When Thomas Kilian Bruderer spotted a handcrafted agave net bag in the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich in 2012, it was one of those lightbulb moments. The Berlin textiles designer had been searching for a more stylish and comfortable alternative to the eco-friendly bags that were currently on the market. “I was bored of the rucksacks you could buy in the shops. They all look the same and were often too stiff or heavy, Thomas says. “I wanted to create a stylish bag you could wear as a backpack or remove one shoulder and use a tote bag.”
Inspiration arrived at the most unexpected time when he stumbled upon the ancient net bag of the Mayans in the museum. “I was immediately fascinated by its delicate appearance,” Thomas says. “This net was able to stretch to almost twice its width and easily spring back to its original size, was highly robust and thus could carry heavy loads.” Thanks to an ethnologist friend, Thomas learned that the bag had originated from the highlands of Mexico, where it was worn across the forehead to transport maize or firewood. Called the ‘Nu’tí’ by the Mayans, or the ‘Cho’jac’ in the other widely spoken dialect Tzeltal, the craft had been passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years. The delicate creations were made out of fibres from the leaves of the Agave cactus, in a process taking weeks of manual work.
Thomas wanted to take this ancient technique and adapt it for modern, conscious consumers. But it was going to be no easy feat. The craft had gradually disappeared over the years and was verging on complete extinction. “One of the biggest challenges was to find craftsmen in the rural high mountains of Mexico who still work with this ancient technique and convince them to join this social project to save this craft from extinction,” Thomas says. Although language and cultural barriers made this challenging, Thomas managed to get a small indigenous Maya-Tzotzil community in Chiapis on board.
The addition of leather straps sourced locally from German cattle and sustainable European linen completed the net bags and in 2016, Cho’jac (pronounced “tscho-chac”) was born. The bag comes in two colours, coffee ecru and asphalt black, and are dyed using natural ingredients like soot and spider webs. Crafted out of reusable ingredients, the bags are 100% recyclable.
The brand’s tagline is ‘hardcore handicraft’ — a testament to the bag’s slow and complex manufacturing process. “All of our bags are made completely by hand,” Thomas says. The process starts with harvesting the agave leaves. The farmers then remove the fruit pulp and beat the leaves until the fibres come out. They then wash and dry the fibres and manually spin it to a thread on their knee. Three threads make the yarn and only then they can start hooking the mesh. Making just one bag can take from four to six weeks.
Cho’jac is part of a burgeoning local sustainability movement. “There is a vibrant and well established sustainable fashion scene in Berlin and in general, Germany,” he says. “As well as the biannual Berlin Fashion Week, we have several trade fairs like the Green Show Room and the Ethical Fashion show.” However, for Thomas, Cho’jac is as much a social aid project as it is a sustainable accessories line. This focus can be seen not only in his esteem team of Mayan artisans in the high mountains of Chiapas, but throughout the entire production chain — from the family-run leather tanners to the disabled workshop workers who put the final touches on the bags.
While Thomas is passionate about preserving the traditional Mayan handicraft, he’s adamant that Cho’jac shouldn’t become a mass product. He doesn’t want the demand for the bags to become so great that the Mayan people depend on it — nor does he want to become rich by exploiting their tradition.
That’s not to say that Cho’jac isn’t destined for great things, though. The bags have received glowing feedback from customers and critics, alike. “Our customers love the high comfort the Cho’jac backpack gives them, even when they transport heavy loads,” Thomas says.” Due to the net construction, air can always circulate on your back and you never feel moist.” The design community have started to take notice, too, with Cho’jac scoring nominations for prestigious awards like the German Design Awards and Bundespreis Ecodesign Awards.
So, what’s next for Cho’jac? Thomas reveals that the team are currently working on shopping bag with modifiable handles, as well as a more extensive range of sustainable accessories made from the durable agave fibre. “We also plan to continue our commitment to the indigenous population and are always looking for new co-operations and interested retailers who want to sell our products.”