By: Rose de Paulsen
In the heart of the Andes mountains sits Cusco, a city that holds a rich historical culture and an endless number of self-discoveries. It is a place I had the honour of going to in May through Seneca Abroad. I had previously never been on a plane and had never expected to fly to a completely different continent. Before the trip, I was a diligent packer, feeling incredibly unprepared for my first ever time abroad.
I was unprepared. I had never expected to be dunked headfirst in a breath-taking city with stunning architecture, art, and culture. Maybe it was the altitude that made everything ethereal. The purpose of going was not just to enjoy the inherent beauty of the Andes, but to learn about the history of Andean textiles and fashion. Seneca partnered with Chio Lecca Fashion School to help plan our educational itinerary, some of which included visiting museums and having firsthand experience weaving with the Patacancha community.
The textile history of the Indigenous people of Peru, is far beyond what can be summarized in an article. More importantly the designs, colours and feel of the textiles can only be experienced in their full beauty in person. Before even learning of techniques, designs, and structure of the textiles, the first thing you might notice is the full spectrum of dazzling colours. A rainbow is a part of Cusco’s flag, but it seems more of an understatement of how many colours you can experience in the city. It is definitely a contrast to the colours (or lack thereof) in Canada. Some may use synthetic dyes when dyeing the threads, but what is fascinating about the Indigenous dyes, is how natural dyes can also create a wide rainbow of shades. Like many other Indigenous cultures, dyes are made of plant matter, but also the conditions of the Andes are perfect for creating cochineal (carmine) the famous red pigment that has been used for centuries for dye. Cochineal comes from the insects of the same name, harvested from cacti. When creating different shades from cochineal, salts (from Maras) and acids are used to change the colours from red to violet in colours. Red can be one of the most harmful synthetic colours for health and the environment. So, if you happen to choose or use dyes and pigments, think twice about the look of synthetics, and look to the performance and sustainability of natural pigments.
If bright colours are not your style, you are in luck. Many of Peru’s camelids (the largest fibre supplier) come in shades of neutrals, from silky black to coarse brown. The camelids of Peru, include llamas, alpacas, and the treasured vicuna, most known for their ultra-fine hair. Vicunas were endangered in the 1970’s and thanks to the intervention of conservation, they are now least concern, and the national symbol of Peru. We stopped at Awana Kancha, a living museum focusing on the rearing of camelids all the way to the finished garment. Vicuna wool is one of the most expensive fibres in the world, and once you feel it in-person you will know why. Vicunas only come in a red-fawn colour, but the diverse types of textures and colours can be found in alpacas. The best part of choosing the natural colour of the fibre is that the colour will never fade in the wash.
A lot of the historical fabrics on display have an array of colours. Most importantly, they have a lexicon of symbols. From simplistic to highly intricate repeating patterns, the historical Andean textiles tell the tales of centuries of the pre-colonial cultures. Common symbols include animals, representing parts of the natural and supernatural world. From birds, to cats, to snakes, the combination of animals can create multiple meanings when connected to each other. Coca leaves are also common as they have been used for ceremonial practices and to show respect to the mountains. One of the many books shared with us was a catalogue of symbols and designs and what they could mean. Pre-Columbian art was, like many aspects of Indigenous cultures, unfortunately suppressed or assimilated. Quipu, an art of tying knots onto various coloured ropes, was believed to be tied to the Indigenous language, possibly a form of recording information. Many techniques could have been lost in time, but the conditions of the mountain saved the textiles from deterioration. It then came up to the Indigenous communities and those who cared for Indigenous rights to preserve their culture from eraser. To this day many Indigenous communities struggle against the government and the attempted eraser.
Meeting the Indigenous community in person was the highlight of my trip. They were welcoming and kind, and most of all, incredible weavers. One weaver could hand weave complicated and beautiful patterns all by eye and memory alone. Watching them at work was mesmerizing. The craft requires an incredible amount of skill. When attempting a bracelet for myself, I barely got the tension right. Like I have said throughout this article, this is something you must experience: the beauty of these textiles in person.
The experience Chio Lecca provided us reached far beyond any expectation I could have. This experience forever changed my experience of textiles. From how they were created to how they are woven to tell stories. If you are looking to support Indigenous artists and craftspeople from Peru, consider buying from the textile industry. Visit Cusco if you can, it’s a heaven for art lovers and a cultural experience like no other.