Two years ago, Colorado designer Bonie Shupe spent a three-month internship with the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco in the Peruvian Highlands. She had graduated from the design and apparel program at Colorado State University and interned at ClothRoads. The CTTC internship provided an opportunity to pursue her dream of gaining one-on-one experience working directly with artisans and NGO’s. What follows are her insights made during and after returning home gathered while she was collaborating with artisan weavers on a custom collection of handwoven pillows.
A Collaboration of Tradition and Modern
My goal was to combine traditional motifs and patterns with modern colorways to appeal to a western market without taking away from their traditional weavings. I wanted to enhance what the weavers already do through color and pattern changes. This was to be a collaborative design process, my thought being that I wouldn’t design the pillows but simply rearrange and play with the colorways. In the end, I repeated patterns where the weavers would normally change them and introduced new ways of combining colors.
Each pillow design needed to appeal to a high-end market, to sell at museum stores and through interior showrooms. Each day I went through the process it takes the weavers to create them–raising the sheep and alpaca, sheering wool, spinning then dyeing, plying, planning, warping and weaving each cloth, nothing wasted. Days of work and resources, all based on my direction–it felt overwhelming at times.
Challenges and Successes
During the second week of my internship, I began meeting with the weaving groups and found I was not totally prepared for the challenges. My communication with the weavers was very visual because my Spanish was limited. The weavers don’t speak Spanish, they speak Quechua, and my interpreter spoke Spanish but no Quechua. Spanish was our closest common language and this proved difficult.
When preparing technical illustrations to work with the artisans there was a learning curve on both sides. I learned quite a bit while working on the first order with the weavers from Sallac. This community has two traditional weaving styles: one is a technique called watay or huatay (which means “to tie” in Quechua) where designs are made by tying groups of warp threads with a resist, dyeing them, and removing the resist. At one point, this technique was no longer practiced and was almost lost for future generations. Another unique technique is embroidery. First, the textile is woven and then the weavers embroider patterns onto it.
When Rigoberto, the president of the Sallac weaving community, brought me their first samples, I knew by his smile that he was very proud. When he pulled them out of his bag everyone at the CTTC main office was charmed by them. Even Nilda Callañaupa, CTTC’s director, complimented our embroidery piece saying I had pushed the weavers abilities yet stayed within tradition.
Another early meeting was with a male weaver representing the Chahuaytire village. This community produces some of the highest quality, naturally dyed, handwoven textiles in the region. The weavers have mastered intricate color gradations using natural dyes. They use backstrap looms, weaving double-faced fabric (the pattern is the same on both sides but the colors opposite) and others with a supplementary warp technique.
We sat together and mostly smiled as I pointed at my prepared print designs and then at their weavings. I tried to explain that my designs were simply an inspiration, that I was using trend forecast colors, and how their colors and designs could work with my designs. I wanted them to know I was seeking a collaboration but I knew it was lost in translation. When we finished meeting, my heart would not stop pounding as I realized all the details I had forgotten to mention, such as length measurements of the weavings.
I worked with the Chahuaytire community more than the others because they understood my design palettes, offered feedback and ideas for changes that were still based on their traditional textiles, and then could quickly integrate them into completed weavings. Capitalizing on their use of color gradations, we worked to create unique textiles in new color combinations.
Highlighting Each Community’s Specialty
I came to Cusco with design palettes ready for the different weaving communities, thinking that I accounted for each village’s unique weaving patterns. This involved a lot of research. I created a full catalog of motifs for each region, then used that to insert the patterns into the design. It was my most useful and successful tool. The communities did a great job of interpreting my designs from the get go.
Color was something I didn’t quite understand until I was in CTTC’s storage room. There is a lot of trial and error in all natural dyeing or with any process, no matter who you are. Since I wanted to capitalize on the artisans’ strengths, I really examined their pieces and made the colorways according to regional expertise. After my storage experience I realized that ClothRoads has some of the finest work.
If Only I Knew Then What I Know Now
Learning is part of the growth process. I was constantly learning along the way–learning a lot about myself, as both an artist and a person.
Since I’ve returned home, I have been designing for large corporations and learning about samples and perfecting product. I look forward to more collaborative projects using the knowledge I have gained. Whether it’s a factory in Hong Kong or artisans in Peru, it’s best to have a system and process for communication and collaboration, design and development.
I had lofty goals about what I could accomplish in a culture new to me, and lacking a shared language. But, I feel that if you achieve all your goals then you’re not dreaming and striving enough. And I certainly learned a lot about collaboration with CTTC and artisans in general. As I become more established as a professional I continue to have a deep desire to do artisan-based projects.
But really, the most gratifying experience of all was seeing the final pillows. Viewing them side by side–they are so bright and vibrant. Absolutely gorgeous! This collaboration is some of the best work I’ve ever done. I’m so grateful the CTTC artisans collaborated with me.
Thank you Bonie Shupe for stretching yourself and the weavers. Together you’ve created these stunning, modern-yet-traditional pillows–available only at ClothRoads. We’ve already sold out of some of the designs and will be reordering soon. If you’re interested in purchasing some out-of-stock ones, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.