Listening to the Elders

You can learn a lot from carefully studying a piece of cloth: Its age, the fiber and its origin, the interlacement of the threads, the pigments used to color it, the cultural references in its design. And so much more. Museums and scholarly books are troves of information for understanding how and why textiles have come to be. What’s usually missing, though, is the human element: Who made it? Who wore or used it? What did it mean to them? How was it part of their life?

The isicha phuytu design, a horizontal S pattern, named after the heroine of a popular Cusco legend. Photo by Joe Coca from Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes.

That’s why we publish the kind of books we do—to try to understand not just the cloth itself, but the human context. I was thinking of that recently when I paged through one of the very first books we published, Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes. It profiles more than 50 elderly weavers of the highland villages associated with the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC). You’re arrested by their gazes, their weathered faces, their gnarled hands. Their stories capture your imagination: the years of servitude on a hacienda, the years of widowhood with young children to provide for, the years of weaving surreptitiously because of a husband who wouldn’t permit it.

Felicitas Aymara from Chumbivilcas, Peru. Photo by Joe Coca from Faces of Tradition:Weaving Elders of the Andes..

And then you notice their clothes. They’ve come dressed in their best to have their pictures taken. They tell of their pride in their traditional dress, their resistance to wearing “mestizo” clothes. You notice the fading, the tattered hems, the strategic safety pins and patches in the garments from the poorer villages. You compare those with the sharp, festive outfits from the more prosperous villages, the ones where tourists come to buy.

Isabel Llancay from Chinchero, Peru. Photo by Joe Coca from Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of Peru.

You share the pleasure that José Huamphutupa expresses in his comfy old traditional plain weave poncho, which he wove himself in his younger days. You flinch a little at the shabby skirt and manta of Eusebia Huaman, barefoot on this sub-freezing morning, just doing her best to get by with no means of support. You share the pride of Isabel Llancay in her beautifully woven, indigo-dyed Chinchero best outfit, marking her as a weaver from an elite village. Their words are few, but every weaver tells a story. And the stories tell of what is being lost, year by year.

Jose Huamphutupa at home in Chinchero, Peru. Photo by Joe Coca from Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes..

Since we published this book in 2013, these featured weavers have passed on:

Jose Huamphutupa-Chinchero
Isabel Llancay—Chinchero
Juliana Quispe—Chinchero
Martina Quispe—Chinchero
Damiana Huaman – Chinchero
Eusebia Huaman—Mahuaypampa
Juan Flores—Accha Alta
Nieves Cordova—Accha Alta
Asunta Quispe—Patabamba
Rafaela Ylla—Chahuaytire
Anselma Ancalle—Santo Tomas
Emiliana Ccana—Pitumarca
Fermina Cjuno—Pitumarca

Their best clothes (if any) will have been distributed to their families and the rest discarded. It’s easy to imagine that they, among the thousands of other Andean weavers of their generation, represent the end of an important cultural tradition.

Young CTTC weavers from Accha Alta, Peru. Photo from Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands.

But no. Thanks to the work of CTTC, many of the grandchildren of these elders are developing the skills and appreciation to keep weaving alive. More than 250 children, ranging from seven to fifteen, meet regularly in their respective villages to learn techniques, study history, and celebrate their culture. At the same time, they pursue their educations and dream of professions beyond the village. They wear their handspun, handwoven clothing with pride while they take selfies with their smart phones. Their lives will be different from those of their parents and grandparents, but the old stories and their distinctive clothing will not soon be lost.


2 thoughts on “Listening to the Elders

  1. Susan S Davis says:

    Me too – I really appreciated the last paragraph. And we all need to think about how things are being kept alive there – and how we can do it in other places. Some of the Moroccan weavers I worked with had an opinion: There needs to be a market with decent prices, or weaving will die out. A Moroccan website that helps nearly 100 weavering [and other artisan] cooperatives do that, giving them nearly all the profits [the rest is used for the site and artisan training] is . Check it out if you need to go shopping. And they’ve begun offering site visits if you’re going to Morocco [and can’t come with me 😉 ].

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