Women in the Peruvian Andes are reviving an ancient craft

No 109

Pull the shuttle through, under the weft. Turn. Now over. Now under. Now over again. Pull. Turn. Under. Over. Weaving is one of the oldest human skills, and in South America, the backstrap loom still used in parts of the Andes today has been around for more than 10,000 years. Now, however, this ancient process is meeting the 21st-century marketplace, as the women of the small town of Patacancha, in the south of Peru, create beautiful textiles in the Incan style for consumers from far away.

The process begins with the sourcing of raw wool for yarn. This step can quite literally be an uphill climb—to reach alpacas grazing on a mountainside, wrangle them to the ground, and keep them there long enough to shear them. The women spin the wool into yarn and dye it, boiling plant leaves, flowers, or seeds over a wood fire to extract the pigments, and then slowly introducing the wool and allowing the color to set. The color and the pattern combinations are up to them. Playful and vibrant, these patterns often resemble the tall grass of the valley or the mountain peaks above it.

Once the yarn has been spun, it goes onto the loom. Made from sticks, rebar, animal bone, yarn, and sometimes bits of plastic or wire, these time-honored tools are as individual as the women who spend hours at a time bent over them as family life swirls in the background. The women of Patacancha are taught to spin and weave from a young age, and can bring their craft with them as occasion demands—outdoors and indoors, into any number of household rooms. Given all this, taking seven days on a single scarf is longer than usual. Women work together and compare patterns, helping each other, while men pick up domestic duties to leave their wives more time for weaving.

Quechua dress is a defining trait of Peruvian visual culture. Though colorful and distinctive, the handiwork of these Andean women—from ponchos and lliclla shawls to chumpi belts and saddle blankets, potato sacks, hat straps, and the chuspas pouches traditionally use for carrying coca—has had a range of practical applications, too. The items that the women weave for themselves these days are typically made from acrylic or commercially-dyed yarn, or using wool that is dyed with synthetic, as opposed to organic, plant dyes. But when it comes to items made for the tourist trade, organic, plant and natural dye traditions persist.

And the market for those items is expanding. (This is due in part to non-profits such as Awamaki, which teaches the women business skills and helps connect them with the digital marketplace.) Through online stores and collections designed for export, the weavers hope to achieve both cultural preservation and economic progress. With more women as breadwinners and business owners, spending on education grows: several families in recent years have sent their daughters to post-secondary school, a develop that was once unheard of in these villages. In years to come the deftest move required of these communities be one of mind, not practiced hands: managing to hold onto an authentic cultural inheritance while also leveraging it in order to move ahead.

Credits

  • Filmmakers - Billy Silva & Guille Isa
  • Editor - Billy Silva
  • Producers - Darrell & Oliver Hartman
  • Original Music - Christopher Gabriel
  • Color - Carlos Flores
  • Sound Recording - Maria Gracia Galindo
  • Sound Design & Mix - Josh Wilson
  • Text - Sarah Shachat

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