Threads of Peru Blog

Volunteering with Threads Part 1: Weft and Warp: Working in Two Cultures

It all started over a beer at a fund-raiser in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, near Cusco.

That afternoon, all the micro-brewery’s profits went in support of the non-profit, Threads of Peru. When I met the organization’s director of operations, Dana, a sassy young anthropologist who works with local weavers, I asked if I could volunteer. (I’d been keeping an eye out for volunteer work involving textiles and supporting women.)

As soon as I started work two mornings a week in the office, I discovered that the rest of the team is as dynamic and passionate as Dana.

Lourdes, an ambitious young Quechua woman from the nearby community of Lamay, had started just before me, working full time and completing her Masters in Business. Late in the year, Isabel joined the Cusco team part-time to work on inventory and administration. And the founders, who work from their homes in Peru, Australia and Canada, run the business across three time zones.

 

   
 

This little girl from Chaullacocha braves a peek at the
stranger in her midst as the weavers lay out a bedspread to check its quality

 

 The work has been far more rewarding than I had imagined. On days when no one is visiting a community all four of us slot, Tetris style, into the 12 square metres of the office, finding space between woven samples, colour swatches, balls of yarn, piles of luscious finished products, folders of paperwork, and the current orders taped up on a wall.

Weavers pop in when they’re in town, and the space somehow expands to accommodate everyone.

Sometimes they bring completed pieces, and sometimes they come to renegotiate the terms of a job. Often they bring a bag of freshly harvested potatoes or fava beans, and we’ll cook up a pot of them for a shared meal that we eat, communal style, with our fingers.

 

 

A great place to keep your needle to hand … a weaver from Rumira Sondormayo

These people have so little, materially speaking, and yet they come with a gift. As far as I can tell, it’s not about food. It seems to be to honour the dreams of a better future that all of us have in common, and to nurture relationships and acknowledge a journey shared.

And it is a journey to get those exquisite weavings to the market place. They arrive via the meandering paths of negotiations that I’ve watched unfold in the office and in the weavers’ communities.

 

 

Learning the craft bit by bit, this little girl in Rumira Sondormayo helps her mother lay and tension the warp for a new order

 

I was fascinated to notice the relationships between Threads of Peru staff and the weavers change after Lourdes started working there. Her first language and culture are Quechua, so she has an affinity with the weavers that we westerners will never have. Dana has observed differences in the way the weavers approach her and Lourdes: although they have worked with Dana for more than two years, with Lourdes they are less diffident and during negotiations will argue their case more confidently. Much of the communication with the weavers now is in Quechua, through Lourdes, although they continue to use Spanish, too.

The products wouldn’t happen without the passionate commitment and many hours of unpaid work the staff and founders put into supporting the weavers. And they certainly wouldn’t happen if the weavers weren’t prepared to put aside some of their age-old ways of working to learn the strange ways of the western market. I’ve come to understand that, no matter how much training the weavers get in how to meet the demands of western buyers, it may never become second nature to them. It just doesn’t fit comfortably with their world view, passed down over many hundreds of years. The differences are something that the weavers and the Threads team have learned to work with.

It succeeds, of course: the exquisite textiles the weavers produce are testament to that.

 

 
The warping completed, two women trade jokes and check the order that the Threads Cusco team delivered that day

 

That success has informed whatever I’ve written for Threads of Peru – the people and their interactions grounded in shared purpose, out of which has grown affection and a sense of connection that is greater than the formal work relationship.

As is so often the case when I’ve volunteered my time and skills, I’ve been given back something greater than the self, and the last time I walked out the door into the street, I left richer than on the first day I’d walked in. I’m grateful to have been welcomed so warmly.

 
Dana, Dave and Claire meet the young weavers of Huilloc

 

-Claire Heath
  March, 2016