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Threads of Peru Fiber Dyeing Workshop Revives Traditions

by guest blogger, Kelsey Quam

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Last month, the textile project Threads of Peru sponsored a wool dyeing workshop led by textile expert Daniel Sonqo in the remote indigenous communities of Chaullaqocha, Chupani, and Rumira. Weavers of each community weavers association worked for several months to hand-spin up to 3 kilos of wool from their own alpacas which was sheared and washed prior to spinning and dyeing. (The entire weaving process is shear > wash > dry > comb > spin > wash > dye > rinse > ply > warp > weave). The alpaca wool was mixed with different plants that grow locally. Over two arduous days spent in each community, weavers worked together to obtain over ten different shades of colored alpaca wool that will be used to weave textiles. They also learned how to select and use plants that grow locally in future dyeing projects, thus contributing to the survival of this traditional practice that was practiced by their ancestors but is being used less and less as synthetic fiber has become common in Andean weaving. 

Cochineal, an insect that grows on the face of cacti, yields over 20 shades of red, pink, and even blue depending on the type of fixant used. In addition to textile art, its red color serves as a food additive and as a cosmetic dye. Since cochineal is nearly neutral (5.5 pH), it requires a large amount of fixant (ie. table salt, alum, iron oxide, citric acid, or a combination of the above). Cochineal grows in the Sacred Valley, about 1000 m below these communities, but is not easily accessible and is mainly sold commercially. Price makes it nearly impossible for weavers of these communities to obtain cochineal. This year, torrential rains and flooding in Febuary wiped out a substantial portion of the cochineal crop and caused the price to jump from around $20/kilo to nearly $80/kilo, depending on where it was sold. For more information on cochineal, see the book Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color by Elena Phipps, and our blog: Color Your World.

Fulbright_Peru_2009-10_363 While the vivid shades of red and pink obtained through cochineal are irreplaceable, several alternatives come close to matching cochineal’s beauty. Mot’e mot’e, for instance, is a tree with black fruit whose red, pulpy pit produces red-purple wool when fixed with salt and citric acid. However, it grows at 3700m on jagged mountain slopes away from sunlight and is difficult to collect. Yamamiyo produces many of the same shades as cochineal and is cheaper but still requires a bit of cochineal. Nukch’u is a plant with bright red flowers that grows near the community of Chupani. It doesn’t yield a color as bright as cochineal but produces softer reds and pinks that resemble a cochineal whose water bath has been used several times. While these alternatives are still possible to use, cochineal continues to dominate the market through its unique red colors that mark the beauty of Andean textiles and are craved throughout the world.

Besides the potential to use plants that currently grow near the communities, Daniel Sonqo pointed out the possibility of planting new plants for wool dyeing, trees for firewood, and starting greenhouses where plants not accustomed to the harsh environment and high elevation could be cultivated for dyeing. Several plants used in wool dyeing could grow in such environment, including q’olle, ch’illka de altura, tallanka de altura, and kinsaqocha. Community members could plant queuna, pine, and eucalyptus trees on vacant land to use for firewood and reforestation. The empty greenhouse at the primary school could provide an environment for non-native plants.

The potential to develop easy access to a variety of plants used in wool dyeing is here, but as textile expert Daniel Sonqo puts it, ‘Right now the people do not care for nor value the plants. No one is teaching these values. This is why they’ve started using what is easy- synthetic dye.’ ‘Now we’re in the age of recovering these traditions, but it’s difficult to change from what was before.’ Cultural revitalization programs – such as dyeing workshops – sponsored by NGOs, cooperatives, and textile projects, bring hope to indigenous weavers in revitalizing their textile traditions and revalorizing the culture in which these traditions were born.Fulbright_Peru_2009-10_382

Examples of traditional Andean dyeing and weaving can be seen our Chuspa Bag and Inca Sash.

About the author: Kelsey Quam just returned from a year in Peru as a Fulbright scholar. She worked with the textile project Threads of Peru in three remote, indigenous communities in the Cusco region: Chaullaqocha, Chupani, and Rumira Sondormayo. Her project examined traditional weaving ‘revitalization’ efforts taken by NGOs, cooperatives, and international organizations as intersected by a growing interest among the international community in recovering traditional practices in Andean weaving. While in the communities she also learned a bit of Quechua and mastered the backstrap loom. She holds a BA in International Political Economy from the University of Puget Sound.

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