While in Peru this past May, I visited a women's weaving collective in Chinchero in the Sacred Valley. There I met Marta, Angelica, Isabella, and Roxana who, along with several other women artisans working there, are part of 12 families who have lived in the valley for centuries and have persisted this craft over several generations. They work together to produce a wide array of handmade goods, share their collective story with travelers from all over, and ultimately support their own families.
All of the textiles they produce are made from either alpaca or sheep's wool; animals that they raise and tend to themselves in the breathtaking land surrounding their "balcon". They call their work space "balcon del Inka" (balcony of the Incas). It's a high plateau overlooking the valley where they've constructed a series of adobe huts and covered spaces to work in and sell their pieces.
I was lucky enough to be thoroughly walked through their entire creative process. The first step is cleaning the raw materials with a local root and warm water. (The women also let me in on a little secret that they all wash their hair with this same root to avoid going gray.) They then hand-pinch and mesh the wool together before spinning it into fine thread on a wooden tool resembling an elongated and skinny rolling pin with one handle. The threads are dyed with a variety of pigments creating vibrant delicious hues that are a true testament to the amazing color seen all over Peru.
The women shared with me the ingredients and special combinations of flowers, leaves, fungi, berries, corn, salt, and more that they use to create their pigments. The vibrant red often seen in much of their traditional apparel comes from a parasite that grows on cacti throughout the valley. On the cactus it looks like a benign collection of gray dust, but when Marta squeezed it between her fingers and painted her palm, it looked like bright blood on her hands.
A combination of wooden rods and bones are used in the weaving process to control and guide the thread. A single large blanket takes between a month and a month and a half to create. The precise and intricate detail put into many of these textiles is remarkable. I imagine the work becomes second-nature to these women who have been practicing this art for years, but the complex patterns and dedicated symmetry put into each piece by hand is daunting to even think about for me. The value attributed to textiles in ancient Peru was tantamount to that of silver and gold, and it's easy to understand the sanctity of these items when you see first-hand the elaborate and time-honored creative tradition.
Throughout the process, I observed, amazed, not only by the skills of these women, but also by their palpable bond with one another. They exuded a real warmth, and it was clear they all worked harmoniously, supporting one another, telling jokes, laughing, and singing together. Even though I was halfway across the globe in a small rural village very different from the city life I've grown accustomed to in Brooklyn, I felt at home among these women.