Cho’jac meshes things up
Berlin brand Cho’jac offers luxurious and timeless mesh bagpacks. Read up on how it preserves Mayan handicraft in our interview.
The small Berlin-based label Cho’jac uses traditional Mayan craftsmanship for their designs and newly interprets the nets for the Western market. The founder, Thomas Kilian Bruderer, takes a sustainable approach and applies traditional techniques – the brown nets are dyed with soot and spider webs. Bruderer grew up in in the Haute Couture capital St. Gallen in Switzerland hence having a sense for products of high quality. Even though the influence of fashion was great from day one, he decided to take another approach studying textile design at the Kunsthochschule Weißensee in Berlin. That’s where he founded his label. We (FAP) talked to Thomas Kilian Bruderer (TKB) about dying craftsmanship, his accessory label Cho’jac and what makes his designs a luxury product.
FAP: First of all: How do you pronounce the name of your label correctly and what does it mean?
TKB: The word Cho’jac (pronounced “tscho-chac”) comes from the Maya dialect Tzeltal and means mesh. The indigenous people in Mexico’s south highland use the term to describe the bags that I slightly adapted offer with my brand. By the way there’s an audio sample on my website for all who don’t know how to pronounce the name properly.
FAP: You turned the mesh bags into wearable backpacks. How did you come up with the idea?
TKB: I first saw them in the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich where they were on display. I bought one at the Museum’s gift shop and contacted the ethnologist, Rosmarie Pazella, who bought the Cho’jacs for the museum. I adapted the mesh bag for my personal needs and added the leather backpack straps and a vertical strap for more stability. It became my master thesis and is now grown into a small accessory label.
FAP: What do the Mayan people use the mesh bags for?
TKB: They use the Cho’jacs to transport heavy weights such as wood and corn. They wear it on a leather strap around their forehead, which is the best way to spread the weight across the body – but no one would wear it that way here.
FAP: And what makes it so special?
TKB: The technique they use is very unique. Every single mesh is hooked individually producing a structure that is similar to a wire mesh fence. They use sisal, which is a very durable fibre – you might know it from carpets, cat trees and ropes. The combination of both makes the Cho’jac extremely loadable – the mesh stretches out but completely comes back into form after.
FAP: How exactly do the farmers produce the Cho’jac?
TKB: It’s a long process that starts with harvesting the agave leaves. Then they beat it and remove the fruit pulp and beat it again until the fibres come out. They wash and dry the fibres afterwards and manually spin it to a thread on their knee. Three threads make the yarn and only then they can start hooking the mesh. It takes four to six weeks to produce one of the bags.
FAP: Are there no machines that could speed up the process?
TKB: No, that’s what makes is so special. For wire mesh fences there are machines as the wire can be telescoped due to its stiffness. But it takes three steps to form a row of mesh and it can only be done by hand.
FAP: How about craftsmanship in general in Mexico?
TKB: They have traditional craftsmanship such as stitching and weaving but a lot is being replaced. Meanwhile street vendors have many products that were made in China. They might look similar to the Mexican ones but are made from synthetic fabrics.
FAP: And is it the same with the Cho’jac technique?
TKB: The producers are farmers who make them alongside of tilling their fields. They leave their mountain villages once or twice a month and try to sell the Cho’jacs in bigger cities. Many don’t value the traditional handicraft anymore and try to get the price down. And there are acrylic replacements. The big difference is that the threads are glued which is not as durable. If there was a hole, the bag really is useless.
FAP: And the traditionally produced Cho’jacs are indestructible?
TKB: Well, if there was a hole in the traditional Cho’jacs, you can simply knot the ends together. The rows don’t just come undone one by one. The hole stays local due to the complex production technique.
FAP: It’s a shame if such a long-standing technique is gradually superseded. How can it be protected from becoming extinct?
TKB: Craftsmanship has a long history and tradition that has to be secured. I want to give something back to the culture that I use which is why I’m in touch with a NGO and an arts centre. I want to provide the people with classes to learn how to produce a Cho’jac. The farmers usually pass it on orally from one generation to another. One of my producers would give the course.
FAP: So is your brand more of an aid project rather than an accessory label then?
TKB: It’s both for me. I don’t want to become rich at the expense of someone else but want to give back. The technique is thousands of years old and its preservation is important to me. The Cho’jac should not become a mass product. The farmers in Mexico couldn’t handle that and I don’t want them to be dependent on it.
FAP: On your website you describe Cho’jac as a luxury product whose worth doesn’t come from rare materials or social prestige. What makes it a luxury product then?
TKB: Mainly the sophisticated technique and slow production process makes it something very unique. Time is very expensive nowadays and the slow production takes a completely other approach to the fast mechanical manufacturing. That’s what makes it a luxury object for me. You could compare it to the production of a Hermès bag that takes many steps to complete and can only be done manually.
FAP: Not only the slow design, the craftsmanship, and material make the Cho’jac a sustainable alternative. What other aspects to you take into account?
TKB: I know all of my producers personally and show all customers transparently what the bag is made of and where it is produced. That means: the linen is sourced in Europe and is woven in Germany. The leather comes from German cattle and is naturally dyed in the South of Germany and the cotton lining is Oeko-Tex certified. Apart from that we work together with a workshop for disabled where the lining is being sewn in. I manually put together all of the pieces. The round-head rivets can be removed so that you can use the leather straps as a backpack and as a cross-body bag. So the Cho’jac is completely recyclable.
Interview: Tanita Hecking