My first invitation to visit a community that Threads of Peru works with came a couple of weeks after I started volunteering two mornings a week in the Cusco office.
The visit quickly disabused me of any notions I had had of how the textiles are made. I suppose I had thought, not very thoughtfully, that the process would be a more rustic version of a western association of weaving hobbyists. It is much more complicated and intricate than that.
|So much love- there's always time for a cuddle however much work is on.|
It’s not in the weaving: most of the weavers began to learn the skills involved when they were 7 or so, and some of them have decades of experience. What they produce is exquisite, the sum of experience, artistic vision, tradition, fine fibers, and knowledge.
It’s not in the office accepting a new order or posting it when it’s done: that’s standard western business practice (with a few differences).
To me, it’s mostly in what comes out of negotiations between two cultures with dissimilar world views working willingly to find common ground.
|While the weavers meet, 2 little girls have fun drawing in the dust on the vehicle that brought the Cusco team|
For example, the weavers might never really ‘get’ why a scarf has to be in precise dimensions, and its tassels an exact length and thickness, as this is not a value that has currency in life in this part of the world. But they can easily work within this mystery to produce goods of the quality expected of them. I knew this the instant I saw a bedspread, which is made on four looms by four women, and noticed how the patterns lined up across the four parts. I imagine the women laughing at the strangeness of our culture as they sit together outside on a sunny day, threading their shuttles through the warp, counting threads, adjusting the tension, the children too young for school playing around them. (Many of the women like weaving because it is one of the few jobs available where they can keep their children with them.)
|Many of the women like weaving because it allows them to work with their small children present.|
One thing the westerners have difficulty understanding and accommodating is the Quechua disinterest in planning ahead. On my first community visit, we arrived on a pre-arranged day and time, to see the women rushing out to meet us, apologising that they couldn’t make the meeting as they were just leaving to play football in a local competition. They’d known about the visit and the game for weeks, but apparently it had not occurred to anyone to re-schedule our meeting.
The operations manager, Dana, looked momentarily perplexed.
“I’ve been working with these women for two-and-a-half years,” she said. “I still don’t get it. They have my phone number. They call me all the time. They’ve known about this meeting for three weeks. They know how long the travel takes, because they do it too.”
There was nothing to be done but to laugh. So we did. There was no point getting upset. It wouldn’t achieve anything, and we were visitors in this world. So everyone agreed that we’d come back later in the day, and we set off to the next village.
The weavers receive ongoing training on how to meet deadlines and other unforgiving standards of a highly competitive western market: but you can’t push too hard or too fast or too far.
|When the weather is fine, the women work outside. Here a meeting takes places between the weavers of Upis, under the gaze of the snow peak Ausangate, and the Cusco team.|
Going to the villages was useful for my work with Threads. But more than that, it was an honor to be taken into these women’s lives when they knew I would be there only fleetingly.
The biggest impact on me was observing what beauty could emerge from so harsh an environment. It makes every gorgeous piece even more extraordinary. It’s easy to romanticize the world of the weavers, I suppose because it’s superficially colorful and aspects of their lives remind westerners of some idealized past: the pace of life is slow; many of the villagers continue to wear clothing in styles that are hundreds of years old; and where they live is so wildly beautiful and removed.
But their lives are tough. Really tough. And they are poor. Some of them have no electricity. Many of them cannot weave during the rainy season because their homes are too small to accommodate even the space a back strap loom occupies, and the rains prevent outside work. At the altitude they live, few edible foods grow, and bartering, buying, or selling produce is time-consuming. These family-oriented people have to send their children away for secondary school, and medical care is expensive and entails long journeys to the big towns or Cusco.
So it helps them that they are made of hardy stuff. And they have big hearts, able minds, generous laughs, and wondrous hands that, however gnarled by a lifetime of hard work, can create the beautiful weaving that adorns a westerner’s life.
I feel privileged to have been witness to it for this small time.
Helping … and beginning to learn the skills of weaving