I just returned from a remarkable trip to Peru with a group from the Center for Textile Research (CTR) in Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s worth looking at their website. This center pursues the study of textiles from an interdisciplinary perspective that includes geology, history, archaeology, conservation, language and craftsmanship. There are parallels between the bog mummies preserved in Denmark and those preserved in the desert of Peru. It was an honor to travel and observe with this group of people. We saw a small amount of natural dyeing but there were other elements, even more compelling, during this trip so I’d like to share some of that.
What is it that compels a craftsperson to excellence? To go beyond what is necessary and to work in cooperation with others?
Early in my own weaving career I learned 4 selvedge weaving from Navajo rug weavers. This experience has stayed with me and done more to sensitize my appreciation and understanding of the textiles we saw in Peru than any other preparation I could have done.
The Wari (Huari) tapestry tunic that we saw at Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, was my first indication that things are not always as they first appear. When examining this piece of cloth, I was astounded to realize that the warp actually ran in the horizontal direction of the tunic. This means that this piece of cloth was woven more than 2 meters in width and only a half-meter (approx.) tall. As I am more familiar with the back strap weaving of Guatemala, I had always incorrectly assumed that an individual weaver wove these fabrics as long, narrow panels. The wide cloth indicates that several people could have woven on this cloth at one time, making it a communal effort that might be accomplished more quickly. The repeating patterns with subtle color and motif variations suggest that each weaver had the freedom to interpret and vary the pattern. Yet the overall palette and design were completely harmonious.
On the last day of our trip, I re-examined a similar piece at Museo Amano. This one was woven even wider – over 3 meters I would guess – and displayed a similar rhythm of pattern and variation, not unlike that of a piece of jazz music.
The large tie-dyed piece from the same period at the Museo Amano likely represents another type of cooperation. Many years ago, I was involved in an exploratory weaving project in collaboration with art historian, Jane Rehl. We attempted to duplicate this type of scaffold weaving, creating multi-selvedged pieces that were later resist dyed and then sewn together to achieve the larger textile. Initially we made the assumption that large blankets of these pieces might have been woven together as one large blanket and dyed while still connected. After setting up scaffold looms, we realized that only two pieces need be woven at one time. These small weavings, when done with a group of people, resulted in a cooperative spirit of building something together. After the individual pieces were dyed in different colors, the entire textile was sewn together.
At the Weaving Center in Chinchero we saw fabrics that were handspun of either wool or alpaca, naturally dyed, and woven on backstrap looms. The natural dyes have been recently re-introduced here. When synthetic dyes were brought in the natural colors were abandoned until Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez took on the responsibility of learning the local plants and teaching the women to work with them. They do lightfastness tests in the strong sun of the Andes and use only dyes that perform well in these tests. I was not familiar with many of the dye plants since they were particular to this region. They included roots, lichens, indigo, cochineal, and beautiful greens from plants of the Baccharis family.
We watched two women preparing a warp. I was struck by how these two women (one older, one young) tossed the balls of yarn back and forth in the rhythmic dance of warping. Nilda told us how each woman wove her own individual textiles, but was helped along the way in the spinning, warping, and dyeing processes. I have the honor of bringing home a textile that Nilda warped and her mother wove. And it wasn’t enough to weave a piece with 4 excellent selvedges. Each piece of cloth was finished with an additional woven binding that completely encased the selvedge, strengthening the cloth and adding another element for its complexity and beauty.
We saw astounding Inca dry stone masonry at Machu Picchu. What is it that compelled these architects/craftsman to carry, cut, and fit stone with such precision and mastery? Rocks that weighed tons were cut and fitted like small Legos. It required large communities of people working together. Even walkways and water channels required the work and precision of many.
In our western countries, we are most apt to work alone, mastering our craft and accomplishing the work as individuals. We tend to put emphasis on MY work, MY process. We witnessed a different approach amongst the craftspeople of Peru, both past and present. Several years ago, while working with weavers in India, I observed them working together, always with many hands on the same piece of cloth. The spirit of cooperation that we saw in Peru was similar. The Peruvian craftsmen shared their labor, yet also shared the experience.