I’m seated on the ground next to a Peruvian artisan from Chinchero, Peru, as she weaves on a backstrap loom. I carefully watch her fingers deftly picking a pattern, a pattern she has memorized, no notes needed. A baby is wailing close by, very close by. Looking around, I don’t see it, but the muffled cries continue. Then it dawns on me that the baby is wrapped in the weaver’s handwoven manta which is tied onto her back–this mother knew exactly where her baby was and she wasn’t giving it any attention until she finished weaving a pick. The baby is already being imprinted with the motion of her mother’s weaving body—she is swaddled in it and her textile memory is beginning.
How many of you carry a project sack in your bag, pulling it out while waiting for an appointment, while traveling, or talking on the phone? We steal whatever time we can and it’s not any different for artisans whose work is portable.
Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, the founder and director of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), told me of her escape tactic so she could weave. When her son was young he wouldn’t go to bed if Nilda was still up weaving. So she moved her backstrap loom into her bedroom, said goodnight, closed the door, and would happily weave for hours, undisturbed, knowing her son had fallen asleep. To this day, she still keeps a loom in her bedroom (most likely dreaming of weaving instead of actually doing it.)
Mary Littrell and Marsha Dickson surveyed a group of women embroiderers who incorporated their textile work for MarketPlace India, into their typical day. During their 17 waking hours, the women documented their three sets of activities: household tasks other than cooking (6.6 hours), MarketPlace work (5.5 hours), and cooking (4.7 hours). None of these tasks are linear—the artisans intermingle their sewing and embroidery with their household and childrearing responsibilities. Many of them finish their sewing later in the evening, during their quiet time. (This research was published in Artisan and Fair Trade: Crafting Development (Kumarian Press, 2010)).
Teaching, Learning and Passing It On
Not everyone has a mother who has the textile skills to pass on, and not every woman has a child to pass the skills onto. But we learn from others and in many ways; we learn when young (usually before 12 yrs of age), or when we carve out time. And it’s not just girls learning from their mothers. For example, Abdul Aziz Khatri of Kutch, India, mastered the art of woolen bandhani from his family. His grandmother’s and mother’s skilled hands taught him the fine tying and binding of traditional patterns.
And there’s other driving forces. Amalia Gue from the Guatemalan highlands–a determined Q’eqchi’ Maya woman with a first-grade education, five children, and traditional backstrap weaving and embroidery skills learned from her mother and grandmother. With these skills, she travels internationally to teach others about the traditional white brocading and she sells her fine work in order to earn money to send her children to school.
All indigenous artisans face the challenges of a connected world and desire for learning and advancement. They want to retain their traditional and cultural textile heritage and at the same time, want better education and healthcare for their children and to have greater earning potential.
Our goal and the goal of many organizations is to create a marketplace where the artisan and their work is valued and honored, where the artisan earns a fair living for creating fine work, and where the artisan’s children see that by carrying on their textile heritage economic opportunities are available. That’s why ClothRoads exists and why our mission is to create opportunities for supporting indigenous textile artisans worldwide.
ClothRoads hails all women and mothers of the world in celebration of Mother’s Day. By supporting the women artisans, you help sustain these rich traditions. Share it on.