Inca Traditions Pay Off for Peruvian Weavers

By Simone Swink
National Geographic Today
April 30, 2002
High in the Andes of Peru, life is changing one thread at a time for the
Quechuan women of Chinchero, a small village outside Cusco. Women
weavers are learning skills to make themselves self-sufficient and
changing the tapestry of family economics.

"Weaving is not just a
piece of art that you produce. Weaving is a part of our social
organization and economic situation," says weaver Nilda Callanaupa, the
founder and director of the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco
(CTTC), a weaving cooperative for the women of Chinchero and surrounding
mountain villlages.

Callanaupa grew up in the Andean countryside, learning to weave as a young woman in Chinchero. "My teacher was my mother. She taught me the first designs of my weaving technique…so it was kind of sad the weaving was disappearing," says Callanaupa. "Because of that, my dream was always that the younger generation should learn so the weaving won't die."

The path to preserve and revitalize the weaving traditions of her hometown has been slow.

Farmers in Chinchero still carry on the agricultural traditions of their ancestors, the Inca, who dominated the Andes in the 1500s until Spanish conquistadores swept through. "Chinchero is a farming village. We are the best producers of potatoes and many beans like quinoa, and barley."

But farming no longer brings in enough money to support a family, and traditional ideas are changing. It's still how it's always been—men farm and women cook and care for the children, and they weave. And the weaving is becoming very important.

Originally Callanaupa intended to establish a textile museum in Chinchero but she realized that this alone would not inspire women to weave. Instead, with seed money from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council, and the help of Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, she established the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco.

Starting with an already established group of weavers that she had grown up with, Callanaupa banded them together formally. "The methodology is that the older ladies, older weavers, teach to the younger generations and whoever is going to join to the group. Our main goal is to revive the tradition of this science, the traditional textiles," says Callanaupa.

With CTTC, Callanaupa says, knowledge is preserved through teaching and some of the best weavings remain part of the permanent collection. The Inca valued weaving and their descendants have continued the traditions—each village has its own designs and patterns that have been handed down over the centuries.

As the young women here learn to weave, they're also gaining financial independence.

"That was not very common in the past probably because the husband was the person who would bring in the money for the children's education," says Callanaupa. "But today this group of ladies make not a lot of money, but a reasonable amount of money."

About 80 percent of the money from textile sales goes back to the weavers, says Callanaupa.

Walking into the CTTC, a colorful collection of hats scattered across coat racks beckon to try one on. Behind the jaunty selection are the sounds of typing and paper rustling—an office at work. It's here that the records for weaving collectives in six villages are maintained.

The weavings from each village, if they pass standards, are priced, marked with the maker's symbol, and brought down from the mountain towns to the center where they are displayed for sale. Each group of experienced weavers has a small corporate structure with a board including a president, treasurer, and secretary.

"We are trying to teach administration work, how to behave, how it should work, how to sell, how to cooperate in a group," says Callanaupa.

When a weaver finishes a piece, she gives it to the board. The secretary carefully takes note of the quality and details and establishes a price. As Callanaupa points out "quality control is very important and we talk back and forth. Even though they are good, sometimes once in a while, not everyone cares about the same things and not everyone does the same job."

The center provides the dyes and takes care of the administration, including some sales. But each woman selling a piece must conduct the negotiation herself.

The money returned to each weaver is changing the tapestry of family economics in some of these villages. These women are now the main economical support of their family.

The cooperative focuses on making goods that are useful and that will sell, like eyeglass holders and necklaces, because this is an economic development project, says Callanaupa.

"We also teach many ways they should be good weavers, not just kids selling their goodies to tourist buses or whatever."

The weaving in Chinchero isn't just a quaint tradition. It's a way to survive, and a way to string together the older and younger generations of women.

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