November 29, 2011 Scenes from the Stores

Our latest store is now open in San Francisco, the perfect climate for a warm and woolly alpaca sweater.  The San Francisco Chronicle took notice with a very nice article: see Window Shopping in the November 20 style section.

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All our stores are getting ready for the holidays, with lots of beautiful merch arriving daily, and fabulous finds from Prize Antiques at our Kansas City and Washington DC locations.

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November 8, 2011 Kuba Textiles: A Cloth in the Fabric of Life

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The Kuba people of Africa have a vital textile tradition pulsing through their deeply rooted history, their rituals, their culture and their art.  Known as People of the lightning, People of the king and People of the cloth, the Kuba people are actually eighteen different, but culturally related, ethnic groups living in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (although some say nineteen groups).  Their designation as “people of the lightning” derives from their exulted skill in throwing many-bladed ritualistic knives (shongo) that resemble lightning. In the language of their neighboring tribe, the Luba, Kuba literally means “lightning.”  The Kuba self-identify as “people of the king,” unified under one royal leader whose lineage has been preserved for over 400 years.  Their identification as “people of the cloth,” or Bambala, encapsulates their rich legacy as virtuosos of the textile arts.  On another level, it also refers to the Kuba’s astonishing bounty of status cloth and ceremonial costumes, marking this group as particularly wealthy and powerful.  These cloths are commonly used as a means of measuring wealth and, in fact, some cloths are used as a form of currency (“woven currency”).  Even the King’s palace is centered around cloth: it is always built within the “well-woven plains” and the name of the palace itself conjures the word mbal, used to refer to a panel of woven raffia cloth.

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In her book Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa, Vanessa Drake Moraga argues that “what may be most distinctive about the Kuba tradition is that textile art ultimately represents its most versatile, dynamic and imaginative form of visual expression” (12).  Textiles, then, are a visual language used by the Kuba to communicate essential information about themselves as individuals and as a society.  “Getting dressed” is not simply a matter of personal preference, it is a matter of  concretely saying who you are, where you came from and where you are going.  Their textiles are important markers of social status, lineage and ethnicity.  Extremely subtle differences in color, pattern, texture, borders, embroidery, and even how the pieces are constructed and layered all play a tremendous role in identifying the different ethnic groups and the different individuals within these groups.  It is truly astounding the degree to which Kuba people are identified through their clothing.

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The foundation of the Kuba textile tradition is raffia, a type of palm fiber.  Raffia is used to make almost everything—from woven fabric and mats to headwear, baskets, masks and even the walls of homes.  Raffia gains its significance not only as a valuable physical resource (out of which things can be made), but also as an invaluable spiritual resource.  It is believed to be the thread that connects life to death and the realm of the spirit to the realm of the ritual.  Raffia clothing plays an especially important role during ceremonies and rites of passage, with specific textiles associated with various rituals.  Since clothing is an exact marker of who someone is during their lifetime, the Kuba people believe it is crucial to arrive in the land of the dead dressed in their best attire. For the most prosperous, this would be the ornamental raffia skirts typically worn for ceremonies.

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With their distinctive artistry, cultural import and symbolic function, the spectacular Kuba textiles have long inspired our designers at Peruvian Connection.  We hope to help preserve these ancient traditions by bringing them to life on our wearable works of art.  Our Kuba Sheath Dress (shown at the left) is patterned after a ceremonial wrap-skirt, known as a Tcaka, made from woven raffia with patches and embroidery.  This particular skirt is thought to belong to the Ngeende group, the largest and most dominant ethnicities of the Kuba people.  Our Sunila Skirt and the Kuba Tank Top were also inspired by traditional Shibori-dyed Kuba cloths.

Peruvian Connection is proud to support The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., which currently houses an impressive collection of Kuba textiles.  This exhibit is the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. to spotlight such a wide-ranging survey of Kuba design.  For more information about this exhibit and The Textile Museum, please visit their website here.

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September 15, 2011 Peruvian cuisine: Peru’s next best export

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Peruvian food is finally finding its place in the culinary spotlight. Top chefs from all over the world are gathering this week in Lima for the 4th annual Mistura Food Festival, the most important food event in all of Latin America. 

Peruvian food is a delicious fusion resulting from Spanish, Japanese, African, and Chinese influences, blended with flavors from the native Quechua culture.  Many of the cuisine’s key ingredients are as healthful as they are flavorful, featuring seafood, quinoa, and an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs. 

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Peruvian cuisine has become a popular choice across the country, with the number of Peruvian restaurants in big cities quadrupling over the last decade.  Peru’s top celebrity chef, Gastón Acurio, opened his first restaurant in Lima in 1994. Chef Acurio is responsible for much of the rise in popularity, now with 32 Peruvian restaurants in 14 cities worldwide.  We’re happy to find that his restaurant, La Mar Cebicheria, is just a few blocks from our soon-to-open store in San Francisco, at Pier 1.5 on the Embarcadero!

Read more in the Wall Street Journal article, including a recipe for Sea Bass Ceviche with Leche de Tigre.  For more recipes, see our newsletters: Peruvian Markets (recipe for Choclo San Antonio), Potatoes: from the Andes to Ireland (recipe for Papas Rellenas), and our blogs with recipes for Pisco Sours, Quinoa Salad, and Suspiro de Limeña.

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September 1, 2011 Color Me Natural

Every day we’re flooded with alarming warnings about the modern lifestyle and its impact on the environment, from dyes and pesticides to plastics.  As eco-awareness increasingly sweeps across the world, it’s refreshing to remember the natural, sustainable practices in places such as Peru.  Natural dyes and fabrics are not simply a trend in Peru; they are a way of life.  Peruvian textile methods are a time-honored tradition, with roots that extend back hundreds of years, well before the advent of chemicals and synthetic dyes. 

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Although Peru was not immune to the spread of synthetic dyes in the late 19th/early 20th century, many Peruvians have continued to produce eco-friendly dyes from insect, plant and mineral sources.  What’s more, Peru has seen a resurgence in natural dye production over the past few decades, as demand has steadily increased.

The bold red hues that characterize many Andean textiles often start with a bug: the Cochineal.  As early as the 15th century, the Aztecs and Mayans were extracting red carmine dyes from the cochineal, a scale insect that resembles a beetle. Cochineal feed on the prickly pear cactus, which thrives in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

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To extract the deep purplish-red carmine pigment, the dried insect is simply ground, usually with a stone, and then boiled into a concentrated source of dye.  Once extracted, mixtures of lemon and salt can be added to create a stunning array of reds, purples and oranges for use in textiles, cosmetics and even foods.  In fact, cochineal is the only natural red dye approved for consumption by the FDA.  Although cochineal dye is the most widely available, Peruvians will also extract red dye from an indigenous red flower, the achancaray, or from the madder root, which is one of the earliest known red dyes in mankind.

Foraged wild flowers are used at length in the production of yellow and orange dyes.  The most commonly used are the flowers of the Qolle tree or Quico flowers, both indigenous plants of Peru.  By simply boiling the flowers with the yarns (most often alpaca) for various lengths of time, Peruvians are able to achieve an impressive spectrum of oranges and yellows.  Orange dyes can also be extracted from a type of lichen that grows on rocks, known as Qaqa Sunka, which translates from Quechua to mean “beard lichen.”

Probably the easiest of all dyes to find in nature is the color green, which can be derived from a gamut of plant and mineral sources. In Peru, Ch’illca, a green leafy shrub with white flowers, is one of the most common sources for green pigment, especially around Cuzco. 

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The essential oil found in Ch’illca also has many medicinal purposes, and can be used to help protect and heal Alpaca skin.  To intensify green hues, collpa, a mineral found in the Amazonian jungle, can be added to the Ch’illca dye mixture and boiled for about an hour before adding the yarns.

Indigo is one of the oldest and most coveted dyes in the world.  It was used extensively throughout ancient India to create gorgeous textiles and for centuries blue clothing was seen as a status symbol, being worn only by royalty. 

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Indigo is still used as a natural dye source, but it can be hard to come across in Peru.  It can sometimes be found in Peruvian markets, but it does not grow in the region and can be very expensive.  Instead, Peruvians tend to rely on a combination of Tara, a native pod, and Colpa, an iron sulfate, to create natural blue dyes.  The Tara is first boiled with the yarn until the desired shade of blue is achieved and then Colpa is added near the end to “fix” this shade.

Of course, there are many beautiful textiles and garments produced without any dyes at all.  Alpaca fleece is available in a beautiful range of natural colors, including black, grey, white and caramel.

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Over the years, we have offered numerous undyed pieces that are not only fashionable, but environmentally sound.  I can’t get enough of them!  My favorites right now are the Boho Hoodie (can you believe that’s undyed?) and the Sullivan Minidress.  Our Coca bags are a true cultural gem too, embodying the textile genius of the Peruvians: hand-woven in the ancient tradition and hand-dyed from natural sources.  You can also look forward to a gorgeous rug coming up in our Gift book, artisan made by hand with sustainable fibers and natural dyes.  Here’s to being naturally fabulous!

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July 13, 2011 Looking for Luck?

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Ever wish you could change your luck?  The local Quechuans indigenous to the Huasao region of Cusco, Peru may have your cure.  All you need is a black guinea pig, beer and ribbon.  The first step is to get the guinea pig to drink a large glass of beer, as it is believed that the guinea pigs power to remove bad luck intensifies as it gets drunk.  When the guinea pig drinks enough beer, it is ritualistically dressed up with brightly colored ribbons and beads.  The patient is cured of their bad luck by having the intoxicated guinea pig rubbed on their body. This guinea pig is ultimately released into the countryside, but it remains highly contagious with this bad luck. So if you ever cross the path of a ribbon-adorned black guinea pig, steer clear! 

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Huayruro Tree

If drinking with a guinea pig isn’t what you had in mind, maybe you should consider picking up some gorgeously hued red Huayruro seeds.  Found in the pods of a tree native to Peru, these seeds are thought to bring good luck and wealth, while defending against harm and negative energy.  The vibrant red and black hues are not only pleasing to the eye, but they’re also believed to bring balance. Collected from the jungle floor by locals, these seeds are usually kept in jars in the home, or worn as a bracelet.  New born babies in Peru are often given Huayruro seeds as their first gift, as a welcoming wish for a blessed, prosperous life.  These seeds are used by Peruvian artisans to craft spectacular pieces of jewelry, so be on the lookout next time you’re in the market. 

 If you’ve ever visited an Andean town in Cusco, such as Chinchero or Ollantaytambo, then chances are you noticed a pair of ceramic bulls on many of the rooftops.  These ceramic bulls are also thought to ensure good luck, by protecting the house itself and by bringing health and abundance to the family inside.  They’re called toritos de Pucar, “bulls of Pucara,” because authentic luck-bearing bulls come only from Pucara, a region just outside Cusco.  They are always placed on the roof, where they can view the apus, the mountain gods of the ancient Incas.  These gods are believed to be the most powerful of the natural spirits, protecting the local people of the highlands.  The ceramic bulls help garner these protective spirits, bringing even more positive energy into the home. 

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Milagro Hand Pendant $99

Another widely used good luck charm in Peruvian folk culture is the milagro.  The milagro, which translates from Spanish to mean “miracle” or “surprise,” is often a metal charm with a signifying shape, such as a heart (love), a leg (strength) or a man/woman’s head (spirit, wisdom).  Traditionally, these charms would be offered to a saint as a religious votive for answering a specific prayer.  For example, if someone had a sore leg, this person may use a small silver leg as an offering for the cure.  Today, milagros serve many functions outside religious purposes.  These ancient talismans continue to be used for good fortune, worn as necklaces, stashed under pillows or hidden in pockets.  Some common milagros include the arm (work, touch), eyes (vision, intuition), sheep (community, faithfulness), horse (journey, travel), dog (protection, loyalty) or a house (protection, family).  Another popular milagro is the heart-in-hand charm, which represents ones connectedness with others, the feeling of compassion and the healing quality of touch.  Whether you’re looking for love, health or prosperity, I wish you the best of luck!

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