Peruvian Textiles –a Match for Machu Picchu?
by Frankie Owens - The Journal of Handweavers and Spinners, Wales, 2007
As I stood and looked down on the awesome sight of Machu Picchu shrouded in cloud forest atthe end of a three week tour of Perú, many would assume that this was the crowning highlight ofthe tour, but they would be wrong! Wonderful as it is, Machu Picchu is matched in its brillianceby the textile heritage of this country that stretches back to 2500 BC, when the use of fibres ingarments has first been detected by archaeologists.
Over the three weeks of the trip our experiences ranged from museums in Lima, with their amazing artefacts, to hand woven textiles crafted by master tapestry weaver Maximo Laura. We visited an alpaca farm and mill. We had textile workshops with Quechuan teachers and saw the work of Nilda Callanuapa encouraging villagers in reviving their ancient weaving skills.
There were twenty three of us in the very congenial group from eight countries, ranging in agefrom 24 to over 70, united by a love of fibre and textile crafts. Sasha McInnes of Puchka PerúTextile Tours, designed the very stimulating itinerary and managed it beautifully. Sasha waseducated in Perú and lived there for much of her youth and has a deep love of the country, itspeople and its textiles. Her contacts meant we met and were taught by some of the leadingcraftspeople of the country – a real privilege in both teaching and personal terms and we wereable to make visits and participate in events that other travelers to Perú miss out on. The workshops really made the difference between what could have been an interesting travel tour of Perúand a major creative experience. We not only learned craft techniques but acquired a greater cultural understanding of Perú and its people. The workshops were a high point of the trip. Therewere three sessions spread through the three weeks, lasting 2 or 3 days each. Choice includedtapestry weaving, backstrap weaving, Andean knitting, braiding, hand and machine embroideryand gourd engraving.
In each group we were taught by local experts who often had no English and sometimes noSpanish either. We did wonder how we would cope with this, but need not have worried. Ourteachers were delightful people for whom nothing was too much trouble. Some like RufinaHuayro, Elena Nunez, Florencio Sanabria, Leon Taype, Simona Cutipa and Panchita Velasquezcame to us from their remote villages to teach us and their skills were ones that had been passeddown the generations. Others, such as Maximo Laura and others from Taller Laura are internationally known. They are tapestry weavers, whose dramatic interpretations of nature and mythlead to stunning wall hangings. It was remarkable how effective demonstration is in learning newtechniques – words are mostly irrelevant. Learning to knit using five short bicycle spokes,hooked at one end and moving the wool with your thumbs is an experience I would not havemissed. The skills shown by the products brought along by our teachers were fantastic.
The main fibre used in knitting and weaving is alpaca, although there is wool available, but itsquality is much inferior. We were able to see alpaca and vicuna grazing on the mountains outsideArequipa. These cameloids live on the high Andean plateaus at altitudes around 13,000 feet,where the temperatures can drop to -13C. Alpacas have a wide range of natural colours fromwhite through to brown and black and their very fine fibre spins up into a soft, glossy yarn. Wewere lucky to see vicuna, as very few are left, protected in a reserve in the Andes near the spectacular Colca canyon. They have a camel coloured fleece which is immensely expensive. In Arequipa we visited the large alpaca mill run by Michel, seeing the raw fleece processed into to dyedcones. Also we were also invited into the back rooms of Da Capo, a company, which producesbeautiful hand woven shawls, made from baby alpaca by local weavers in the high Andes. Theshopping opportunities were irresistible and we were glad we had brought extra bags which werebulging on our return, with excess baggage costs being taken as a sign of success by our friends.
As we travelled around the country from Arequipa, centre of the Alpaca industry, to the remoteColca canyon and on to Cusco, the Inca stronghold, there were many locals selling produce at theroadside. Some was obviously mass produced for the tourist, but in many villages you could seelocal people making it.
Local manufacture was very obvious in the villages around Cusco where the work of Nilda Callanuapa and others from her community has been pivotal. Nilda is from Chinchero and realisedthat local weaving skills were vital for her village and the others around it, if the villagers wereto be persuaded to stay and not migrate to life in the slums in Lima. Each village has differenttraditional patterns used in their backstrap weaving, but they needed to be encouraged to usenatural dyes and to go for a quality product. A group of very dedicated individuals set up theCentre for Traditional Textiles in Cusco, where these textiles can be purchased with their particular village provenance. Local weavers also come to the centre to work, so that their techniquescan be seen. By charging a realistic price for this craft work the income enables the village to become self sustaining. The centre also houses a small museum highlighting the local crafts. Nildaran the backstrap weaving workshop we took in Cusco. Being taught by her was a great experience and certainly made me appreciate the amazing skills of the Perúvian weavers.
The use of natural dyes is increasing in modern Perúvian weaving and seeing the range of colours they can produce had the dyers in the group, including my daughter Katie, very excited.Cochineal is used extensively as the beetles live in the prickly pear cactus which is very common, and many indigenous plants are used to give a wide palette of colour for alpaca fibre usedin weaving and knitting. Spinning locally is still done on the puchka or drop spindle, but with adifferent technique to ours and in the villages local women can still be seen going about theirbusiness in local costume, spinning as they walk along.
For anyone interested in textiles a trip to Perú is an amazing treat. There is something fascinatingat every turn. Although Lima is not the most beautiful city, its museums such as the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Arqueologia e Historia and the Museo Amano house wonderful examples of ancient textiles. In Arequipa alpaca reigns supreme and Cusco is the capital of the Incanculture with all the wonderful local weaving. So when you reach Machu Picchu at the end of itall, it is not surprising that it becomes only a part of the breathtaking experience that is Peru.
Frankie Owens traveled with PUCHKA Perú Textile Tours (www.puchkaperu.com , firstname.lastname@example.org)
Owens, Frankie. "Peruvian Textiles – a Match for Machu Picchu?" The Journal of Handweavers and Spinners 2007