About four years ago, Linda, photographer Joe Coca–with the excellent help of Diana Hendrickson–and I spent a couple of weeks in the Peruvian highlands learning from, documenting, and photographing master artisans of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. CTTC director Nilda Callanaupa had arranged for various artisans from all of the communities that comprise the CTTC to demonstrate different techniques we wanted to include in our book Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands.
One young man, Alepio Melo Irco, stood out to me as a kind of wunderkind. Every time we needed an expert, there he was–beaming a wide grin, the streamers of his colorful knitted cap, tumbling across his shoulders– ready to step up and show us how it was done. Plying llama fiber, intricate braiding, weaving liclla (discontinuous warp), 3-color complementary weave, pompoms, attaching borders. He did it all! And not only is he amazingly skilled in all of these techniques, he is a natural teacher. He moved carefully between each step, pausing at just the right times, so we could follow along in the process and take good photos along the way. Patient, affable, skilled—a dream to work with.
Alepio was born and raised in the highland community of Pitumarca. He learned to weave from his mother even though she didn’t want him to weave. He explained to Marilyn Murphy of Andean Textile Arts (ATA) that men in Pitumarca weave tapestry, make sling braids, and knit—they don’t weave on backstrap looms. When he was eight or nine, he would watch the women weave, and then he’d run and hide and practice what he’d seen. When he was 11 years old, his mother finally accepted the fact that he was “born to weave” and taught him.
We met up with Alepio again a couple of years later at Tinkuy 2017 in Cusco. He was active in the Young Weaver’s group at CTTC and had been working to recover the pre-Columbian double weave technique, which he displayed at Tinkuy. But what has Alepio been doing since then, we wondered?
Thanks to a grant from a generous ATA donor, Alepio is now attending school in Cusco two days a week to complete his education, which was interrupted after only a year of primary school. He is practicing Spanish now (his first language is Quechua) and also plans to learn English. He wants to study at the university one day to earn a degree in tourism. He told me recently that he very much wants to visit the United States.
Now 26, Alepio has traveled from his small village high in the Peruvian Andes, throughout Peru and to Belgium, participating in textile conferences and cultural exchange. In the fall of 2019, he won second place in the prestigious Michel Alpaca national competition that promotes Peruvian Textile traditions. His marriage poncho is a discontinuous warp tour de force.
I’m consistently inspired and humbled by the work of the artisans featured in our books. Alepio is a standout. I love that he has become a master weaver and is so highly respected in his community and throughout Peru. Not just a talented craftsman, he is full of heart, full of hope, and I’ll be eagerly following along, cheering each success.
Learn the Secrets from Alepio and other talented artisans from the highlands of Peru in Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands