Everyday Icon: The Traveler, Artist & Social Entrepreneur, Caitlin Ahern

If you're getting ready for a summer vacay or any upcoming voyage abroad, you'll want to take notes from this inspiring (and truly worldly) founder of a unique craft tourism company called Thread Caravan.
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Image Credit: Paula Harding

Image Credit: Paula Harding

Bright baskets full of tropical fruits balanced gingerly on cobblestones. Majestic clusters of cacti and vivid blooms unfurled before equally vibrant walls. Textured yarns and intricately patterned textiles hanging from their looms. Tortillas, stacked and steaming. 

One quick scan of Thread Caravan's Instagram feed is enough to ignite a bone-deep blaze of wanderlust and a butterflies-in-the-stomach sort of craving for international adventure. But for Caitlin Ahern, the founder of this unique travel company, there's so much more to globetrotting than simple sensory indulgence. Caitlin and her team take participants on artisan adventures around the world to encourage a new form of tourism that's ethical, impactful and inspiring — one that works to support local makers, preserve ancient cultural art forms and teach travelers to truly appreciate the process behind the hand-hewn mementos they bring back home. 

Since we're jetting off into vacation season, we sat down with Caitlin to get her perspective on travel. Below, she explains the catalyst for launching her company, plus her advice for every stage of a successful trip, from the early planning phase to the process of settling in somewhere foreign. She also offers a few potential destinations that we've immediately added to our bucket lists.

Tell us about the impetus for launching Thread Caravan. Was there a particular aha moment that sparked the idea?

Definitely. The concept is really a culmination of a few ideas that had been brewing, but it took one conversation in particular to wrangle them all together. 

During university I studied both Sociology and International Business. I started getting involved in the fair trade realm, realizing that propelling the artisan sector in developing countries could lead to tremendous benefits in living conditions. However, as someone who is hyper-aware of the U.S.' habit of over-consumption, I didn't like how the fair trade model is based on consumerism — particularly because I realized large and unethical corporations were capitalizing on this "fair trade" trend and people's impulse to justify their purchases with social good (without any real knowledge of the person or process behind the product). In order for fair trade to really work, it has to be done from a place of good ethics, with respect and transparency.

At that time, I felt discouraged by the patterns I was seeing in the fair trade world and decided to put my energy elsewhere. I moved to Cambodia to teach 2nd grade, combining two other things that had always interested me: teaching and travel. That year had a major impact on my life, teaching me the ins and outs of not just how to travel, but also how to root yourself in a foreign place. I also learned SO much about teaching. But ultimately, I didn't feel connected to the specific position — I knew I wanted to teach, but in a different, more creative and less structured capacity. So again I shifted directions…

At that time I moved to Hawaii where I learned more about living off the land. It was during that time that the "aha" conversation happened. During a layover in Seattle, I got to have a visit with my good friend and roommate from Cambodia, photographer Alexander Crook. He had just returned from an environmental photography project in Alaska. While there he was documenting the story of indigenous Alaskans who felt financial pressures to sell their land to logging companies. The inevitable deforestation had effects not only on the land, but on the river's cleanliness and the salmon population, and thus the community's livelihoods. Alex and I then dove into our experiences with eco-tourism, seeing it as a possible financial solution that wouldn't hurt the land. And then the aha moment happened…Native Americans are known for their intricate arts with deep cultural significance. By supporting these communities and crafts through educational workshops, not only is the heritage more likely to be preserved, but it can be so without detrimental impact on the environment.

A craft tourism company — Thread Caravan — would provide a solution for communities like the indigenous population in Alaska and support fair trade artisan groups in a way that is not dependent on consumerism, while combining my experience teaching, doing art and facilitation cross-cultural connection.

What were some of the challenges you hit as you got Thread Caravan off the ground and/or still find yourself navigating now, two years in? And, what about the opposite — have there been any sweet surprises or stand-out moments when you realized you were really onto something?

The hardest thing has definitely been tapping into the market. I know we've created something that so many people will love. But the trips are't something people can just buy impulsively with the spare change laying around…they're something people have to save for and plan for, and so the process of finding people to book the trips is a little slower than it might be with other things. Also, I started the business with basically no seed money, so no budget for advertising. This means I've been leaning on word of mouth, social media and collaborations with other artisan businesses as the main forms of marketing. Again, it means promotion and growth is slower, but it feels more organic and connected at the same time. I've personally had direct contact at least via Instagram or email with each person who books a trip, and then I get to meet them in person during the trips, bringing it all full circle.

What about the opposite — have there been any sweet surprises or stand-out moments when you realized you were really onto something?

I think there are always little clues that help you realize if what you’re doing is the right fit for you. While running Thread Caravan provides plenty of obstacles, there are none that I don't feel prepared to take on with the support of friends, family, artisan partners and our travelers. And the positive moments that remind me I'm on the right path for now, always come so much stronger. 

One particular moment that felt particularly rewarding was being asked to speak at the Handmade is Human forum hosted by the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. I sat on a panel beside experts in the craft tourism world, and I felt somewhat out of place being so young and new to the scene, but also so honored and humbled to be considered.

Another sweet example happened during our last Guatemala trip. We have worked very consistently with a weaver there, employing her as an artisan instructor. This past trip we were able to give her more work: the responsibility and opportunity of coordinating the weavers. She recruited her sisters and aunt to accompany her in teaching weaving and her brother to be the pick-up truck taxi driver. Because our trips aren't happening all the time, the growth of relationships with artisans is slower, but this particular instance was a good example and reminder of the possibilities well-maintained relationships can have.

Let's chat about travel in general. We travel for all sorts of reasons — relaxing vacations, outdoor adventures, cultural explorations…the list goes on. Why do you see travel (and, in particular, international travel) as valuable and important?

Travel is only as good as the intention behind it. If you are open to learning new things and engaging with people different than you, then whatever form of travel you choose will have a positive impact on personal growth. Even if you have a "bad" trip, there will likely be some lessons to take from it.

Maybe more important than personal growth is travel's ability to create bridges between cultures. There's a lot of ignorance, greed and hate being spread throughout the world right now. Culturally intolerant groups are feeling more confident in their beliefs and acting out in violence. I believe most of that hatred and ignorance originates from demographic bubbles where people aren't able to connect with people who are different than them. People in these bubbles often attribute negative situations and fears (like job insecurity and crime) to "the others." If every person could step out of their bubble and connect with those "others," I believe the world be more understanding, accepting and loving place and societal systems would begin to function more fluidly. Travel is a tool to facilitate that change.

Are there any especially memorable or life-changing stories you can share from your international adventures (with or without a Thread Caravan crew)?

I really love people, but the things that stand out the most when reflecting on travel tend to be related to nature. In particular I loved swimming with wildlife when I lived in Hawaii — octopi, dolphins, turtles, etc. I loved seeing the Northern Lights dance above me while camping in Iceland. I reallllly loved camping next to an erupting volcano in Guatemala. These things aren't just some bucket list check-offs. They are reminders of how alive and fragile our planet is.

Sometimes, globetrotting can seem like an extravagant pastime for those with impossibly deep pockets and impeccably unencumbered calendars. Do you have any tips for tackling the hurdles that can stop us from booking the trips we spend years fantasizing about?

Definitely. One key for me has been actually living in the places I want to travel. This style obviously isn't for everyone, but even a simple few week WWOOFing exchange can help you get to a place in a more affordable way. Living somewhere also allows for more immersive experience, the kind that I prefer.

If timing is the issue, plan a big trip during a transitional time in your life. As you start to feel one job coming to an end, rather than seeking out the next one immediately, opt to take a trip for a couple weeks. I've also been hearing of more and more of my friends who work in the corporate world mention that their bosses signed off on letting them work remotely for a few weeks.

All that said, I recognize it is a privilege to travel. I'm single and don't have children, and I choose to defer my student loans and not stress about the debt right now. But not everyone has those same circumstances. 

What's the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place? How do you get yourself acclimated?

I love to travel places where I have a contact or two, so meeting a friend for a lunch is always a nice way to squeeze in a visit and ask questions and get recommendations to begin the trip. If I don't have a contact somewhere, a good old-fashioned walk usually does the trick.

Is there any approach, philosophy or planning technique you advise for making the most out of any international journey?

Hmm, that's tricky, because I think it totally depends on the place you're traveling. Typically, I prefer having some accommodation booked ahead of time. I've done the whole "show-up with nothing reserved" style, and sometimes it works, and other times it creates a totally unnecessary level of stress. Now I opt to have accommodation reserved for at least the first few nights of a trip. I prefer accommodation to be more intimate: a boutique hotel or an airbnb where you feel more a part of your surroundings. From there, you can check in with folks at the hotel or airbnb to see what their personal recommendations are.

You've lived everywhere from Hawaii (as you've mentioned) to Cambodia to New Orleans and more. What does "home" mean to you these days? How do you build a cozy home in a foreign environment, and how do you know when it's time to move onto somewhere new?

I'm still working on figuring this one out. When traveling often, I think it's important to maintain some routines that help you feel more at home wherever you are. For me, that means trying to eat healthy without being too neurotic about it. I am working on building up more routines — I think some sort of fitness routine or meditation would likely be helpful in feeling grounded in the movement.

Another thing I'm working towards is creating a more permanent home base, so that when I am hopping around amongst other places, I have somewhere familiar to return. I'm planning to give Mexico City a try towards the end of this year.

Your love for travel is matched by a passion for all sorts of art-making, from apparel design to ceramics and more. How have your travels informed your creative work? And what are you working on these days? How do you make the time to create while you're on the road (and running a business, at that)?

My top creative passion has always been sewing. Travel has enhanced sewing by introducing me to new fiber forms and textile styles. I now put more focus and emphasis on the materials that goes into making a piece. Before I started Thread Caravan, I had a small brand upcycling old garments. I now feel inspired to do the same (bring new life to discarded pieces), but now with handwoven or embroidered textiles.

I am very curious to practice embroidery more. I think it would add a whole new layer to my textile passion and be a meditative alternative to the more mentally demanding making a pattern of a garment, which feels a bit like creating a 3D puzzle in your brain and then translating that to fabric that is free to move as it's worn.

What global destinations should we add to our "to visit" list, stat? 

I always like to give different suggestions depending on the person asking. Some places currently piquing my interest are Baja and Chiapas in Mexico; Japan; Iran; the country of Georgia; a Portugal and Morocco combo; and definitely hanging out with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda! 

And where will you and Thread Caravan be headed next?

We're doing a Thread Caravan trip to Oaxaca in October to study natural dyeing and weaving. In November, we're leading a backstrap weaving trip in Guatemala that I'm really excited about, and then we'll be back to Oaxaca in December for cooking and mezcal-making.

p.s. If you're eager to travel but averse to planning, we have several pieces of actionable advice.