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A cluster of people, wearing brightly colored sweaters and wide-brimmed hats, sit together in the grass, with small homes and mountains in the background.

Photo courtesy of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco

  • The Guiding Thread: Women Weave Legacies in the Peruvian Andes

    Leer este artículo en español

    Long before they set up their first looms, Quechua weavers Yessica Sallo Auccacusi and Rosa Pumayalli Quispe grew familiar with the quiet rhythms of warp and weft. The sounds have followed them throughout their whole lives.

    “All through my childhood, I was surrounded by weavers,” Yessica explained to me, speaking in Spanish. She recalled her earliest memories of weaving: soaking in the swift movements of her mother’s hands as she worked, figures and designs coming to life beneath her fingertips.

    Yessica and Rosa met me over Zoom, wearing the traditional dress of their community, Chinchero, Peru, their hands neatly clasped together on the worktable before them. Rainy season has just begun. Still, the sky was bright enough to cast gentle shadows across the patio from which they had called me. Their surrounding space was a shrine to thread. Intricately woven blankets (mantas) draped the wall behind them, adorned with delicately strung garlands of pom-poms (pompones) and tassels (bolsas). The table boasted a colorful cornucopia of wicker baskets, crafting tools, and loosely bundled lengths of yarn.

    They have just finished an afternoon of rehearsals for the virtual workshop they led for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on December 5. Live from the Andes Mountains, Yessica and Rosa instructed online audiences in the United States in the traditional art of Quechua pom-pom and tassel making, part of a rich textile tradition that has come to emblematize the collective spirit of high Andean communities in the Cusco region of Peru. 

    A woman in traditional Peruvian wool dress: black skirt, woven vests and shawl, red wide-brimmed hats all adorned with colorful yarn pom-poms and tassels.
    Yessica Sallo Auccacusi
    Photo courtesy of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco
    A woman in traditional Peruvian wool dress: black skirt, woven vests and shawl, red wide-brimmed hats all adorned with colorful yarn pom-poms and tassels.
    Rosa Pumayalli Quispe
    Photo courtesy of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco

    *****

    Terms like “lived tradition” and “living art” are common in conversations surrounding culture and heritage, but we sometimes fail to consider what it actually means for a tradition to hold a life of its own. The relationship that exists between Andean weavers and their ancestral arts is reciprocal: tejedores breathe life and feeling into their work, and the resulting textiles offer life in return, providing a powerful source of identity and communal belonging in addition to the financial profits they yield. 

    For artisans like Yessica and Rosa, textiles are nothing short of the lifeblood of Andean community and culture. The process of creation that they described to me, and that I witnessed firsthand in their rehearsal, is also one of self-expression. Whether pom-poms, tassels, or mantas, no two designs are exactly the same, and so creative output is profoundly connected with the energy and spirit of the weaver. Each interlacing thread is a recording of movement, tension, and emotion in the body. Each tells a story.

    “Sometimes, if I’m singing to myself as I work, the designs might come out faster,” Yessica said. “The part I love most is deciding which colors to choose for my design. I don’t like to repeat a design more than once, and I want the combination of colors to be unique.”

    Every weaving community has a voice of its own. In Chinchero, textiles are often finished with a tubular edging called ñawi awapa, meaning “eye border” in Quechua. The cord is patterned with woven eyes (as its name suggests) which are said to watch over the fabric, protecting it spiritually, as well as from physical wear. A closer look at the geometric detail of a manta might reveal any number of symbols from everyday Andean life: winding lines mimic the snaking incisions of terrace farms and rivers, while radiating motifs depict stars, or even the reflection of sunlight on water. Stylized renderings of local flora and fauna—like rose blossoms (rosas tika), hummingbirds (q’enti), and puma claws (pumac maqui)—imbue the designs of each community with a distinct sense of place. Still today, this notion of individuality is important when it comes to judging craftsmanship.

    “If it’s unique, it’s of a finer quality,” Rosa explained. “When I’m making a design, I want it to be unique, not a copy.”

    “I first began weaving with my abuela, when I was six years old,” she continued. “I started with simple designs. It became difficult when I moved up to three colors, but I had to keep trying if I wanted to learn. Back then, you had to spin your own thread from your own wool. There are machines that can produce thread for you now, but it’s not the same. If I create a piece myself, if I spin and dye the thread, it’s going to have more of a unique value.”

    Close-up of an unfinished woven textile in blue, green, orange, and white stripes.
    Photo courtesy of Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez

    Native fibers—alpaca, llama, and vicuña wool—have been staples in Andean textile production since pre-Incan times. Traditionally, these fibers are hand-spun with a pushka, or spindle, and dyed using a wide variety of natural pigments including indigo, lichen, and cochineal. In recent decades, commercially dyed synthetic threads have become popular as a less time-consuming alternative. For some young people, these new fabrics are seen as desirable indicators of modernity and status. Still, the social and economic value of natural fiber endures, and many Andean communities depend on wool farming for their livelihoods. Some weavers are opting to return to traditional hand-spinning and natural dyeing methods entirely.

    “With newer, machine-made textiles, you don’t have the same variation,” Rosa said. “It might cost less, but the standard isn’t the same.”

    Many underpinning design concepts, I learned, are difficult to convey through language. The ideas symbolized through pattern and color are at times intangible and ambiguous, born from the individual imagination. So too is it a challenge to articulate the existing bond between a weaver and their work.

    “There isn’t a way to express what it means to me,” Yessica said. “Weaving is who I am. It is life.”

    “It’s a great source of pride,” Rosa echoed. “I have a passion within me, like those who came before me. I don’t have words to explain what it is that I feel, but I am very happy to know how to weave and to continue my weaving.”

    For centuries, it seems, these textiles traditions have occupied a space of creative expression that even language fails to reach. They are the guiding thread that ties individual to community, past to future.

    “As people from Chinchero, it’s a matter of cultural identity for us to uphold these traditions,” Rosa claimed. “It’s thanks to our weaving that we keep moving forward. It’s been a means of supporting ourselves, of growing, in my case.” Weaving, she says, helped her buy school supplies and further her own education. “I have six siblings. My mother couldn’t support us all, but through my work I helped myself and my family.”

    As she spoke, I was reminded of the childhood self she described earlier. Facing the challenges of the present day, she exudes the same patience and cool determination she must have developed while learning from her abuela many years ago.

    Wide shot of a green landscape with people walking uphill, billowy clouds in the background.
    Photo courtesy of Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez

    *****

    Textile traditions continue to occupy a central space in Andean culture, forever shifting and adapting like the patterns they bear. Children still dress up in traditional clothing—embellished with brightly colored pom-poms and tassels—to participate in the rituals and celebrations of Carnival in February, just before Lent. Yessica described how her five-year-old son sits with her and watches wide-eyed as she weaves, the way she once watched her mother. 

    When I asked what the future might hold for these traditions, Yessica and Rosa grew serious.

    “The way I see it, the future is uncertain,” Rosa responded. “Everyone in my family is a weaver, and I would love for that to continue, but in reality, we don’t know what the future holds.”

    But Peru’s ancestral weaving traditions have undergone a renaissance in recent years, largely thanks to the enormous support of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, a nonprofit research center and museum directed by Quechua community leader and renowned textile expert Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. Even so, their place in an increasingly globalized world remains unclear.

    “In years before, we as a community were dedicated to artesanía,” Yessica said. “We were all included—men, women, children, elders. Everyone was involved in the weaving process in some way. We used to live relaxed lives, happy with our customs, without outside noise.” Her brow furrowed as she mentioned the construction of a new international airport in Chinchero predicted to dramatically increase tourism. “Life is changing now, and it’s too much. With the new airport comes new foreign influences and new social conflicts. It’s hard to say whether, in time, our customs and traditions will be lost.”

    She paused for a moment, lost in thought. “But how beautiful would it be if they remained?”

    Two people, faces unseen, in red wool shawls, black skirts, and wide-brimmed hats, sit cross-legged on the ground, weaving on looms that are anchored around their waists.
    Photo courtesy of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco
    Three llamas with their heads together, each adorned with pink, orange, and white pom-poms and tassels.
    Photo courtesy of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco

    Tourists are, without a doubt, the greatest agents of change for Andean communities, bringing both risk and opportunity: Peru’s textile market is largely dependent on foreign visitors, and without an understanding of what it is they are buying, consumers are more likely to pack their suitcases with cheaper, machine-made products than higher priced artisanal textiles. On the other hand, if tourists are well informed, they can learn to support local artisan economies, allowing Andean textiles to continue in all their multiplicity.

    That’s where workshops like Yessica and Rosa’s come in.

    “I want to share my knowledge with others, in Peru or elsewhere,” Yessica told me. “The little that I know, I want to share it with all of them. And I hope they will enjoy it.”

    Not only did the workshop attendees learn how to create pom-poms and tassels from the comfort of their own homes, but they got to hear Yessica and Rosa discuss the processes and cultural significance driving textile production in the Cusco region— and the story behind the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

    In their eyes, if these traditions and techniques are transmitted respectfully, they will live on. “I personally will feel happy when I go to a place and someone says to me, ‘Look, I know how to make tassels!’ Maybe they learned from me,” Rosa said with a laugh. “Transmitting culture is important, and I hope that in the future there are more courses like this, so more people can learn. You don’t need to come all the way to Cusco.”

    For over two thousand years, these vibrant textile traditions have acted as a repository of knowledge, cosmology, and ancestral guidance, an ever-evolving map passed down from generation to generation. Now, for artisans like Rosa and Yessica, they serve a similar purpose, helping them navigate contemporary challenges. Thanks to extensive efforts from the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, artisans like Yessica and Rosa hold the future firmly in their own hands. And with the added support of educational workshops like these, that future feels a shade brighter.

    “When we started doing these workshops, it was something new for me. I was afraid at first,” Rosa confessed with a little smile. “Now, I am not afraid anymore.”

    An outstretched hand holds up a tassel made of blue, orange, red, and green yarn. Color balls of yarn and a multicolored striped textile lie below.
    Photo courtesy of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco

    Find textile products from the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco for sale in the Folklife Festival Marketplace.

    Tia Merotto is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in art history and English and is particularly interested in the study of material culture.


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