WOMEN ARTISANS IN THE PERUVIAN ANDES
Published March 12, 2021
Traditional Andean Culture
Millions of travelers pass through the Sacred Valley of the Incas each year. People from highly-developed countries visit the Andes, astonished by the incredible views and local customs. To outsiders, the traditional culture is beautiful and novel. The dances, food, and Inca-inspired textiles are hard not to love.
At the core of these traditions are women. Women who learned how to spin yarn using a top spindle from her grandmother, or create elaborate dresses for dancing, or add that special flavor to her homemade hot sauce or aji. The dedication and care of women keeps Peruvian culture alive.
A Weaver's Daily Life
Women who work with alpaca fiber hold a remarkable talent and knowledge in their hands. The richly-colored textiles seen in Cusco and the area are time-consuming labors of love by their makers. The city is sprinkled with local women selling traditional garments. But what’s going on behind the scenes?
A weaver may travel 3 hours one-way from their village to Cusco, laden with ornate, colorful textiles in hand, hoping to connect with a few travelers who will buy her goods on the street. The travelers may negotiate a lower price. This woman may have spent days pouring into her work, but without any kind of formal contract or market stall, she journeys to the city with hope that she can make a few sales. When she gets home, she likely won’t get to rest.
Back at home, she has another set of duties: preparing meals for large families, raising multiple children, washing clothes by hand, and more. She may not have running water. If she lives in a rural village, this would all be done far from a market, (much less supermarket) and without a family vehicle.
To create her woven woolen textiles, she may have her own animals (who need to be cared for and fed,) she may gather her own natural dyes from the surrounding fields, and spin all her own yarn. Only once she has a good supply of yarn will she be able to sit at the loom, creating intricate designs with her deft fingers.
Many families in Peru work nonstop, all year, day in, day out. They don’t have savings accounts or retirement plans. Many don’t have a formal bank account or credit card. Women are the foundations of these families.
The bottom line: life as a weaver in Peru is tough. Responsibilities are endless, work is time-consuming, and income is uncertain. These women deserve to receive steady wages and be able to support their families as a traditional artisan. But many don’t.
Real Talk: Earning a Living
How can a weaver earn a living, really? We’ve seen that selling on the street is simply not sustainable. But many ladies don’t have a choice. Weaving is their craft, their career, their culture. They may not have computer skills to help turn their craft into an online shop.
There’s also the question of how likely these traditions can be carried on by younger generations. If the lifestyle is unsustainable, perhaps the daughters would prefer to choose a different path. Perhaps they’d prefer a steady job doing something else.
If the next generation stops weaving, what happens to that sacred art?
This is why we must be aware of these ladies’ challenges and struggles. So we can make choices to help support them, support their families, and preserve their knowledge.
Pichinku: Providing Steady Work for Artisans
We’ve teamed up with Pichinku, a woman-powered team of dyers working with traditional, botanical dyes. These ladies use their skills and knowledge of Cochineal to dye our red base layers.
On a visit to Pichinku’s headquarters in Calca, we chatted with Santusa, one of the sisters on the team. She explains that she and her sisters are originally from a distant, abandoned village. They were struggling to provide for their families. Since working with Pichinku, they are happier, more relaxed, and able to support their families with their work as dyers.
Santusa works and lives alongside her sisters, where their camaraderie reaches every part of their lives: from the kitchen to the dye vats. They are making a living while upholding a traditional Peruvian art, without having to trek into the city, hoping for a lucrative day.
How to Support Change
Unfortunately, stories of unsafe, unsustainable working conditions in the fashion industry are common. Consumers and manufacturers each have a role to play in combating these issues.
As consumers, we need to be more aware of the labor used to make clothing. As manufacturers, we need to ensure safe working conditions and fair pay.
Here in Peru, Pichinku is one example of a business model that values women workers both as humans and as artists. We’re proud to collaborate with them.