Weaving Stories of Animals, Culture, and Quechua Wisdom

This manta was made by compañera Justina’s mother Maria in Huilloc Alto. Its color palette is typical of works from older generations. In this manta, you can see a llama, condors, lizards and other natural elements like lagoons on the outside borders and eyes (like those of a puma) on the inside borders.

This blog post was written by Simon Grow-Hanson, a volunteer with Awamaki with a background in languages who stayed four weeks with Awamaki.

One of the first things that stood out to me about the artisans’ works was the amount of animals depicted in their weaving. Beautifully stylized creatures all over the place! Llama here! Puma there! Rabbit over there! I was intrigued from the get-go and wanted to learn more!

In one of my Quechua classes as part of my volunteer program with Awamaki, I asked my teacher Jeny the word for “animals”. She paused, contemplated my question for a moment, then responded with “Hmm, you could say ‘wasipikan’: things or beings found around the house”. At that moment, a light went off in my brain. ‘Things found around the house’... how fascinating! While they name and recognize individual animals, there isn’t a need to categorize the natural world into ‘animals’ and ‘non-animals’ the way it is done in the West, they are just a normal part of your environment…. The definition of ‘wasipikan’ also suggested to me that maybe it’s a given in a Quechua worldview that all people are assumed to live in harmony with nature. 

If you visited one of the communities where Awamaki’s partnering artisans live, this definition would make much more sense. In my few trips to Patacancha and Huilloc Alto, I found myself surrounded by dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, sheep, alpacas, bulls, pigs, ducks, chickens, etc. Animals are used for grazing land, preparing it for agriculture and transporting heavy supplies and food along steep inclines where cars aren’t able to pass. Only some species are occasionally used for meat. In the case of alpacas and sheep, they are used for their soft, warm, workable fibers to make woven products that are able to withstand Andean microclimate conditions. Animals and elements of nature are not just utilized, they are celebrated in daily life and in special traditions passed down from generation to generation. For instance, before the annual alpaca shearing, the community gathers to celebrate another year of the herd's health and production of fibers through a series of rituals and offerings that can last multiple days. 

So it comes as no surprise that the artisans depict so many animals in their artwork: animals are part of their daily lives and they play a vital role in their economy, culture, and wellbeing. 

This collection, made by Awamaki’s artisan partners and team members, uses a simple contrast between light and dark. These products depict many animals such as the llama, pichinchu (little tweety bird), guallanta (large local duck), condor, puma, peacock, owl, and trout. They are featured in the Awamaki store in Ollantaytambo.

Some species carry a special ancient and spiritual significance, such as the condor, the puma, and the snake. It’s said that the Incas divided Mother Earth (Pachamama) into three worlds: Hanan Pacha (the sky: the world of the gods), Kay Pacha (the earth: the world of the living) and Hukhu Pacha (the underground: the world of the dead). The condor represents Hanan Pacha and is considered the messenger of the gods. The puma represents Kay Pacha and also symbolizes the strength needed to live life. And the snake represents Hukhu Pacha and is said to have also represented ancestral wisdom. Historically, the snake used to be depicted on the walls of “Yachaywasi” (knowledge houses or schools). Nowadays, due to its connection to death, it's more of a symbol of bad luck. That’s why you typically won’t find snakes depicted in the artisans' work. 

On this poncho, made by Juana, president of the Songuillay women’s weaving cooperative in Patacancha, you can see a depiction of a condor and a lagoon. The use of bright colors, especially orange, is typical for a man’s poncho.  

To give another example, during one overnight visit in Patacancha, Juana, the president of Songuillay, the local weaving cooperative of roughly 40 women, told us an ancient fable around a bonfire. The story talked about an epic rivalry between the atoq (fox) and the guallanta (local duck), how the guallanta got its bright red feet, and how through the rivalry of the two animals, they learned about their instinctual tendencies as they struggled to share a common habitat. Every creature depicted in a weaving has a meaning behind it, and may even have an entire story behind it.  While there is continuity in tradition passed down from one generation to the next, each artisan weaves with their own personal intentions and interpretations. 


In my case, I came to appreciate the symbolism in the artisans’ work from another angle: the study of their native language. Quechua is a family of languages spoken by an estimated 8-12 million people throughout South America. Within the language family, Southern Quechua is the most widely spoken of them and is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the western hemisphere. Southern Quechua has multiple dialects including Cusco Quechua, spoken in the Cusco region and by Awamaki’s partnering artisans. The language didn’t adopt a writing form until after the arrival of the Spanish, and is still mostly used today in oral communication.

As someone who grew up in a culture where learning to read and write is emphasized from a young age, it's been interesting to be immersed in a culture where speaking and listening carries greater significance. For example, any kind of gathering that happens in the communities including tours, meetings, and workshops begins with an extensive oral introduction and welcome from the hosts, as well as a farewell at the end. Giving and listening to speeches and storytelling is an important part of life. And the language contains cultural nuances that simply don’t exist in English or Spanish. 

Considering Quechua’s nature as an oral tradition, I’ve started to look at the artisans’ textiles in a new light. It’s their primary tangible form of self-expression and cultural documentation. Even each color has a special meaning behind it, Juana tells me. Red represents their traditional dress as well as the blood of the Inca: a reminder of where they come from. White represents the hope for living a peaceful life amongst nature. Black represents the soil that provides food they depend on. Blue represents Hanan Pacha (sky): the world of the gods. Yellow for Inti (the sun) who gives energy to all of life. The materials used and elements depicted mark a specific time and place in their history. In some ways, their language is not only spoken but also woven. And in my experience, sitting down and talking about a certain piece was far more engaging and aesthetically pleasing than any history textbook I’ve ever read!

This manta was made by Florentina. She says it represents her natural environment in Huilloc Alto. As opposed to the darker colors generally used in older generations, it features much brighter colors and more variety of animals, which is typical of the current culture. In this piece, you can see depictions of condors, pumas, peacocks, parrots, dogs, hares, guallantas, horses, llamas, cats, bulls, birds, and other natural elements such as lagoons, rivers, mountains, flowers, stars, and the sun. 

I am grateful to have learned and experienced so much in my swift four-week stay with Awamaki. It’s been amazing to see how the art of weaving and the ancestral language of Quechua intertwine to create a beautiful tradition of storytelling. Moreover, it was a humbling and eye-opening experience to be within a culture that made me reconsider the importance of living with nature, honoring where we come from and recognizing the effort and significance behind the clothing we are wearing. 

About Awamaki

Awamaki is a nonprofit fair trade social enterprise dedicated to connecting Andean artisan weavers with global markets. We collaborate with women artisans to support their efforts towards educational and financial independence by co-creating beautifully handcrafted knit and woven accessories using hertiage techniques.