Tight Knit

How one Bolivian manufacturer is building a business that puts people first.

Words and photos by ambassador James Roh

I’m greeted by the whirring sounds of machines rhythmically knitting pieces of fabric. The material is then strategically placed in large piles next to the knitters who will complete the knitting process from here. The employees have their work cut out for them, yet they don’t appear to be stressed or uncomfortable. In fact, they talk softly among each other and occasionally burst into laughter. One employee stops what she is doing and goes for her lunch break, casually leaving a half-knit sweater on the sewing machine.

Diego was right, I think to myself.

Earlier, during our drive to the Altiknits factory in La Paz, commercial manager Diego Daza explained to me that his company was rather unique. For one, unlike most Bolivian factories, they fully comply with national laws that establish minimum worker wages, including overtime and holiday pay, and mandate employee benefits like maternal care. But that’s just the beginning.

“We believe that it’s not only about the business itself. It’s also about making it the right way and be transparent with everybody and just be a responsible way to make business,” Daza explained in English. “Sometimes, of course, it can cost more, but we try to make the people happy.”

While most manufacturing processes of the Cotopaxi Libre Sweater take place on knitting machines, certain steps are done by skilled hands.

Social responsibility initiatives include subsidized lunches for employees, ergonomic chairs, good factory lighting, parties and events for employees, holiday gifts for children of employees, and more. Altiknits is Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certified. This independent team of global social compliance experts ensures that Altiknits complies with its standards for promoting safe, lawful, humane, and ethical manufacturing.

After our tour of the factory, Diego takes me to meet the hand-knitting division of Altiknits. Dressed in traditional Bolivian clothing—colorful skirts, blouses, and shawls topped with bowler or bucket hats—a group of outgoing women sits side by side knitting, chatting, chewing coca leaves, and enjoying each other’s company. This group of women has known each other for more than 20 years, and while they primarily work from home, they meet at least once a week to socialize and work.

Alicia Capu, right, laughs with friends at Altiknits’ knitting club. Working at Altiknits has provided additional income for Capu and her family, enabling them to send their three children to college.

Daza explains that hiring the hand knitters substantially empowers the women in various ways, especially within the context of a male-dominated Bolivian workforce. The income increases a woman’s autonomy and can also be used as additional family income, like in the case of Altiknits employee Alicia Capu.

Raw llama fiber waiting to be processed.

Prior to joining Altiknits, Capu sold drinks on the corner for a very small profit and felt frustrated because the streets were not fit for young children. As a mother, she couldn’t stand to be away from her kids. With that in mind, a friend taught her to knit, and she got a job as a hand knitter for Altiknits. The flexibility enabled her to take care of her children at home and work in her free time, often late into the night. The additional income, along with her husband’s truck-driving wages, was used to send their three children to university.

Spun llama-fiber yarn dyed and ready to be made into clothes.

Back at the factory, I catch a smiling worker taking a photo of me with her phone. Puzzled at first, I realize that I am wearing a Libre Sweater that was knit in this very facility, quite possibly by the photographer herself. Clearly, Altiknits has fostered a sense of pride in its employees, which in itself is something to be proud of.

Ambassador James Roh traveled to South America this year to visit the employees of Altiknits and its sister facility, Altifibers. These Bolivian companies work together to provide fiber, yarns, and completed knit products to people around the world.