Chinchero, Peru, sits on a broad plateau against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks—a postcard-perfect village of pre-Columbian walls, red-tile roofs and a colonial church, surrounded by gently terraced fields. It is a stopover for many tourists traveling from Cusco to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Believed by the ancients to be the birthplace of the rainbow, Chinchero nowadays produces a full palette of hand-dyed fibers, woven into designs that have been passed down through generations.
For more than 30 years, Nilda Callañaupa has made it her mission to revitalize the area’s rich textile tradition. Today, she heads the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), a nonprofit organization that provides a modest but dependable income for close to 700 weavers in 10 communities. A recipient of IAF grants for two multi-year periods, CTTC has spurred an outpouring of creativity and helped raise the quality of local textiles to new levels. From Andean hats and ponchos to table runners and shawls, cusqueño weavings are still produced on backstrap or four-stake looms, in a complex, labor-intensive process that dates to pre-Inca times. Most CTTC textiles feature the design on both sides, and they incorporate iconography and patterns distinctive to each community. All are made from natural fibers—alpaca, llama or sheep—and use natural dyes made from insects, seeds, flowers, leaves, roots or minerals. “I have learned that each and every piece of cloth embodies the spirit, skill, and personal history of an individual weaver,” Callañaupa wrote in her book Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands: Dreaming Patterns, Weaving Memories. “Weaving is a living art, an expression of culture, geography, and history. It ties together with an endless thread the emotional life of my people.”
It also presents practical challenges. The economics of producing handwoven textiles from handspun fiber are “formidable,” said Ann P. Rowe, research associate of Western Hemisphere textiles at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. “Outsiders are not usually willing to pay what the amount of labor involved is worth, in part because they simply cannot comprehend the enormous amount of time that the handwork takes,” she said. “There is a reason that the industrial revolution began with textile technology.” According to Rowe, who first met Callañaupa in 1990 when she gave a demonstration at the museum, individuals attempting to market indigenous textiles may not themselves fully understand the economics of the effort that goes into them or the value of preserving an aesthetic. “CTTC stands out as an organization actually run by an indigenous weaver who knows perfectly well about the labor involved but who also really cares about the quality of the work,” she said.
Born in 1960, Nilda Callañaupa started spinning wool at age 6 and within a year was weaving alongside her mother, Guadalupe Álvarez, now in her mid-80s, who had learned the craft from her own mother, the renowned artisan Cipriana Valenzuela. But for Nilda’s age group, it was no longer a given that such skills would be passed on. Elders were still weaving, but for most young people this was no way to make a living. Meanwhile, the use of synthetic fibers and dyes was undermining the quality of locally produced textiles. Callañaupa, a university graduate who had some background in business, put together an informal cooperative with the goal of reintroducing and documenting traditional textile designs and uses, expanding the community of weavers and reviving a high level of quality. The explosion of tourism to Machu Picchu and Cusco brought buyers for the kind of painstakingly handmade textiles her ancestors had produced. Over the years, the cooperative became well-known in Cusco and beyond, garnering support from anthropologists, collectors, foundations and nonprofit organizations. CTTC was formally created in 1996 with help from the Boston-based Cultural Survival.
The IAF began to work with CTTC in 2004; the second of its two grants was amended with additional funds in 2011. “We were convinced that CTTC could, working with the communities, revitalize weaving as a viable economic activity. And they’ve been able to do it,” said Wilbur Wright, who recently retired from the IAF as its regional director for South America and the Caribbean. Wright had been impressed by CTTC’s Cusco staff, which includes several young professionals, and by the enthusiasm for weaving that he had witnessed in the participating communities, along with a steady improvement in the quality and variety of their output. Because weaving is an activity that requires many steps, from shearing to marketing, it can involve different members of the family and yield income without selling a farm animal. “It’s a source that complements the economics of the household,” Callañaupa explained. The income a CTTC weaver can earn might not seem like much—between $3 and $13 day—but it makes a huge difference in the life of the artisan, she said, and the weavers are able to stay on their communal lands, with their families, speak their indigenous language and maintain their cultural traditions.
CTTC has worked for several years in nine Quechua-speaking communities: Accha Alta, Acopia, Chahuaytire, Chinchero, Chumbivilcas, Mahuaypampa, Patabamba, Pitumarca and Santa Cruz de Sallac. Recently it added another, Huacatinco, a remote village with a strong knitting tradition. Most, but not all, of CTTC’s weavers are women. Although they work with traditional designs, they make artistic decisions related to color, style and technique. Every piece carries a tag with the weaver’s photo, name, age and community. Each CTTC community has an autonomous entity, similar to a weavers’ guild, with its own elected board. Communities set their own standards for quality and prices, establishing different categories and devising formulas to determine how much the weaver will be paid per square centimeter produced. CTTC buys a minimum number of pieces from each community every month, then works to sell the items.
The economic model is clearly not perfect. From a supply and demand perspective, Wright said, one complication is the commitment CTTC has made to the weavers: “Improve your quality, do good work, and we’ll buy and sell your product.” When the economy is weak and sales drop, inventory increases. Although CTTC sold some 19,000 items last year, it still has a few thousand pieces stored—and, per its commitments, it continues to buy more stock every month. In recent years, CTTC has sought to broaden its appeal to contemporary consumers by adding such products as placemats, cushion covers and handbags of all sizes. The balancing act, according to Callañaupa, is to adapt to the marketplace without altering the organization’s central aim. “We have to be very careful. Otherwise we could lose our plan, which is to keep traditional textiles alive,” she said.
Retail prices vary considerably; a woven bag may cost between $20 and $100, depending on its size, quality and complexity. A large piece, such as a bedspread, could sell for more than $1,000.
A constant goal is to get as much money as possible into the hands of the weavers while keeping up with taxes and expenses and handling competition. One source of competition is old textiles that can still be found for sale in the area; another is new pieces made by non-CTTC weavers. With overstock already a problem, CTTC cannot enter into commitments with every community in the area, and some have started their own ventures. While the entry of more weavers into the market means more people can benefit, it also puts downward pressure on the price of all textiles. As CTTC must make good on agreements entered into with weavers, it can’t lower its prices. That means its solvency depends on buyers who recognize top quality and are willing to pay for it.
One client impressed with the consistent high quality is Annie Hurlbut, chief executive officer of Peruvian Connection
. In the last five years, the U.S.-based retail chain has carried several CTTC items, mostly cushion covers and bags of various sizes, in its stores and catalogs. Hurlbut, who has been collecting antique textiles from the Andes for more than 30 years, said the older pieces have a finer feel—which she attributes to different spinning techniques—but that CTTC produces a very comparable look. “The skill level required for Andean textiles is just amazing,” she said, noting that the region’s characteristic “warp-faced” style, in which the pattern emerges from the lengthwise threads, requires expertise and meticulous planning. Hurlbut calls CTTC “an amazing feat of organization and love and skill.”
CTTC sells through a number of other U.S. venues, including museum shops and the annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico. But most buyers are tourists who visit the Cusco headquarters or one of the communities and observe the artisans at work, dressed in the costumes distinctive to their villages. “For us, the local market is much more profitable and easier to manage,” Callañaupa said. CTTC regularly schedules weaving classes and demonstrations, and offers room and board on site for groups of village artisans who rotate through headquarters for a week at a time. Each community also has its own center, with the largest in Chinchero.
CTTC items are also sold in retail outlets in Cusco and are displayed in several local hotels as a way of publicizing the center. CTTC’s Web site, www.textilescusco.org, features some items for sale, but a full catalog is not practicable because most pieces are one-of-a-kind. Placemats are an exception, as each set is cut from a single large weaving. According to Elizabeth Catunta, who manages the CTTC’s educational efforts and its inventory, in the eight years since she started working at the center in Cusco, she’s seen the development of a greater public appreciation for weaving. More education is needed, she added, so that more people recognize its value and gravitate to high quality, not just low prices. If tourism is the center’s lifeline, it can also have a downside. Plans are underway to build an international airport just outside Chinchero, which would benefit the local economy but could permanently and negatively alter the communal way of life and its tradition of respect for Mother Earth.
Callañaupa dreams about someday building a major museum in Cusco to showcase the richness of textiles from the region and beyond, but even she questions the feasibility of such an enormous project. Meanwhile, she participates in museum exhibitions, lectures on weaving and is working on a series of books to document the designs of each CTTC community. In 2010, with IAF assistance, CTTC hosted a conference that brought together 400 weavers from nine countries in the Americas to compare experiences and talk about issues such as quality and marketing. As the person who started all this because of her love for her craft, Callañaupa regrets that her many responsibilities limit her time at a loom. “It’s what I miss now, that I don’t have much time to weave.”
Janelle Conaway is a freelance writer, editor and translator based in New Mexico.