Before traveling to Peru, I did not completely understand how the fiber arts could play such a large role in a culture – not as a hobby – but more as a livelihood and a deep-rooted tradition. I knew about the Peruvian weaving techniques, the knits and the crochet, and a little about the spinning. Reading about these things in glossy travel magazines is one thing; yet seeing the fiber arts in action is definitely another thing all together.
This woman sat on the steps of the Cathedral in Cusco, quietly using her hand spindle and working the roving through her fingers. She was the first spinner I saw in the city, and we had only been there for a few hours. And there were many more that we saw! As I looked around, I saw many more women, spindles stowed away in their mantas, or in their hands – ready for a free moment to make more yarn for more textiles.
The fiber comes primarily from alpacas, sheep, and llamas: these animals are important to the families and to the societies as a whole, creating fiber, textiles, a revenue stream, and even as food later. It appeared that the baby alpacas were most prized for their fleece, which is soft, warm, and water resistant. Their fleece also commands a higher price, and their spun yarns are used to support the mills, the hand knitters, and the knitting machines that produce the ubiquitous alpaca sweaters, blankets, and woven textiles all over the Andes.
While knitting, crochet, and spinning are important to the Andes, the fiber art that truly defines the culture is weaving. The traditional dress includes elaborate woven garments: a poncho for men, and a manta (cape) for women. Even young children and babies have the beautiful woven clothes!
We had the opportunity to see many weavers working with the traditional back strap looms. The most interactive place to see these weavers (and to learn about the textiles in general) was at the Center for Traditional Textile of Cusco. The Center invites weavers, knitters, and crocheters to demonstrate their work. The Center also serves as a repository for the traditions of the surrounding Andean villages: their textiles are surveyed, and the Center purchases textiles to encourage talented weavers to continue weaving and learning while earning money to support their families.
Education programs are in place to teach the importance of the textile tradition passing from one generation to the next. The Center’s education department has started organizing oral histories originally collected by the village children. The Center also encourages the retainment of the Quechua language. Each textile sold in the Center’s store supports the family that made it – and each textile has a small card with the photograph, name, birth date, and location of the weaver or knitter who made that particular textile. It is a very important tool to connect the buyer with the creator. One particular shawl stood out for me – I was amazed by it’s colors and design. When one of the weavers saw me observing the shawl, he suggested that I try it on, and we could pose for a photograph. Once I put it on, I knew that it was coming home with me. More details on this shawl will come in a later post…
There is no shortage of textiles on the streets of Cusco and the surrounding villages, but the true quality garments are harder to come by (The Center, mentioned above, has excellent quality textiles, and a few other shops do as well). There are many markets that offer up woven and knit alpaca hats, sweater, blankets, rugs, and wall-hangings. The trend in these large markets is to sell the synthetic dyed garments with non-traditional motifs. When I saw the naturally dyed alpaca, wool, and llama shop, I made sure to stop and pick up a hat. I found a lovely woven purse made from orange and brown wools at one of the largest markets in the region: in Pisac, north of Cusco in the Sacred Valley.
It was in the village of Chinchero, well known for the quality of their textiles, that I saw two knitters. One was a young teenage boy, using his backpack to hold his skeins of yarn. He was sitting in a group with his peers, and was knitting quickly with double-pointed needles. I was not close enough to see exactly what he was working on or to photograph him. When I saw him again, he was walking down the cobblestone street. I was happy to see this young man carrying on the tradition, knitting in a public place with his friends. The second knitter was an elderly man, standing solitary on the roadside, knitting on an elaborate colorwork chullo.
I had heard that knitting needles are often recycled bicycle spokes, sharpened to a fine point, and this photograph seems to confirm it. His technique is quite different from European circular knitting – he is actually purling every row in the round, working from the outside of the circular loop, not the inside. This is supposed to be “easier” and with more tension for the integrated colorwork. It is also a tradition that the working yarn is looped around the neck for added control over the tension – it is here, although hard to see. (The end ball is in the small bag near his foot on the ground). A commenter on Flickr noted that his yarn appears to be three or more threads held together. While I did not notice this at the time, it helps explain how quickly he was able to produce the colorwork for the hat.
The techniques of Andean knitting and weaving have piqued my interest, and I plan to do more research on the topic. I was chatting with Eunny about this technique over the weekend, and she mentioned an Andean Knitting workshop she had seen advertised, possibly at a Stitches event. If any of you have seen these classes offered, or have taken them yourself, I would love to hear more about it. In the meantime, I am checking out some books on Andean knitting (review to come) and I even signed up for a beginning weaving workshop this winter…