by guest blogger, Kezia Huseman
Chinchero is a small village in Peru, located in the departamento (state) of Cusco but it is about 28 kilometers (17 miles) northwest of the city of Cusco. The village gets quite a bit of traffic flowing through it because of its close proximity to Cusco, the archeological site located there, and the beautiful handmade textiles made by the villagers. Many people, tourists and otherwise, marvel at the textiles, but sadly, many never come to fully appreciate the process by which they are made.
It all starts with animals. Sheep and alpaca are raised and tended to throughout the year; they are sheared usually just once a year. This provides the raw material with which this process begins: dirty wool filled with pieces of earth and twigs. To clean the wool, women wash it with a root from the jabonera (soapwort) plant. This root is a natural detergent which creates a lather and removes the dirt. Interestingly, it is this same root which the people use as shampoo to wash their own hair.
Once washed, the wool is ready to spin. They use a drop-spindle, or pushka, allowing the spinner to walk or do other activities and spin at the same time. The wool is spun into simple 1-ply yarn. At this stage, it is time for dyeing.
All dyes used are 100% natural and hand-gathered. Leaves, bark, moss, corn, flowers, and seeds are all used to make varying shades of different colors. For red colors, pigment from cochineal is used, extracted from a small beetle which lives on the prickly pear cactus. The beetle’s raw pigment also serves as women’s lipstick and rouge.
The dyes are added to boiling water, and then the single-ply yarn is added to the pot. The time left in the pot depends on the intensity of the desired color. For a mordant, to hold the color, they use collpa, a mineral found in the jungle.
Once the yarn is dyed, it is rinsed and hung to dry. Then, the yarn is spun again to ply it. A slightly larger drop-spindle is used to make the yarn 2-ply or 3-ply, thus stronger and able to be woven.
To weave the yarn, they used a back-strap loom, which is simply straps, strings, and sticks fashioned together. Tools used in the weaving process are bones and sticks. Weaving an entire loom takes at least two months of solid weaving. The people of Chinchero make designs in their weavings specific to Chinchero. While other villages around Peru use the same techniques to make yarn and weave, the designs imprinted in the textiles are specific to the location where they were woven. An outsider may not be able to recognize the subtle differences in designs, but the people of the Andes can pinpoint where someone is from simply by the designs in their clothing and textiles.
The final products consist of shawls, skirts, scarves, belts, ponchos, table runners, bags, coin purses, and much more. All are stunning and beautiful, but perhaps the most stunning of all is the physical effort and craftsmanship that goes into making those products.
Weaving is not a simple weekend craft for the people of Chinchero. It is definitely a long, delicate process. At the same time, it is much more than that. Weaving is a living testament to their heritage, proof of their workmanship, and their livelihood.