Thread Caravan: Caitlin Garcia-Ahern on learning an ancient craft on your next holiday.
Caitlin Garcia-Ahern has found a beautiful way to blend the things she most loves in her life by starting her business Thread Caravan. Based in Mexico, Caitlin carefully curates workshops in Mexico, Guatemala and Central America where you can learn artisan textile techniques from the locals.
Tell me more about the Thread Caravan trips, are they an opportunity to travel whilst learning an ancient craft and meeting these wonderful craftsmen and women?
Yes, exactly. We partner with local artisan cooperatives, families and individuals who teach all-level courses related to whatever the craft focus is: natural dyeing with local plants, weaving on footlooms and backstrap looms, ceramics, making mezcal, and more.
Our local partners are the instructors, and our team of guides (including myself) are the facilitators. Together we educate, translate and make sure the group has an enjoyable experience.
In addition to craft instruction, each of our experience packages includes boutique accommodation, meals, in-country transportation, hikes and other activities to enjoy the area + more.
What inspired you to start Thread Caravan? Is it a possion project, a lifestyle enabler, or both?
Thread Caravan is definitely a passion project!
The short version of its creation is that I spent time working with two fair trade organizations -- one large and well-established and the other a start-up, and both had the same problem: there was a gap between makers and consumers. I realized that until this gap was bridged, models based on consuming things wouldn’t be effective in supporting artisan communities. I wanted to come up with a way to support indigenous and marginalized artisan makers directly that wasn’t dependent on consumerism; in a way that would bridge the gap via experiential connection.
I really love the work I do, and I think that in itself is a lifestyle enabler. Yes, visiting beautiful places is a huge perk; but I also enjoy my day-to-day roles: communication and coordination, planning, taking care of people, connecting communities, answering questions, problem solving… aspects that are also part of the job description.
What were the first steps you took to get your business started?
Launching Thread Caravan took about a year of behind-the-scenes work: working other jobs to save money, bouncing ideas off of friends (particularly my friend Shannon, who has two badass businesses of her own - Yoga Caravan and Magda Made, and Fede, a Guatemalan friend who was my trip co-host for the few Guatemala workshops), registering the business, building the website, and getting our pilot trip set up.
Our first workshop was a weaving experience on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. This experience is still one we facilitate today, and still one of my favorites! Upon officially launching Thread Caravan, I moved to Guatemala so that I could immerse myself in the culture and regularly connect with our partners, an essential part of running this business well. I lived there for a year, and now live in Mexico.
What is unique about how you have structured your business?
I think there are several things that make Thread Caravan stand out. In the 3.5 years since our inception, plenty of other curated travel companies have popped up. The main way in which Thread Caravan stands out is our hands-on approach to learning and connection. Our trips are more like workshops than typical tours. We believe people have a deeper understanding through hands-on experiences, and that craft has a way of connecting people that sometimes words cannot. We also believe it’s important that our experiences be led by local craftspeople rather than an outsiders.
Business vs personal – are these two elements positively interwoven in your life? Are there any deliberate lifestyle choices you made when designing your work/life balance?
The two are very interwoven, but I feel like it’s a healthy mix. I love my work, and I consider both the people I work with and the people who join our trips to be friends.
I try not to put too much pressure on myself in either work or personal areas, allowing myself to find a balance that works for me personally rather than confining to a social norm. I allow myself to shape my days depending on what I’m inspired to do in that moment. If I am really inspired by a particular project, I might work long hours and dedicate an entire week to that one idea. Or, alternatively, if I’m having trouble focusing on a project, I allow myself to take breaks and do other things -- go to the market, take my dogs to the park, read in bed, etc.
What have been your career highlights so far?
I especially love the people I meet and enjoying the relationships as they grow. The folks I work with are inspiring in so many ways - their commitment to their families, their drive, their ability to live a slow paced life focused on what’s important. Most of the artisans I work with are women, and many have paved the way in their communities -- introducing new ideas that end up becoming the norm and benefiting everyone in the community.
I also really love all the people who join our trips. We host mostly women (although men are welcome!), with a wide range of demographics - the main one being age difference. We’ve had guests as young as 19 and as old as 70. It’s really beautiful to see multiple generations of women with totally different backgrounds learning from one another and connecting over a shared interest.
What challenges did you face when starting your business?
Several, but I think the most difficult for me was money. I want to make the trips accessible to everyone, but of course also want to compensate everyone we work with fairly. It was hard to charge appropriate prices in the beginning, but I feel more comfortable now, knowing that what we offer is worth the cost.
Where do you live and what do you love about the place?
Right now I’m living in Mexico City, and I plan to move to Oaxaca soon. Mexico City is vibrant and pulsing, with a million things happening at once. In particular I love my boyfriend and I’s home we’ve created here - it was built in 1900 and with tall ceilings, white walls and plenty of plants and cozy textiles, it feels like a refuge from the chaos of the city.
I am looking forward to being based in Oaxaca. It’s where most of our workshops take place, and I am excited to meet even more artisan groups and explore more of the small towns there. The city is situated in a valley with many small towns, cultural traditions and beautiful nature surrounding.
What are your top addresses for the town you live in?
For a museum fix: I read somewhere that Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world, and I don’t doubt it. There are hundreds. I still have many on my list that I’d like to visit, but two of my favorites are Luis Barragan's house and the Popular Art museum.
For eating tacos: Al Pastor tacos are the specialty of Mexico City, and although I’m not a big meat eater, I make the occasional exception for al pastor. My favorite place for al pastor tacos is el Tizoncito.
For a nature fix: I love los Dinamos park, but if you don’t live here, it might be a bit hard to figure out how to get there. For visitors: Chapultapec Park is beautiful, or a bit further out: Nevado de Toluca.
For cafe or bar time: Cicatriz cafe in Juarez neighborhood. This quaint spot is perfect any time of day, from morning coffee to evening wine with friends. They have a small selection of food too!
Where did you grow up?
Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. I lived there until I was 18 and have since lived in New Orleans, New York, Cambodia, Maui, Guatemala and Mexico.
Has your hometown or childhood influenced the lifestyle that you have set up for yourself today?
Yes, two main influences pop into mind.
Atlanta is a place with a strong cultural identity. I identify very much as an Atlantan and a southerner, and while I may not bring all the qualities those labels entail into my daily routines in Mexico, I do have a deep appreciation for other people who also value their heritage.
Also, attending inner-city public schools allowed me to have friends from all different backgrounds. This diversity taught me how to find common ground with people, no matter our differences.
Do you have a role model, mentor or anyone who was instrumental in how you have shaped your life thus far?
People inspire me in different ways, so I have many role models.
My aunt Kathryn for living her dream, Plum Nelli. My mom and grandmothers for being strong women. Activists. Artists. People who exemplify honesty, passion, care + creativity.
What book have you recently read that you would recommend?
I just finished reading Eva Luna by Isabel Allende. Allende’s books really sweep me away into the worlds she creates and I highly recommend any of her novels if you’re seeking a captivating fiction read.
For non-fiction, I Rigoberta Menchu is a must-read for anyone planning to travel to Guatemala.
All photos courtesy of Lea Wright