Quechua Culture: Preserving The Peruvian Weaving Tradition

weaving village

When traveling through Peru, it’s hard not to notice the colorful handicrafts made by locals. Hats, scarves, bags, socks, sweaters and headbands are weaved with care using locally-sourced fabrics like alpaca, vicuna and sheep. While you can browse these products at local markets, another way to explore the art and craft culture of Peru is to visit a traditional weaving village.

About The Communities

Threads of Peru is a local company offering guided visits to three indigenous weaving communities, including Rumira Sondormayo, Chaullaqocha and Chupani, all located in the Patacancha Valley in the Cuzco region. Of all the communities, Rumira Sondormayo are the most organized, with clear goals of their needs and desires. Rumira is accessible by road, and has electricity in the houses in the main town center, access to both primary and secondary schools as well as the medical post in Patacancha. Here you’ll find about 40 families with their main activities in agriculture, although some of the men in the community also work as porters on the Inca Trail.

At the freezing altitude of 15,000 feet, you’ll find the community of Chaullaqocha. Located about two hours from the main road, the weather there can be harsh, with temperatures sometimes falling to below zero in the afternoons. Because of this, there are few resources, some of which include potatoes, sheep and llamas. This is a subsistence lifestyle, with little attention from the outside. Chaullaqocha’s school closed in the 1990’s due to terrorism, only reopening in 2006 and being officially recognized in 2008. There are about 90 people who live in Chaullaqocha and 26 children attending kindergarten and primary school. There is no electricity or running water and most houses have traditional stoves for heat. To attend high school, children must board at the secondary school in Patacancha.

peru weaving

The Importance Of Weaving

Weaving is one of the oldest traditions in the world. In fact, since 2500 BCE it has been an important part of Peruvian culture. It sits at the very core of the Quechua culture, shaping personal and regional identities, and acting as a form of inter-regional communication. Some people vest their entire sense of personal identity in their occupation as a weaver, stating that without weaving they would no longer have an identity.

“Variations in style of dress, use of color and woven designs can distinguish people from different communities or regions at a glance,” explains Sarah Confer, the Threads of Peru Project Coordinator. “The weaving tradition also embodies a wealth of traditional knowledge, from techniques of spinning and weaving, to which plants are useful for dyeing – when they grow, and how to prepare them – as well as the range of symbols particular to a community and what they mean to that community.”

Textiles also play an important part in communication, as they are a language of their own. Traditionally, Quechua was an oral language, so textiles were a means of conveying thoughts and impressions about one’s surroundings, and also of recording historical events.

peru weaving

The Weaving Process

[pullquote]The weaving tradition also embodies a wealth of traditional knowledge, from techniques of spinning and weaving, to which plants are useful for dyeing – when they grow, and how to prepare them – as well as the range of symbols particular to a community and what they mean to that community.[/pullquote]

While women in the villages take care of children, tend to animals and sometimes work outside the home, they are almost constantly weaving, even as they go about these daily activities.

There is much more to weaving than just connecting thread. It all starts with shearing the animals and washing the fibers. From there, the fibers are spun into a fine yarn using a very old tool, a drop-spindle.  These consist of a wooden stick with a weight at one end. Weavers clasp the stick in their hands and give it a spin, letting it hang freely as it spins. The energy from the spinning motion of the spindle travels into the fiber, twisting the fibers together to form yarn. The weaver simultaneously draws the fiber out to control the thickness and evenness of the resulting yarn. With each spin of the drop spindle you can form about 50 centimeters of yarn, which is then wound around the spindle in preparation for drawing out and spinning the next section.

“Spinning is the most time-consuming aspect of the weaving process, and can comprise up to 60% of the time involved in producing a finished product,” explains Confer. “It is also a very fine art. It is difficult to master the drop spindle, for which reason most people start learning at a very young age like five or six.”

The process continues with the yarn being plied and then naturally dyed. In the Andes, there is a history of using locally available plants, minerals and insects to impart color to animal fiber. This usually involves collecting the materials necessary, preparing them for use by, for example, drying and grinding leaves, and then adding them to boiling water in various quantities and combinations in order to produce myriad different shades.

From there, the weaver will decide what designs and colors she will use for the finished product in order to begin with the warping process, which prepares the yarn for weaving. The textile is woven row by row, with the weaver selecting each individual warp yarn by hand, picking up certain yarns while dropping others, and then passing the weft yarn through the space created between these upper and lower layers of warp yarns. This secures the particular selection in place. Wooden or bone tools are used to ensure a tight and compact weaving before a second row is started, with the weaver selecting each yarn necessary for the next line of the design.

As you can see, this is a much different process from what many people use in modern times; however, it is the traditional method and also produces a quality product.

peru weaving

Why You Should Visit & What To Expect

[pullquote]It is difficult to master the drop spindle, for which reason most people start learning at a very young age like five or six[/pullquote]

Along with taking part in an important cultural experience and learning a new skill, visiting a weaving village allows you to help a local community. While Threads of Peru seeks to connect the world to the woven work of Quechua women, by experiencing it for yourself you’re aiding in preserving their ancient craft and providing them with economic opportunities. Moreover, when you purchase a handicraft you’re putting money back into the community to help sustain it.

If you’re interested in helping in other ways, the nonprofit works with various relevant projects, including:

  • Capacitation Workshops – Where skilled weavers share their knowledge with other weavers to preserve their ancient ways as well as continue to improve their weaving skills and the quality of products.
  • Creative Inspiration Workshops – These workshops include overnight community exchange trips, visits by expert weavers to the communities, exercises that inspire creativity and innovation in areas such as their use of iconography, pattern, color, and finishing techniques.
  • Adult Education Programs – For the education of indigenous people regarding modern economics, healthcare, childcare, family planning, etc.
  • Employing Teachers – To continue grade school education for the children of these often remote communities.
  • Building Projects – Such as schools, weaving houses, dye gardens, homestay rooms, and washroom facilities.

Images via Isaiah Brookshire

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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