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Dec 04

Andean Handspinners Are Master Makers

It’s the time of year when the pressure mounts for us makers. We so desire to gift someone with something made by hand that we start knitting or spinning or sewing or “fill-in-the-blanks” right about now. And if the gift is an accessory, there’s time to complete it. Or if you’re like me, I pull out the project started last year to complete this year–a hat knit with luscious alpaca yarn handspun by the women elders of Pitumarca, Peru, and members of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

It reminded me that just about a year ago, I was in Peru watching some of these same women spinning as they were being honored during the release of the book, Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes, published by our sister company, Thrums Books. What follows are some insights about the Pitumarcan elders and their spinning from book editor and publisher Linda Ligon:

“In the weaving villages of the Peruvian Andes, almost no one describes herself as a spinner. Yet most women, and many men, spin in every spare moment for their entire lives. The paradox comes from the fact that the end result of spinning (or dyeing, for that matter), is weaving. So everyone is a weaver. And spinning is what they do to get ready to weave, just as warping their loom is part of that preparation.

Weaving on a backstrap loom is hard work, though. Lifting the closely-set warp threads takes a lot of strength. Beating the weft in place is aptly named – and beating is hard physical work. Picking up the intricate patterns that are the magic and beauty of Andean textiles requires good eyesight, too – and it’s truly rare to see anyone wearing glasses, even though bright sun, dim interiors, and years of close work take a serious toll. Glasses are a luxury that hasn’t come their way.

So the old women, the ones without the strength or eyesight to weave, spend their days spinning. Their hand skills are so highly developed, so embedded in their cultural consciousness, that they can hardly NOT spin.

We traveled to the weaving villages that are part of the CTTC network to take portraits of the elders, and in every case their hands were busy with their pushkas, their spindles. Ask them to stop for a minute just for the camera, and they really can’t. It would be like asking them to hold their breath for five minutes. Just not natural, and not really possible.

We’ve asked the elders of the Pitumarca village to spin yarn especially for their gringa sisters. The yarn they spin for themselves and their families is fine and tightly spun to withstand the rigors of the warp-faced weaving. What they’ve spun for us is a bit heavier, a sportweight about 22 sts/4”, and softly spun in 100% alpaca. We call it Q’aytu (kie-two), the Quechua word for thread. It’s lovely for either knitting or weaving. It has the charming slight irregularity of handmade yarn, but of very skillful hands with decades, a lifetime, of practice.”

As an added bonus, when you place a yarn order, we’ll gift you with this Peruvian-inspired scarf pattern designed by Nancy Bush. It’s lovely in any shade of alpaca. Or, if you’re already knitting or spinning away on a project and want to learn more about the Andean way, watch these videos of Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez and Linda Ligon as they talk about culture, the importance of textile heritage, and, what else—spinning and knitting.

Thanks to photographer Joe Coca for these images as well as capturing the spirit of these women in Faces of Tradition.  All images are copyright Joe Coca and cannot be used without permission. 

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