Woven into their culture

The tradition has been passed from mother to daughter for centuries but this Incan heritage could almost have been lost. Now, tourism is helping revive it.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Women’s Weaving Cooperative, Peru

The weaving is women’s work. With their red and white hats, braided black hair, red vests and intricately-patterned dark skirts, they sit on the grass and work. Alpacas watch on.

When you think of this part of Peru, you think of the remains of the great Incan civilisation still visible on the mountains and in the valleys. You think of that lost culture and try to imagine how it would have looked before the Europeans arrived and wiped it out.

You forget that many parts of Incan life still remain today – literally woven into the culture of this region’s people.

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

Here at the Ccaccaccollo community near Cusco in Peru’s Andes range, the weaving may well be women’s work but for a long time it has not been sustainable work. It’s not something that was kept alive for commercial reasons but for the sake of cultural heritage.

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru
Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

One of the weavers, Patricia, tells me how the way they weave today is how it was done hundreds of years ago by the Incas.

“It’s impossible to change the techniques,” Patricia says.

“There are schools to learn weaving and spinning techniques but we learn it from our mothers and grandmothers, generation by generation. We are still practising the Inca’s techniques with the same tools like the llama bone, for example.”

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

They take the wool from the indigenous animals – alpacas, for instance – and spin it, dye it and weave it into clothes. From top to bottom, from the head to the feet, they make everything. Beanies, socks and everything in between.

Once it was all just for themselves but now they are weaving for the world.

In the past few years, clothing production has once again become a business for the Ccaccaccollo community. With the support of Planeterra, the non-profit social development arm of G Adventures, tour groups exploring the Sacred Valley around Cusco are now coming to this weaving cooperative to see the traditional work and buy the handmade products.

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru
Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

“Before this project,” Patricia says, “only the boys were working in this community, with the animals.”

“They go away to look for the best grass, feeding animals. There was spinning and weaving but it was impossible to sell to anyone.”

“We started with 12 ladies working at the beginning but lots of groups came with G Adventures so we needed more ladies and now there are 60 spinning and weaving here in the community.”

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

I visit with my group on the way to the start of the Lares Trek towards Machu Picchu. When we arrive, some of the women are working indoors at wooden looms that have been donated to the community. This is as modern as it gets, though.

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru
Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru
Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

We walk through the small village to a large outdoor area where more women are sitting and working on their pieces in the fresh air. Each has two sticks with wool stretched between them, tied to a pole and stretched taut into a lap.

The workers bend over, little details added to their tapestry, gradually. They work by hand on these woven pieces efficiently but without hurry.

Around the edges of the work area are little stalls with finished pieces. I ask Patricia about the designs because there seem to be some recurring patterns in the clothing on display.

“The most important are the llama eyes,” she tells me.

“Through the llama eyes we can read the stars and the moon so we know the best time for planting season and harvest season, when it is good to plant potato or corn or other Andean cereals. So the llama eyes are part of our religion and the most important.”

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

It’s not just the weaving techniques which have been passed down through the generations, but also the patterns. And both might have disappeared one day if it wasn’t for the assistance from Planeterra.

The truth is, the people of Ccaccaccollo may be maintaining their cultural heritage but they were not doing a very good job of integrating it into the modern world.

The project now provides that integration without any need to sacrifice tradition. Sure, the women seem to have adopted a rather contemporary style of bargaining in US dollar amounts that seems particularly non-Peruvian – but who can blame them for trying to make the most of an opportunity?

The reality from a tourist’s perspective is that the stalls with piles of clothes for sale still offer excellent quality handmade products at a lower price than many stores.

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

And for the women? Well, they now have more alpacas to provide a steady supply of wool, they have money to send their children to school and university, they are learning business skills, and fundamental things like healthcare have improved.

And, of course, they are now proud to be able to pass this tradition on to their daughters like their mothers did for them, and their mothers before them did for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of G Adventures but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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