The Patacancha Valley is home to many indigenous villages that were settled centuries ago by Quechua people fleeing the conquest and the changes it brought. These villages are located at high altitude, in the stunning and dramatic Andean landscape. For centuries, the Quechua communities lived at a distance from mainstream culture and economy in Peru.
Spinning, weaving and the fiber arts have always been integral to the warmth, welfare and cultural identity of Andean families.
The History Of
Textiles in Peru tell stories. Beyond their practical purpose as warm garments in a cold mountainous climate, textiles also carry historical, cultural and spiritual significance for the Quechua people. Before the arrival of Spanish colonizers, Quechua artisans used woven designs within textiles to communicate. This artistic expression allowed for a community-based sharing of ideas, stories and history, reinforcing cultural identity and strengthening community relationships.
Today, weaving remains an important way to record communal narratives.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, fiber for weaving was obtained most commonly from the fleece of alpacas and llamas, two of the four camelid species native to South America. However, since the introduction of sheep during Spanish colonization in the 16th century, sheep alongside alpacas have become a primary source of fiber for the Quechua people.
Spinning and Dying
During the warmer months of December, January, and February, alpaca and sheep herders shear their animals, producing amazingly silky bundles of fiber as the animals trot off lighter and cooler. Each herd boasts a variety of colors.Compañeras,(meaning partner/companion, and the polite term Quechua people use address each other in daily life) use the softest fiber, the first time a young alpaca is sheared, to make Awamaki baby products that keep the most sensitive skin warm; for adult knit accessories, they use fleece from adult alpacas. Alpaca shearing is carried out either annually or bi-annually depending on the health of the animal, the quality of its fleece, and the intended purpose of the fiber. Llamas are no longer kept for fiber, but some communities still shear and spin their fiber, which is much coarser, and used to weave rope, saddle blankets and potato sacks.
After alpacas have been sheared, artisans and their families spin the fiber to create smooth and uniform yarn. Using a technique passed down for centuries, the women of the Patacancha Valley communities spin the raw fiber using a wooden drop spindle called a phuska. The finer the yarn, the smaller and lighter the spindle. Alpaca fiber is more difficult to spin because it is lighter and finer in weight. In contrast, sheep’s wool is coarser and almost wiry. Visitors on our sustainable tours taking part in their first weaving lesson often find their phuskas tumbling towards the ground with fiber falling everywhere. But for experienced artisans, spinning is second nature. It is also one of the first parts of the weaving process that children learn, and the whole family – men, women and children – help with.
Wool is often spun several times to create yarn that is taut, straight and strong enough for weaving. Once the raw wool has been spun into a thread, it is re-spun into a 2- or even 3-ply yarn, a process called plying, or k’antiy in Quechua. This ensures that the yarn is strong enough to withstand the tugging required to make a fine, tightly woven textile, and that the textile will not warp due to uneven tension.
When spinning alpaca yarn, there are always fibers that are too short to spin. This is usually around 10-15% of the weight of the fleece. The artisans we partner with use these fibers to felt around handmade soap to create our unique felted soap.
Once the fiber is spun into yarn it is ready to be dyed. This is one of the most transformative stages of the journey where the white yarn takes on vivid colors. In boiling water, the compañeras mix the yarn with natural plant and insect dye found in their community, or purchased at the local market. They also use natural mordants, like salt, citric acid and alum. Different shades of red, orange, pink, and purple are created using a dried beetle called cochinilla, greens are made using a plant called chilca, and a bright turquoise blue comes from a tiny fungus that grows on a plant called kinsukuchu
Until recently, Quechua artisans in the Patacancha Valley were not using natural and plant material to dye wool, and most women still prefer to use synthetic dyes for the textiles that they and their family members will wear and use. Synthetic dyes are easier, faster and brighter. As a result, they are more economical, and preferred for practical reasons since synthetic dyes don’t fade easily from sun exposure during agricultural work. Over the past 20 years there has been a global interest in the recuperation of natural dyeing knowledge and traditions. In the Patacancha Valley, many artisans have returned to natural dyes for textiles that they plan to sell to the tourism or export market.
In rural Peru, backstrap weaving is a practiced, traditional process that has been passed down for generations. Textiles woven using this technique are only as wide as the weaver’s hips, and the weaver uses the tension of her body to control the tension in the loom and textile. The backstrap loom is portable, and requires only two stakes to set up. Weavers often roll the stakes up with the loom and carry it around with them, weaving whenever it is convenient.
To set up the loom, weavers create a warp by winding strings between two poles, perpendicular to the ground. Then, they tie one pole to a tree or stake and the other to their bodies, both parallel with the ground. Backstrap looms are simple by design, with all the essential pieces of the loom created from wood, yarn and bone.
A backstrap loom is made up of two sets of vertical strings, a top set and a bottom set. These strings loop around a stick or rod on either end of the loom to create the long vertical structure of the loom. One rod is fastened to two stakes in the ground, and once she is ready to weave, the other rod is tied to the weaver’s body with a strap that goes around her waist. But first, the weaver must finish setting up her loom. After staking out the loom and looping the vertical strings around each side, she creates the cross. The cross of the loom keeps hundreds of warp strings in order. For the cross, she usually uses a stick, and she creates heddles on the stick by picking up each string in the bottom layer of warp strings and threading each string through a loop on the stick. She makes these loops out of a supplemental yarn that will not be part of the textile she is weaving. By pulling up on the cross one way, and then pulling down on the cross the other way, she creates a simple weave structure from the top and bottom strings, like a series of figure eights, moving the warp strings alternating around the weft string. For each new horizontal row in the weaving, she passes the weft string between the top and bottom warp strings with a shuttle, which is usually just a bit of stick with the weft yarn wrapped around it. Although the weft yarn is not clearly visible in the final textile, it does lend color to it, and whether the weaver chooses dark or light yarn will affect the final look and color tone of the piece.
Since the loom is tied to the weaver’s body, the tension is created solely by the amount of pressure placed on the warp by leaning away from the loom. All of the textiles used in Awamaki’s products are handwoven on backstrap looms, making each piece truly one-of-a-kind.
Storytelling Through Textiles
In the Andes, backstrap loom weavers create pallay designs, which in Quechua translates to pick-up since the designs are made from the loom strings that the weaver picks up when she is weaving. These strings–which are the bottom set of vertical, or warp, strings that form the structure of the loom–ultimately show on the surface of the textile and create the desired pattern. The pallay are used to tell a story and often woven in stripes centered in the cloth. Not only must the two layers of warp strings be manipulated each time the horizontal weft string is passed between them, but the correct string to create the pallay designs must also be picked up. It takes painstaking self-awareness: balancing between tensioning the warp with the body, pressing up or down on the cross, picking up the pallay and keeping the shed, or the two layers of loom strings, open to throw the shuttle, which passes between the top and bottom layers of vertical warp strings. The weaver uses an additional stick to keep top and bottom strings separated on the far side of the cross. She also uses a stick or polished llama bone to beat the strings after weaving a few rows, so that the tension stays even and the strings do not intertwine. Though we use the word “stick” to describe some of the parts of the loom, really these are carefully selected and polished pieces of wood that a weaver takes great care to create and maintain.
The designs of Andean weavings often reflect the topography of the surrounding landscape. Pallay are passed down through generations within families and communities, and can convey a personal or cultural message. Quechua language and knowledge are woven into textiles. Common pallay in the Patacancha Valley are lakes, certain flowers, various species of birds, llamas, and Tupac Amaru (the last living Inca).
Knitting and Spinning
While weaving is indigenous to the Andes, the craft of knitting was introduced by European colonizers and is now a widespread practice among women in the rural Andes. Both indigenous and mestizo communities knit, and knitted garments like chullos, or warm men’s hats, are a significant part of traditional attire.
While most weavers in the Cusco region come from indigenous communities, the three knitting cooperatives with which we partner – Puente Inca, Rumira and Puka Rosas — are based in both mestizo and Quechua communities. Awamaki works on a rotation system to distribute orders and production to ensure that income is distributed among the artisans. All of the products are hand knit by artisan women in their homes.
Because of the loft and softness required for knitted accessories like hats and scarves, our knitting partners do not use the same taut, strong sheeps’ wool yarn that the weavers spin and use. Instead, they use alpaca wool. Alpacas are native to the Andean mountains, raised in high altitude, cold climates, making them and their fiber truly special. Our knit collection uses only 100% alpaca yarn, making our winter accessories super warm, hypoallergenic and breathable. It is also a biodegradable fiber that is renewable, and naturally water repellent.
Baby alpaca yarn is a classification of yarn that comes from the first or second shear of a young alpaca. These alpacas are typically at least a year old, and not actually babies when they are shorn! Baby alpaca can also come from the very softest parts of an adult animal. We use baby alpaca yarn exclusively for our line of baby accessories, in order to create the softest and warmest pieces for little ones.
We also work with two cooperatives of spinners who spin yarn for sale and for the knitting cooperatives. These artisans spin raw alpaca fleece, which we source locally from other Awamaki artisans in the Patacancha Valley. They clean the fleece by hand and use foot-pedal spinning machines or a phuska, the traditional drop spindle, to spin a softer yarn that can be used for knitting. This yarn is unique to these cooperatives and it is much chunkier, softer and loftier than the yarn spun for weaving. As of yet, the artisans do not dye this yarn, so it is only available in the cream, browns and very rare blacks and grays of the animals.