A Once in a Lifetime Experience

Kate with Demesia and Augustin

BBC presenter Kate Humble with Demesia and Augustin

Calling this a once in a lifetime experience is probably understating it.

In January of this year, Threads of Peru was offered the unique opportunity to collaborate on a film being produced for the BBC, a film that would showcase the Andean lifestyle to reveal the full glory of its vast beauty and uncompromising harshness.

For five days, the crew from Indus Films, including BBC presenter Kate Humble, myself and a small team of Apus Peru staff braved the cold, rain and occasional snow to catch a real glimpse of what life was like for the alpaca herders in Chaullaqocha, one of Threads of Peru’s partner weaving communities. We were hosted by weavers Demesia Sinchi Echame and her mother-in-law Alejandrina Puma Churata while they and their families opened up their lives to us.

Kate with Demesia and two of her children, Luz Brenda and Maria Milagros

Kate with Demesia and two of her children, Luz Brenda and Maria Milagros

Weaving in Chaullaqocha

Weaving in Chaullaqocha

The film in question is a three-part series entitled “Wild Shepherdess” and examines the state of traditional herding practises throughout the world. Part 1 features one of the most traditional herding communities in the world in a remote corner of Afghanistan; Part 2 is centred on Peru, a country in transition yet steeped in history, where alpaca herding has been practised for centuries. The series culminates in Australia in Part 3 where modern sheep herding is practised with state-of-the-art technology and cutting edge science.

Chaullaqocha opens Part 2, arguably the more complex of the three Parts. The tension of competing worlds is palpable as Alejandrina, Demesia, her husband Augustín and his brother Tomás discuss in turns the hardships they face trying to raise their families on subsistence farming in Chaullaqocha and their hopes for a better future for their children. But there hangs in the air a wistfulness for traditions and a way of life in danger of being lost.

Demesia's daughter, Luz Brenda, carrying her brother Huayna Isaiah

Demesia’s daughter, Luz Brenda, carrying her brother Huayna Isaiah

The struggle of these families to balance traditional culture with the need to adapt to a changing economic picture is a metaphor for the entire country. Peru has one of the fastest growing economies in South America and is seen as a country ripe for investment, and poverty rates have been dropping in recent years. But for a country built on the legacy of a great empire – the mystery of which still defines the country in most people’s minds and sustains an $2.2 million tourism industry – how do you reconcile such pervasive cultural roots with newly emerging economic systems, infrastructure and global influences?

This dynamic balance is at the heart of what Threads of Peru is trying to achieve, and it is poignantly captured in Wild Shepherdess.

Kate before a herd of alpacas in Chaullaqocha

Kate before a herd of alpacas in Chaullaqocha

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble, Episode 2, Peru aired on BBC on June 28th 2013; check for repeat airings on your local networks or YouTube.

Quick Guide to Entregas

The process of getting our amazing textiles from the high Andes to our store involves three distinct activities in our weaving communities. The first step is a workshop where we help the weavers hone their dyeing techniques. Next comes a pedido (request) where we assign products to a weaver or a group of weavers. Finally we have an entrega (delivery) where we pick up the finished products. We have already talked about the first two steps so today we are going to focus on the last one — the entrega.

The time between a pedido and an entrega varies but on average it spans about one month. In that time, what began as a few centimeters of woven textiles created during the pedido becomes a completed product. Seeing the weavers’ designs come to life is one of the most exciting parts of working with Threads of Peru.

At the entrega, each textile is measured and documented by our staff. Then it is evaluated by our master weaver Daniel Sonqo who inspects the quality, color, and craftsmanship of the item. If everything looks good, the weaver is paid for her work and is photographed with her textile. In rare cases where an item doesn’t meet our standards, it is returned to the weaver so she can sell it through other outlets.

The entrega isn’t only about picking up items, it is also the time when we can provide the weavers with valuable feedback on their work. Sometimes one of the women will have a question about a certain technique or will want to consult Daniel about putting the finishing touches on an item. With his skill, Daniel is able to quickly point the women in the right direction and ensure that their products are top quality.

Once everything has been inspected and paid for, we pack it away and head home. The weavers’ work is finished for now but the work for Thread’s staff is just beginning. After the entrega it’s on to inventory, photography, and marketing to get the products into our customer’s hands just in time for fall.

Weavers hold the keys to their community’s future.

In development work you measure your progress in lots of ways. You look at indicators like the amount of children in school and number people able to support their families, but you also look for stories — stories of progress and change that can only be told by the people who have lived them.

About a month ago I was in the community of Chaullacocha interviewing the weavers there including Lucia Castillo Yupanqui. She is both a weaver and the president of the weaving association in her community. Through a translator we talked about a number of things and I want to share a few of them here. I want to share them because they encouraged me and because I think they do a good job of illustrating how the people in the communities we work with are taking initiative into their own hands.

One of the first things we talked about was her children. Lucia said she now has enough money to send two of her children to secondary schools in a neighboring community. That means they’re gone most of the time but it is clearly something Lucia is proud of.

Another thing she is proud of is her community. Lucia moved to Chaullacocha after she got married and said she loves her village. She loves that there is room for her livestock to graze and she loves the natural setting. She also is eager for more people to know about her home.

Lucia told me that she hopes her skills as a weaver will continue to grow and that the women who weave with her would also learn more through the workshops. As the quality of the work increases, Lucia wants more people to discover Chaullacocha’s weavings. She said, “I hope that we will get a bigger name and be better known by people in other countries.”

She said this to me after I asked her what her hopes for the future were. I was expecting something along the lines of “I want a bigger house” or “I want to buy more animals.” When she told me that her hopes for the future involved getting better at her art and promoting her community I was surprised — in a good way.

Even if she does dream of sending more kids to school, building a bigger house, or anything else money can buy, she understands that she holds the keys to her future. We are there to help but ultimately it is the women’s own skill and hard work that is their source of empowerment.

A quick guide to the pedido process

The pedido (literally request or order) is one of the most important steps in getting Threads of Peru goods to market.  In fact, it is one of the three pillars of our community outreach program; the other two being the dye workshops and the entregas  (deliveries).

The pedido falls right in the middle of the process; after the women have dyed their wool and before we return to the villages to pick up the final product.

Pedidos are crucial to building sustainability in our organization. It is the time when the Threads staff can dialogue with the weavers about what is selling and how they can improve their work to appeal to our customers. Getting closer to what the market wants means more work for the women and more development in their communities.

Of course, we always strive to maintain the integrity of the Andean weaving tradition in this process, sometimes to even a higher standard than the women themselves would keep. For instance, many of our weavers prefer the deeply saturated colors of synthetic dyes, while our customers prefer the more rustic hues of natural dyes.

Pedidos also offer us a chance to build the community that is so important to working in the Andes. While there is certainly lots of weaving going on, there is also a lot of time for chatting and eating together. Building trust helps with communication and lets the weavers know we are there for the long term.

The first step to a successful request day begins long before the actual day itself. Two of our co-founders, Adam Collins and Angie Hodder, keep track of what is selling and what trends are emerging in our corner of the fashion world. Once they are satisfied with their collection, they send the data to Peru, where it is interpreted into Spanish, and into a format that is easier to convey to the women in the communities.  The final collection is a collaboration between the Western culture, an understanding of what is possible from the women, and then melded into the final product by the Quechua interpretation of our request.

Our master weaver Daniel Sonqo joining the weaving process.

The day of the pedido begins with the woman setting up their looms and our master weaver, Daniel Sonqo, helping the women translate the designs from paper to reality. Daniel possesses an amazing talent for looking at a design, reading a few details about the measurements, and then knowing how to bring it into the real world. His experience has taught him how to know the exact thread count each band of color in a weaving requires.

Once Daniel is satisfied that the women are off to a good start, the real weaving begins. Two women sit across from each other. Each drives two posts into the ground and secures a cross bar between them. Then balls of yarn are tossed back and forth between the women — creating the initial structure of the weaving. During their work, Daniel keeps checking in to make sure the thread counts are correct and offers helpful advice.

When the loom is full, the job falls on one or the other of the women. She straps the weaving around her waist and begins the process of cross-weaving. Much like a traditional loom, a large needle is used to pull thread between the fibers that were strung across the loom earlier. This is the point where designs and intricate patterns take shape.

At the end of the day, the women roll up their weavings and take them home where they will be finished. Many times, Threads’ staff holds a final meeting with the women to talk about what they learned and any concerns either party might have.

Goodbyes involve lots of handshakes and exchanges of thanks before Threads’ staff drives (or walks) away and the women carry their crafts home. The next time we see the women will be at the entrega, when their balls of yarn and rolled up weavings will have become the products we ship all over the world!

The Color of the Andes Part 3: The People

For two weeks we’ve been talking about dyeing workshops — about getting there and about the process. This third and final entry talks about the people behind our weavings. 

I want to close my story about Threads of Peru’s dye workshop in the community of Rumira Sondormayo by talking about the women themselves. When I arrived on the field where the workshop was held, I was met mostly with sideways glances and little direct contact. Of course, the women of Rumira aren’t unfriendly, it’s just that I am new, foreign, male, and — if what I’ve been told is true — a little frightening in appearance (6’3”,  240lbs, big red beard).

I decided I would hang back a bit and observe, to let the women get comfortable with me and my camera. I watched as the women spooled dozens of meters of wool around their arms. I watched as they built fires, tended their children, and joked in Quechua.

I listened to the women laugh when someone told a funny story and giggle when someone pointed at me. I saw their skill in their products and witnessed their determination as they washed wool in the river.

The women of Rumira are not only artisans but also strong workers. I watched two women pull down a large branch for firewood and carry it across the river. Later I saw another women carrying a branch almost as large by herself. Many of the women work with their infants in blankets slung over their backs. If it wasn’t for the occasional sniffle or cry from the pouch, you wouldn’t even know they were carrying the extra weight. Once a pot of hot dye almost tipped over but two women caught it with their bare hands and held it for several seconds before someone with a blanket took over.

As the day went on, the women grew more comfortable with me. Both my Spanish and the women’s Spanish were limited but they did their best to answer my questions about the dyeing process when our master weaver, Daniel Sonqo wasn’t available. They even tried to talk to me in Quechua and we all laughed when it was clear I was completely lost.

When it came time to get names to go with photos, they were understandably shy but with the help of our guide, Urbano, who knew a few Quechua jokes himself, we were able to get a lot of smiles. One of the ladies even struck a pose for her photo, something that was completely unexpected.

Besides our weavers, there were a couple of children who spent the day at the workshop. One boy, who wore a bright red poncho, seemed to have an uncanny ability to tell when the camera was pointed in his direction. Every time I aimed my lens at him he would stop dead in his tracks, grab his nearest friend, and stand up straight facing directly at the camera. If it had been school picture day, this kid would have been a dream.

By the time we left I was beginning to recognize each woman and see their different personalities. Not wanting to overstep any culture boundaries, I had avoided touching or attempting to shake hands with any of the women. But right before we walked up the hill and back to the car, an older woman put out her hand to me. I extended mine and she grasped it in both of hers. She shook my hand firmly and thanked me for visiting. I returned the courtesies, smiled, and walked away.

The women of Rumira were captured on my camera’s sensor and in my mind. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter lasted longer.

The Color of the Andes Part 2: The Process

Last week I talked about getting to our weaving community of Rumira for a dye workshop. This week I take a look at the actual dyeing process. 

We walked down a muddy hill and onto a level area near a shallow stream. Here women dressed in traditional Andean clothes tended fires and filled big pots with water from the icy river. A few introductions were made but, with a long day of work ahead, there wasn’t much time for formalities.

As the fires burned higher, the open field that served as the workshop’s classroom filled with thick and bitter smoke from oily eucalyptus wood still green and only cut that morning. Most of the Westerners backed away, rubbing their eyes and coughing. The Peruvian women remained.

The women relied on simple but innovative techniques for keeping the fires going. Instead of fanning the flames, the women used pieces of metal pipe — about two feet long — to blow directly on the coals. It looked simple but it really took a lot of skill. At least one of the Threads’ team members tried it and ended up with a mouthful of smoke. When more wood was needed for the flames, the women walked to the nearest tree and liberated a branch. This was then split with a heavy-headed axe and thrown onto the coals.

The fires were built between stones about the size of a football which served as supports for the big pots where the wool would be dyed. Heating the water is an important part of the dyeing process as it helps to extract the color from the natural herbs and other ingredients. However, on this cold and drippy morning, it took some of the pots more than an hour before they were ready for wool.

The wool the women used at the workshops came from both alpacas and sheep. Most of it was from their own flocks but due to shortages, some machine spun wool was also purchased. Once this is dyed, the women will pull apart the threads and re-spin them by hand because many of their looms won’t work with the finer machined wool.

When the water was hot, natural dyes were added followed by the wool which had been washed in the river to rid it of any oils that could keep the dyes from taking. To get a deep red color, handfuls of crushed chochineal — an insect native to Latin America — were stirred into steaming water. For yellow, bags of Qolle flowers were added to the water, and green was achieved by boiling Ch’illca leaves with the wool. Other colors like purple and orange were created by using the same ingredients as red and yellow but with the addition of additives like lemon salt.

Wool remains soaking in the water and dye for a set amount of time depending on the desired color and shade. Once the women were satisfied with the tones their wool had taken on, they pulled the steamy bundle from the pot and put it in a plastic tub. When it had cooled further, they took the wool to the river. In the water the women scrubbed the wool and washed it with soap.

The dyed and washed wool was then hung to dry. The day was rainy and dry surfaces were in high demand. Bright bundles of wool were soon covering many of the rocks and bushes near the workshop.

When the time came for our departure, the women were still hard at work over the fires and in the river. Work paused for a moment as the women brought out some of their weaving to demonstrate the final product. The soggy tangles of wool that hung all around us would someday wind up as these carefully crafted scarves, bracelets, and hats.

We said our goodbyes and got into the van. An hour of bumpy roads would take us back to Ollantaytambo. As we pulled out of the village, I could still see the smoke floating up from the riverside. We were going home and the women were going back to work.

Next week look for an article on the people of Rumira. 

The Color of the Andes Part 1: Getting There

When something goes wrong — landslides, washouts, collapsed bridges — on the roads leading into the mountains around the Sacred Valley, delays can stretch into hours, days, and even weeks. At the end of this rainy season, some of the roads here have seen better days. In the case of Rumira Sondormayo, construction at Ollantaytambo forces visitors to leave their car in the city, walk through construction, and meet another car on the other side. On the other hand, communities like Chaullacocha have always been very difficult to access, needing at least 3 hours of hiking from the road, or 6 hours uphill climb from Rumira Sondormayo and Patacancha.

From May 21 to May 23 Threads of Peru hosted dye workshops in Chaullacocha and Rumira Sondormayo. Because of the road building, only our master weaver, Daniel Sonqo was able to reach Chaullacocha where he worked for two days with the weavers there. On the third day, Daniel hiked out to Rumira where he met with a larger team from Threads of Peru include myself and several students from Chicago’s Lake Forest Academy who raised funds to support our projects.

Our trip to Rumira began early on the 23rd.  We arrived at Thread’s office around six in the morning. Cusco, for the most part, was still asleep. Only those with early morning jobs hurried past on the street; their breath billowing in white clouds against the morning chill.

Three of us loaded provisions for the day into a taxi and set out for the Sacred Valley. The road from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is wide and well paved but despite its relative modernity, it’s probably the most dangerous part of the journey to the communities.

The road ascends Cusco’s narrow streets before widening into a highway that summits a high pass and drops over the edge of the Sacred Valley. There are some tight corners and steep drops but the real danger comes from the drivers. Passing an overloaded tuck uphill in an underpowered taxi with bald tires while the distance between you and an oncoming bus quickly narrows might seem harrowing, but here it’s just another day on the road.

We arrived safely in Ollantaytambo, the last stop for trekkers before they embark on the Inca Trial, and unpacked the taxi. A short walk later we met up with the students from Chicago and our guide, Urbano. Because of the road repairs, we had to walk 20 minutes uphill to reach our van that was stuck on the other side of the construction.

At the edge of Ollantaytambo the road turns to dirt and thick vegetation replaces adobe walls. We lumbered slowly up a narrowing canyon passing by farms and fields. As the road climbs higher up the canyon wall, ancient terraces and ruins come into view. I watched farmers work the same ground the Incas worked hundreds of years ago.

After climbing even higher, we rounded a corner and came face to face with another van. This van is wedged against the cliffside, apparently having lost control while navigating a muddy rut. There’s no room to pass on the other side where the edge of the road crumbles down a steep slope.

The only option is to get out and see if we can pull the other van free. A rope is tied from the undercarriage of the first vehicle to a tow-point on ours. After a few minutes of scraping spinning tires, and flying mud, the stuck van came free. Our van backed down to a wider part of the road to let them pass and we were soon on our way again.

The rest of the road didn’t present any problems; however it did present is a mountainous landscape, rocky streams, and patches of wildflowers clinging to existence in the rugged soil. The climb upwards took us to nearly 13,000 feet above sea level before we arrived in Rumira.

As we approach the town we stop to wait for a flock of sheep to clear off the road. Young lambs sprung nimbly up the steep ledge on one side of the van. After we passed, the twin villages of Rumira and Patacancha soon appeared.  Small brick buildings lay on the valley floor and a gentle stream divides the two villages. We saw smoke rising from the workshop in Rumira and passed by a man giving a house a fresh coating of adobe.

We park the van on the side of a muddy road and walk back toward the smoke. There are a few brief introductions before we begin observing. The women are busy stoking fires and collecting dyes — the workshop is about to begin.

This is the first in a series of articles about the dye workshop in Rumira. Stay tuned for more stories on the process and the people.