Around Cusco there are families who still live in villages and farms up in the hillside. Their lives have changed very little in hundreds of years. In the morning the men walk many kilometers to their fields to tend to their flocks of sheep, while the women stay home to raise their babies and weave.
For hundreds of years before the Spanish arrived, those villages were the place where the lessons of their ancestor were passed down from one generation to the next in the ancient oral tradition.
Since the Incan people did not have a system of written language, they relied on other ways to pass along their vast knowledge. One of the most important means of accomplishing this dissemination of knowledge was weaving.
Even though the Spanish overlooked the textiles woven by the Incas due to their inclination for gold and other precious medals, Andean weavers are respected around the world for their skills, tradition, and the quality of their work.
Evidence of ancient textiles has been found in the caves around the Ancash region of Peru that date back can be traced back to 8,000 B.C. and it is said that the Norte Chicos civilization of the Peruvian coast are the earliest known users of textiles in the Andes. Unlike the Incas, the Chicos used cotton for their fabrics.
Alpacas, the domesticated species of South American camelids, are known for their rich fiber. Alpaca fiber is used to make knitted and woven items similar to wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, and wider variety of textiles.
But the Incas didn’t use the woven alpaca fiber as only a means to keep warm in the high altitude that mostly comprised their empire. Instead, the fiber was dyed and woven into specific patterns that represented the families and regions where they were made, and to show the nobility’s wealth. It is said that the Inca only wore each alpaca cape once, and that he had a storeroom of them at his call.
The patterns that one can find in traditional Andean weaving are almost infinite. There is a presence of world symbols that have been around for generation. Since Andean people live in harmony with nature then many of the images in their design reflect nature. Popular designs like flowers, stars, the inti (sun) and mayu (river) can still be seen in the modern woven works. However, the patterns could have also been used to indicate curving paths through mountains to be followed like a modern map.
Traditionally, it was women who worked the looms; therefore many of the patterns represent the daily lives of the women in the mountains. Unfortunately, the weaving tradition almost died off as even the most remote villages in the Andes began to modernize over the last 50 years.
Two women doing a weaving demonstration in Cusco. (photo: Wikimedia)
Today, there has been a revival of the weaving traditions thanks in large part to NGO’s that have made it viable to keep the traditions alive. In fact, certain travel agencies now include packages where tourists and volunteers can take part in the process from sheering the alpacas, dying the fabrics, all the way to the final product. Since the rise of popular tourism in Cusco and the surrounding regions, now women can use their weavings as a way to provide for their families.
Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez is the director the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco and promotes traditional Andean weaving in the mountain communities near Cusco. She was born and raised in Chinchero and her first language was Quechua. She began weaving when she was very young. It was when she became a teenager that she began to love weaving.
“When I started working with the ladies of Chinchero, weaving was dying out,” Callanaupa said. “We created the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco in 1996. Today, I’m working with over 160 weavers in ten communities around Cusco.”
Callanaupas goal is reviving techniques, traditions, uses, natural dyes, and quality. She has done countless hours of research about the textiles in an effort to keep alive the tradition that was dying out in the Cusco region.
Everyone gets involved in the weaving, but the most important objective for her is passing the practice on to the next generation.
“We have an elders’ group. We have a children’s group today too, because we would like to pass this knowledge on to them.”
To get the vibrant colors found around the artisanal shops in Cusco, her weavers are taught to use natural dyes to color the sheep’s wool; alpaca, which brings wonderful shades of browns, greys, black, and white; and llama wool too.
Callanaupas weavers use the backstrap loom technique for their weaving, hand-spun yarn. The loom is made up of nine core parts, with a certain amount of variation in the make-up of the loom, depending on region and the needs of the specific project. The loom itself is an elegant tool in its simplicity, effectiveness, and portability.
“We’re reviving traditional, old techniques of making designs, researching them with the elders, bringing back those techniques,” Callanaupas said. “And we’re building skills in the communities: designs, dyes, practices, uses, bringing back all the textile traditions.”
The Center for Traditional Textiles is accomplishing its goal of enabling Cusqueñan weaver to feel proud of their heritage, traditions, and themselves.
An alpaca on the Andean plains. Their wool is used in most traditional textiles. (photo: Wikimedia/ Christophe Meneboeuf)