Getting stitched in Peru
by Ellie Kemp for Embellish Magazine
‘Textiles + South America’ I typed, and clicked on ‘search’. I was looking for an antidote to my high pressure job, googling holiday ideas that combined a continent I’d always wanted to visit, with a subject of long-standing interest. I had no idea quite how far that click would take me.
What the search engine turned up was a link for PUCHKA Peru, a Canadian-based operator specialising in textile-focused tours of South America. PUCHKA (named for the drop spindle that epitomises Peruvian skill with yarn and textiles since ancient times) was founded by Sasha McInnes, a Canadian textile artist who grew up in Peru. Her love and understanding of the country and culture are as much at the core of her remarkable tours as the network of Peruvian artist friends she brings together to demonstrate and teach their techniques to visitors. Everything from hand and machine embroidery to knitting and braiding, and from tapestry to gourd-engraving and pan pipes. In the space of a few friendly emails I was signed up for a three-week tour of southern Peru and its textiles, including workshops in embroidery and tapestry.
My first workshop, in the stunning, white-walled city of Arequipa, was in hand embroidery. Mother-and-daughter team Elena and Anabél have hung some of their work from the mulberry tree that shades our courtyard workshop, to give us an idea of what we are aiming for. No pressure! The traditional felt skirts of their home region of Huancayo (their hems thick with intricate flowers and curlicues), hang beside jewel-bright bags patterned with birds, butterflies and delicate blooms. I am a newcomer to the art of embroidery, and these hanging gardens are an intoxicating sight: so much beauty and skill. Am I crazy to think this is really something I could learn? The small bag I choose for my model is entirely covered with tiny flowers blossoming on a twisting vine. The original represents eight days’ work for Elena, who learned stitching around the same time she learned to walk. I have just four days. She could have steered me away from it to something more my weight, but instead she sets about helping me to achieve the impossible. Lesson one: generosity.
Sasha has advised us to approach the workshops in the manner of Peruvian children who, like Elena, like Anabél and her brothers, tend to learn weaving and stitching at home as a matter of course, by observing the adults around them. Rather than treating it as an intellectual exercise and bombarding our teachers with questions, like children we’re invited to watch and then to try, learning by sight and touch. At first this is incredibly frustrating: needle and thread are docile in Elena’s deft fingers, forming neat French knots (bolitas) and overlapping bullion knots (gusanitos, our teachers call them: literally ‘little worms’) that build up into a perfect rose. In my hands the cotton rebels and tangles, and it seems I’m forever calling on our teachers to recover an impossible snarl-up, or to unpick an unsightly gusanito. It’s embarrassing to be this bad. I want to reassert my grown-up sense of competence by taking on the challenge with the tools I’m comfortable with—language and reason. My fellow students, both experienced embroiderers, seem to be feeling it too, grappling with new stitches and unfamiliar materials. Exclamations of impatience and frustration puff up through the mulberry leaves.
But Anabél and Elena aren’t seeing anything embarrassing in our not getting it right first time. There is not the slightest impatience in their manner as they ‘magic away’ tangles, smooth out our rumpled stitches with a practised tug, and show us the technique once again. What there is, is humour, in spades. Tailoring their vocabulary (to suit our limited Spanish), they tease us out of our impatience, encourage our efforts and salute our achievements. Lesson two: patience (and a good dose of humour).
And little by little, we begin to get it. By observing Elena fixing my mistakes, I start being able to fix my own, and eventually make fewer of them. The rose petals curl creditably around their neat bolita stamens and vine leaves begin their slow climb up the fabric. Occasional murmurs of satisfaction around me suggest that my fellow learners are making similar progress, and our talk loosens and meanders in inverse proportion to our stitches. Snatches of our ungrammatical Spanish and hoots of collective laughter are punctuated by brief instructions to keep us on track. ‘Keep the tension up. Good. Now, 17 loops on the next bullion knot.’ To which we respond, ‘Elena, you’re a slave driver!’ ‘If your needle worked as fast as your tongue, you’d be done by now.’ [Guffaw] And so to lesson three: enjoyment.
By the end of the four days, each of us has produced something we hadn’t known we were capable of. Andy has stitched incredibly fine work on silk; Beck has embroidered both sides of her bag in a homespun, hand-dyed wool yarn whose slightly uneven finish gives it a wonderful texture, but also makes it harder to work. My opus minor uses a smaller range of stitches and a smooth yarn on loose-woven fabric, but looks none-the-less gorgeous for that. I remain slightly dazzled by the idea that it’s my work. We have all been challenged to go beyond what we know, learned a happy fraction of our teachers’ mastery and laughed so much I’ve (appropriately enough) given myself a stitch.
Time for a relaxing weekend break, hiking and condor-watching in the magnificent Colca Canyon, then we’re back to Arequipa for the second workshop: in my case, tapestry. If Anabél and Elena’s handiwork had been intimidating, preparing to learn from the master weaver Máximo Laura was at another level again. Designated a ‘national living treasure’ by the Peruvian government, Máximo has made his mark on the competitive Peruvian and international textiles scenes with distinctive tapestries using rich blends of colour and contrasts of relief and texture to illustrate ritual, spiritual, cultural and natural themes. My favourite among the tapestries gleaned from www.maximolaura.com before I travelled, looks a little like Picasso’s Guernica on a fiesta day: an almost cubist explosion of colour, energy and sheer fun. We visited him in his studio and home in Lima before coming to Arequipa, and had an opportunity to observe his team of weavers at work, receive a demonstration of colour blending, and appreciate at close quarters both the great beauty and the technical skill of his tapestries.
At this point, my total tapestry output was an uneven square of knobbly weave about 15cm by 12cm, the product of a crash course in the basics of tapestry. I’d been warned I’d need the basics to be able to follow the Laura workshop. As Máximo gives us an introductory talk on colour and technique at the start of the first day, my mood veers between elation and terror. But once again, our teachers simply leave no place for fear, or for impatience, frustration or misplaced pride. With humour, unfeigned patience and what look like doublejointed fingers, Jimmy, Richard and Máximo show us how to do some of what they do, prove to us that we really can, and laugh delightedly at our pleasure each time another penny drops. The frightening array of multi-yarn weft threads in graduated shades resolves itself into an intelligible sequence and then (in fits and starts initially, but eventually) into smooth sumac.
No detail is too mechanical to be worth explaining. Máximo takes half an hour to show me how to decode the direction of knots, and suddenly my fingers know where to go to make the line move from left to right, up or down. It’s not only the mechanics they are generous with, however: we are also invited to understand the artistic and aesthetic choices behind the art of these three master weavers. We are using fragments of Laura designs as models, but choices of colour and technique are largely left to the students. With the greatest seriousness, suggestions are made, and rationales discussed—which part of the design do we want to stand out, how sharp do we want to make the contrasts of light and dark, or of texture? Where should we place this or that tone in the composition to complement the main block of colour over here?
By the end of the week, I have a beautiful, subtle tapestry, probably just over half of it my own work and the rest deadline beating speed-weaving by Jimmy and Richard. My respect, admiration and understanding of what they do have grown in equal measure. Again our teachers have helped us to achieve more than we thought possible and again, generosity, patience, humour and pleasure in the process were the order of the day.
In our three weeks in Peru, we caught a glimpse of a country that could not fail to inspire: the soaring landscapes, the rich history and continued traditions of artistic production, the warmth and intelligence of the people, and their delicious cuisine. But the more personal insight into the place and the people came, together with exciting new skills, from those two weeks of laughter-filled, intensive learning from Peruvian artists and teachers.