WEAVING IN THE ANDES
Peru’s remote and breathtakingly beautiful Andes Mountains are home to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations. People have lived in the Peruvian Andes for millennia, creating weaving traditions that have become central to the Andean way of life.
The significance of textiles in the Andes goes way beyond just the weaving of clothing. To Peru’s ancient cultures, woven textiles also relayed status and power, and, because they never used any system of writing, textiles were also used to carry detailed messages.
Everything, from the herding of Alpaca and Vicuña, to the hand-weaving of their fibers, to the use of dyes and patterns, formed important ancestral traditions and rituals that have survived in rural Andean villages to this day.
In Andean villages, the art of knitting is passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, and starting from early childhood. Weaving produces a valuable source of income to supplement what families are able to earn from their small farms. It is not uncommon to pass a Peruvian mother and her several daughters crossing high mountain passes on their way to a neighboring village, yarn in hand and weaving as they walk.
Sadly in recent decades many Andean communities have suffered greatly, through years of terrorism and civil conflict, difficult livelihoods and huge numbers of people migrating from the mountains to the city.
All this means that many ancient traditions are at risk of extinction, and that the folks who remain in the mountains can lead very tough lives, with low incomes, poor education and low standards of living. Unfortunately, Peru’s ancestral weaving traditions have also been affected and the ancient art is at serious risk of dying out forever.
Fortunately for weaving communities, Peruvian and international designers and consumers have taken a new interest in Peruvian knitwear, recognizing the quality of the fibers and the striking, characteristic designs. Designers have partnered with weaving cooperatives to find profitable new outlets for traditional textiles, bringing new opportunities to these remote communities and encourage weavers to rekindle their art and return it to its previous important status.
Apocheta works with many weaving cooperatives throughout Peru. Most of our textiles come from three weaver-owned associations in Apurimac state, in Peru’s southern Andes. This region is the country’s central heartland, a land of bare mountainside and almost endless grassland plateaus. People here live as they have done for centuries, in tiny villages of mud-bricked houses, making a living from the land and their crafts. In this part of Peru, traditional art weaving has long been an important occupation and the region’s hand-woven textiles are among the world’s finest.
Following many long and difficult years during the dark period of terrorism and internal conflict, these communities pulled together to create their own associations of weavers, helping themselves to access new markets, improve their capacity and rekindle the ancestral traditions for a new era of professional and high quality production.
The cooperatives own their own herds of Alpaca and Vicuña, whose fibers have always been prized for their quality, versatility and warmth in a land where the temperature regularly drops to 14 degrees (-10 ºC).
The associations work together, and with national and international designers and retailers like Apocheta, to improve their production, revive and protect traditions and improve their own quality of life by working to supply the highest quality hand-produced textiles for international consumers.
Thanks to this relationship between international designers and Peru’s rural cooperatives, these areas of extreme hardship are able to help themselves and create their own process of development and change through their highly-skilled and valuable work.
TRADITIONAL WEAVING METHODS
The textiles produced by our cooperatives are crafted using age-old techniques that have changed very little over the centuries.
Fibers are hand-spun into yarn before they reach the traditional looms for weaving. Each cooperative has at least one warper, an artisan skilled in the use of a warping mill that is used to prepare the yarn for weaving. Warping methods vary throughout the Andes, with each producing a distinctive cloth unique to every community.
The village of Huayunca, deep in the southern Andean mountains, has retained many of its original weaving traditions. Here, the warping is done outdoors, between stakes driven into
a wall of mud or rocks.
Once the warps are prepared, they are stretched onto looms. In Huayunca, weavers still make use of the traditional back strap loom, a simple device which has been used since ancient times. The loom is counterbalanced by the weaver’s own bodyweight and the width of the textile is determined by how far she can reach, which means that each piece is unique to the individual weaver. Each piece of artisan cloth bears the hallmark of the skilled weaver who spent hours crafting it with her own hands.
MEET THE ARTISANS
Not all of our workshops are located high in remote mountain villages. We also work with an atelier in Peru’s capital city Lima, where a number of women from one of the city’s poorest districts have a chance to use the weaving skills that have been handed down over the generations.
As is common in the villages, the women arrange their weaving around their domestic responsibilities, dropping into the workshop for a few hours once their children and chores have been taken care of. In this way, they are able to earn some additional income from their craft, while managing all their daily burdens.
All of the women weave to help support their families, to put food on the table and to pay for their children’s educations.
From left to right: Elvia and her child, Mrs. Santosa, Yessenia, Mrs. Julia, Mirva (owner), Antonia and Mrs. Macaria Gonzales
Two sisters, Quesia and Yesenia, are typical members of the tight-knit community of weavers in this cooperative. At 27 and 28 years old, the sisters have two children each. Yesenia was abandoned by her husband and left to raise her children, one of which was born with severe disabilities.
From right to left, Quesia and Yesenia
Like many residents of Lima’s poor districts, the two left their rural villages in search of a better life in the city. But life in Lima is tough, work is scarce and raising a family is expensive. Fortunately, the two found refuge in the workshop, not only as a place to earn some much needed money, but also as a community of women, where friendly company and the understanding and support of friends can make life easier and enjoyable.
From left to right, Mrs. Olga, her grandchild, Antonia, and Yesenia.
Mrs. Olga (as she is known, even to her closest friends) has been knitting for decades, ever since she was very young. With a weaver’s natural instinct, she would originally calculate the number of points required, along with the width and length of the material just by looking at the person she was knitting for.
These days, she has learned the standards of a professional artisan, using accurate measurements, techniques and colors to produce her fine textiles. She enjoys bringing her grandson into the workshop, while his parents work. She spends a few hours at work every afternoon before going home to prepare the family supper.