In The High Mountains of Peru
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
“So many foreign projects involve giving money – we wanted to give our knowledge of the “world” for them to be able to generate their own income,” Ariana Svenson, a co-founder of Threads of Peru said in response to why she started the enterprise.
"We started Threads of Peru because we believed that by connecting the world with the wonderful handiwork of these Peruvian artisans we could generate additional income for these people." Ariana and her team do so by working with Western designers and indigenous Quechuan (native people of South America) weavers to sell handmade garments, home décor, and accessories. By allowing the weavers to continue to work in their traditional markets with added marketing and support, they are able to sustain themselves and their culture.
Weaving dates back thousands of years, both to clothe and display art and memories. The tradition is an integral part of Quechuan culture. Threading their lives into the fabric, the Quechuan women tell the stories, memories, and folklore of their communities in their work.
Each material is unique in story and form, and communities of weavers identify with certain colors, symbols, and themes. However, they all play with similar symbology -- offerings to mountain gods, tributes to nature, and commentaries on social networks.
The materials are worn throughout the various moments in the Quechuan's life. From baby wraps slung over mom’s back to a wedding headpiece worn by both the bride and groom, the textiles mark each occasion, and are made by girls as young as eight and great-grandmothers who won't admit their age. Women weave as children play around them. The physical materials are drawn from nature, both literally and figuratively -- the fabric is sheared from llama, alpaca, and sheep and the colors are dyed in native plants.
Threads of Peru celebrates these ancient traditions by hosting immersive tours and creating wearable designs for international customers. Western designers collaborate with a local weaver. Designers travel to a weaver’s remote high-altitude home to as Ariana describes, “understand the mechanics of the warp and weft of the material, the processes that the weavers use, and how colors can be combined.”
Designers learn how to work with the material and the limitations of the practice. For one, the weavers use a backstrap loom -- a tangle of yarn and wood or bone that artisans unravel to create vibrant textiles -- and because of the labor intensivity of the process it is not compatible with all proposed designs. “We often get requests for collaborations that are impracticable on a backstrap loom,” said Ariana.
But for those that can make the trip to the high-altitude villages and can keep an open mind about new weaving techniques, they begin the design process. Designers move back and forth from the villages to their homes or hotels (if traveling) with prototypes for quality checks until the designers and weavers produce an item for sale. The process from conception to shipment, takes as long as four months.
This collaborative process allows each weaver and designer to learn new techniques, ancient and modern, and accomplish one of Threads of Peru’s mission: to connect cultures.
Ariana explains. “We live in a ‘global’ society and due to technology and especially social media; there is a lot of information flowing about. But much of it is just that – information without meaning, connection or value, and the world feels very divided. It’s easy to refer to a moment in history like the election of Trump, or Brexit, but the reality is that these differences have existed for a long time. Our work has always been looking for those connections, by creating an appreciation for age-old traditions, organic fibers, and celebration of a culture that lives in harmony with its environment. Cultures must connect and value the work of the other to ensure the rich nature (and survival) of the human race.”
The connection between the two cultures is representative in the finished product. As each textile tells a story of a Quechan, a new perspective from the Western designers adds something new, unique, and wholly representative of the merging of two distinct lifeways.
And the Quechan way of life is entirely different from the Western world. With Western society moving at lightspeed, the Peruvian pace is comparably slow and unmeasured. This steady approach to daily life is most distinct in the way that the weavers craft their work. While the Threads of Peru designers attempt to keep to ascribed cuts and sizes, the weavers only concern themselves with the intersection of symbols and colors and how that will tell a story.
Claire Heath, a volunteer at Threads of Peru, described this in a blog post. “The weavers might never really ‘get’ why a scarf has to be in precise dimensions, and its tassels an exact length and thickness, as this is not a value that has currency in life in this part of the world. But they can easily work within this mystery to produce goods of the quality expected of them.”
Claire remembers how a meeting that had been booked three weeks in advance was canceled by the Quechuan women because they had a soccer match at the same time. “They’d known about the visit and the game for weeks, but apparently it had not occurred to anyone to reschedule our meeting.”
Although the Quechuan pace of life is slow, their lives are not easy. The landscape they live in, while beautiful, is harsh. The rainy season forces them inside, unable to weave or work, and the high-altitude atmosphere makes it difficult to grow food. Other than weaving, the villagers spend their time selling food from their farms.
They are financially vulnerable.
Threads of Peru hopes to change this. As a ‘socially conscious investment,' a rising trend in investing and non-profit enterprises, the idea is for big investors to back their efforts and rely on consumers to opt to buy from a socially conscious organization.
This sort of investment is on the rise. US SIF, The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment reported in their 2016 US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends socially responsible investing (SRI) “continues to expand—now accounting for more than one out of every five dollars under professional management in the United States.”
The popularity in socially conscious enterprises has allowed Threads of Peru to continue to sell and educate others about Peruvian cultures. With large organizations and industries moving to create cultural experiences and sell social good, the old process of giving money rather than supporting traditional industries through enterprise seems possible.
However, Ariana’s position is voluntary, but with her and her team’s continued commitment, the ancient livelihoods of the Quechuan’s can continue to grow and find a place in the ever-evolving the world market.