Our Compañera: Virginia

By Ashley Wade, Marketing and Communications Intern

Virginia (pronounced veer-HEEN-ee-ya) is the leader of her cooperative located in Huilloc Bajo, which participates in Awamaki’s sustainable tourism program. She learned to weave when she was 10 years old, and she has been weaving almost every day since. “My mom and my grandmother taught me, and it took a lot of patience. It is so easy now,” she said with a laugh. When she was young, she learned the entire process of turning wool into beautiful textiles. It begins with spinning the alpaca wool from unruly tufts to tight yarn using a “pushka,” a spindle-like instrument . From there, the wool is dyed using natural colors from local plants and minerals. Cochineal, a bug that lives in the prickly pear cactus, creates a deep red, while the Andean plants of Aywaypyli and Chi’lka create an earthy purple and a forest green. Usually, each ingredient is boiled in big pots to make enough coloring for the entire cooperative to dye their yarn. The yarn is dipped into the boiling water and left there for 15-20 minutes to fully absorb the color, then left out to cool. This process creates dozens of colors, some made by mixing different minerals and plants to create entirely new colors.

“Before Awamaki , we did not use many of the natural dyes, because we needed to make products quickly to sell at the market. Now, we can use the process of our ancestors, because we are able to show Awamaki’s visitors how we create our products and sell them.”

Virginia gains respect through her quiet kindness and dependability, and she exhibits these qualities as she leads tours for Awamaki. During the tours, she explains the dying and weaving process to the passengers, then carefully checks in on her artisans as they disperse to teach each passenger how to weave a personal bracelet. The bright, synthetic colors that some of her younger cooperative members wear demonstrate the combination of modern and traditional culture. The women still weave their clothes in intricate, beautiful patterns representing many of the symbols around them (such as alpacas), but they also have begun to incorporate brighter, neon colors, and symbols from other regions, such as jaguars from the Amazon. “Our grandparents only used natural dyes, they did not dress like we do now,” Virginia reflects. The incorporation of these synthetic colors and foreign symbols into the community’s clothing demonstrates how thousands-year old traditions can still survive with a bit of modern flare.

Virginia carefully surveyed her cooperative members, her watchful eyes scanning the area to ensure all the artisans and the passengers were happy. As the head of the business, she carries the responsibility of her artisans’ success, and she handles any issues that arise in the cooperative. She works with our Tourism director, Melissa, to coordinate tour dates, how many artisans need to be present for the tour, and setting up the natural dyeing and weaving demonstration. She also assists her artisans in leading bracelet weaving instruction and ensures the lunch preparation and cooking are completed without issue. For Awamaki, a key component in working with the leader of a cooperative is dependability, and Virginia is always dependable to run a smooth, successful tour.

As Virginia concluded the demonstration part of the tour, she smiled with warmth at her passengers, and I was struck by her poised strength and clear control of the situation. She, like any other business leader, has a tremendous responsibility to both her employed artisans and her clients, and she is a prime example of a leader running her business with her employees rather than over them. At Awamaki, we strive to support strong female leaders like Virginia run successful, sustainable, and ethical businesses, and we are constantly learning from our partner artisans on how we can better lead in our own lives.


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.