How I learned the ancient alpaca weaving techniques of my Peruvian ancestors with the Women Weavers of Chinchero
Our welcome into the weavers’ collective included a smile and a mug of coca-leaf tea. I can’t think of a friendlier gesture at these soaring altitudes! (Coca eases its affects.) Chinchero, a rural Quechua weaving town not far from Cusco, sits comfortably (but nauseatingly) at over 3,700 metres above sea level. (That’s high, and nausea can be an effect of altitude).
Just to begin, as an aside: if you’re not able to visit Chinchero if ever you’re in Peru, it’s worth visiting the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco, which promotes the tradition’s survival and ensures 80 percent of any funds raised go to the Center’s weavers themselves, who come from 10 communities, including Chinchero.
The altitude is no problem for the locals, who have adapted to life in these oxygen-depleted mountain conditions. The descendants of the Incas in this region still carry out many of their ancient practices, including farming and weaving. Female weavers, in particular, have worked traditionally in the area for centuries, with techniques passed down from generation to generation.
To encourage female financial independence and cultural conservation, the practice has seen a rise in recent years. The teaching aspect helps in preservation and weavers start young; workshops are held for village girls after school and on weekends. And although the weaving in these regions is associated with women, elsewhere in the country (Lake Titicaca, for example), it’s normal to find communities of male weavers. Before the demonstration, we all stared intently at the various items on display.
“Does anyone know what this is?” Fiorella, our token weaver-slash-guide, dressed head-to-toe in the region’s traditional clothes, asked us, breaking the ice by grabbing what appeared to be a bone.
“No, it’s not a bone of a tourist who didn’t buy any alpaca goods to take home,” she said with a hearty (and slightly nervous) laugh from the crowd of a dozen or so good-humoured tourists and potential shoppers.
“It’s actually a llama bone and it’s used in our weaving. You’ll see what I mean.”
She talked us through the beginning of this ancient process. Alpacas are sheared (normally once a year), but their wool can be quite dirty and needs to be washed. Since this is an entirely natural and traditional technique, you won’t find any grocery store detergent here. Instead, a jabonera root (from the soapwort plant) is grated and mixed in with hot water, creating a soapy mixture that cleans the wool. To my surprise, pretty efficiently. It is also used by the locals as shampoo.
The clean alpaca wool is then spun into yarn. This process is completed with a wooden handheld drop-spindle or pushka. From my experience, it’s perfectly normal to walk around Chinchero and see multitasking women spinning while walking down the streets.
All the yarn is naturally-dyed, which means local plants and even insects are used. Fiorella mercilessly smashed a cochineal insect (which lives on prickly pear plants) in front of us, producing a deep red colour stain on her fingers. She put some on her lips, showing us it could be used as lipstick. (As another aside: in Chinchero, the number of braids in a woman’s hair can indicate her marital status. I just thought I would tell you that!)
When mixed with water, the insect produces a deep red pigment that dyes the wool when it is dipped into the bowl. Interestingly enough, Fiorella showed us that adding salt or lemon alters the pigments, resulting in various shades. Once you have the desired colour, just dip the yarn into the mixture, keeping in mind that soaking time affects the intensity of the colour. Collpa, a mineral found in the jungle, is used to hold the colour. The yarn is hung and left to dry, until it is spun a final time.
The table in front of us was fully displayed with leaves, bark, moss, flowers, roots and vegetables, all of which can result in dyes in pretty much every colour of the rainbow.
Once the brightly-coloured yarns are created, the women start weaving them into intricate textiles. In terms of the designs of the weave, we learned that different villages and regions in Peru have their own iconography and patterns, most of which have been passed through the centuries. Bones and sticks are used in the process to create a back-strap loom.
Fiorella also told us there is talk of an international airport coming to Chinchero for easy access to Cusco, but the weavers with us that day shared their concern that having such steady traffic to the area could impact the cultural traditions of the area.
In closing, she left us with one last tip for the road. In Peru, no tourist can leave without some kind of alpaca souvenir, whether it’s a sweater, scarf, beanie or gloves found at markets all over the country. And it’s possible, she said, to tell the various types of alpaca wool used just by the feel of it.
If the price is too good to be true, you might just have your answer
The wool used in most clothing or textiles you’ll find as you’re searching for souvenirs ranges from mixes of synthetic materials and alpaca (usually heavy on the synthetic stuff) to pure alpaca wool, and the finest, least itchy (and most expensive) “baby alpaca” – the first and therefore softest wool that can be sheared from an alpaca, normally within the first two years of its life.
You’ll notice that alpaca wool feels cooler and is heavier than acrylic and mixed wool. When buying, always check the inside of a garment – acrylic often gets brushed on the outside to appear softer, but the inside is rougher. You can also tell the wool’s purity by its colour, as alpaca wool dyed by natural processes has more muted colours than its synthetic counterparts.
“So what do you think this is?” Fiorella asked, as one final test, as she passed around a wool sweater that felt a little light and coarse, indicating it contained synthetic materials.
“Baby alpaca? More like maybe alpaca,” she quipped to another round of laughter.
After a round of shopping, we left with a newfound appreciation for the art of weaving, but also feeling like we had the survival skills to make it out there in the markets of Peru.
- Carla Bragagnini, a Canadian-Peruvian, is associate editor of infromtheoutpost.com PERU. All photos by her.