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Aug 03

The Road to Secrets

Three years ago this fall I was in Oaxaca, getting ready to do a field trip with Eric Mindling for his book, Oaxaca Stories in Cloth. During the few days before we were scheduled to hit the road for the back country, the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, a wonderful institution right in the heart of the city, was sponsoring an international gathering of textile scholars and artisans. Coincidentally, Flora Callañaupa, sister of our frequent author Nilda Callañaupa, was there with a group of five weavers from the Cusco district of Peru. These were young weavers, all in their teens and early twenties, none of whom had been so far away from home before. Their responsibility at this conference was to demonstrate their weaving skills between sessions and sell their textiles in a small marketplace.

An Adventure in Validation

We went to dinner together one evening, and with Flora’s translation help, talked about their experience in coming to Mexico. Several expressed the trepidation they had felt: they were in their native clothes and expected to be laughed at. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Their stunning mantas and ponchos and knitted caps were the hit of the event. Attendees were fascinated to see their backstrap weaving styles, too–much like that of the Maya, but so very different in many ways. They were proud to be asked about their work. The whole trip was an adventure in validation.

Thinking back over that evening gathering, it occurred to me that the young generation of weavers in the Peruvian Highlands had a lot to share, and a lot to gain from public recognition. We’ve paid a good deal of attention to their grandparents (see Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes), but these youth are carrying on their centuries-old traditions in a changing world. What if we asked them to show their skills, asked about their hopes and dreams, and photographed and recorded it all? What about a book?

Discovering the Secrets

Just a year later, there we were in Chinchero, a village near the city of Cusco: Associate Publisher Karen Brock, photographer Joe Coca, and I. We were at work on our new book, Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands. Weavers came from all the member villages of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), some as young as ten years old, all deeply skilled. Some of their elders came, too, so we ended up with a truly multi-generational effort. They patiently showed us, step by step, the tricks and techniques of their crafts, many of which I’d never seen before. CTTC director Nilda Callanaupa and her able assistant Sara Lyons provided the words.

There’s a special kind of joy in seeing young people so engaged in sharing their culture. There was a lot of smiling, laughing, joking. There was a lot of patience with these gringos from the U.S. who had to be shown the simplest things over and over again. There was shy pride in knowing they would be honored in a book that would be seen by thousands.

And here’s a little secret: the clever young girl on the cover is the very same one who was a baby in her mother’s arms on the cover of Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands: Dreaming Patterns, Weaving Memories, which we published ten years ago. How’s that for continuity?


Thanks to Linda Ligon, publisher of Thrums Books, for sharing her vision (and this blog which was first published here). Linda has been a steadfast supporter of textile artisans for over forty years and continues to dedicate herself to preserving the narrative of traditional textiles and their makers through publishing. 

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