomi Klein‘s books! Her most recent ‘No Is Not Enough‘ is so important and I think everyone should read it
My motto is ‘Through diversity we recognize our unity’
I’m currently obsessed with tacos al pastor, home design ideas + farming culture
My favourite (ethical) fashion brands currently are Maker and Mineral, Carla Fernandez and Blockshop Textiles (Blockshop does more homewares than clothing but should still be on this list!). I actually created an ethical shopping guide on the Thread Caravan site with more favorite ethical brands
#1 in my travel bucket list: crystal caves in Mexico – although I don’t think they’re currently possible to visit
My next trip will be to Morocco for the month of September. I’ll be traveling with photographer Luis Cardenas. We’ll be hopping around cities like Marrakech and Fez but spending most of our time in more rural areas. My goal is to connect with artisans and scout potential accommodation for Thread Caravan trips. Follow along our journey on the TC IG and my personal IG.
At least once in a lifetime, everyone must see, travel or experience really swimming in the ocean
A place to travel solo: U.S. National Parks
A place to travel with your friend(s): Mexico
A place to travel with your partner: Iceland
Follow Caitlin on:
All images by Paula Harding, via Thread Caravan.
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