Textiles are important in Peru. They have been since pre-Columbian times. They have been since pre-Incan times. They continued to be important despite attempts by the Spanish to destroy indigenous culture and identity, and they are still important today thanks to renewed interest in studying and preserving indigenous culture.
Unsurprisingly, part of the importance of textiles today is economic. Who doesn’t love brightly colored, super soft, or elaborately patterned gifts to take back home to friends and family? Heck, that souvenir might not even make it back home, you’ll end up stealing your sister’s scarf for yourself on the air-conditioned airplane ride. From textiles rendered into modern-day bags, purses, and shoes to more traditional textiles like the liqlla (blanket), jakima (small ribbon), and chullo (knitted men’s hat), there are a range of gorgeous products that fill every market and standout in shop window displays. With all the variety, it can sometimes be overwhelming. How do you know what type of hat to get your dad when there are thousandsof different kinds and thousands of different people selling? How do you find the best deal or the best quality? Where can you find fair trade items? Find the answers in this Guide to Buying Textiles in Cusco.
I’m going to try and explain the basics of all this so that you can make the best informed decision for you concerning your budget, style, and morals. First a disclaimer: I work at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC). I’m writing a blog on textiles because this is what I know. I will unashamedly and unapologetically promote the CTTC and our work in the textile field. While part of this is pride and biases (Go CTTC! Come support us by buying a textile today!!), it is also simple truth that is acknowledged as such by unbiased observers like the National Geographic Society who are long-time supporters of the CTTC. Now on to finding that perfect bag for your mom.
An Introduction to Textiles: Art or Artisanía?
So that everything is clear from here on out, I’m a huge proponent of the viewpoint that indigenous textiles are art, not an art-and-craft, not just some artesanía. Enough with the degradation of indigenous culture and art as artesanía or ‘folk art.’ So I will always defend the high-prices behind outstanding pieces because the artist, like many artists, still isn’t paid enough when you calculate how much they are technically earning per hour. (I will give a concrete example of this later).
Some people might argue, but look at this bag, coin purse, other touristy thing. How do you call something like that art? But if you are asking this question then you have failed to understand something inherent about art in anymedia. Not all art is good art! Some artists are undeniably exceptional and recognized, some are exceptional and unrecognized, some are mediocre and some just make you wonder at their dedication. Everyone has their own criteria about how to sort existing artists into these categories, and we value some people’s, and some cultures’, opinions more than others. Just because the majority of textiles available in the market are pretty-low quality, does not mean that we should think of textiles in general as artesanía. It means that we need to understand how the most technically and intellectually complex textile tradition in the world came to be selling water-bottle holders embroider with ‘Machu Picchu!! Heart! Smiley face!’ to foreign tourists. Incan rule lasted about 100 years. Can you imagine what the European painting tradition would be like if about 100 years into the Renaissance the whole European continent went through massive upheaval, oppression, and systematic poverty after invasion and conquest? Maybe tourists from South America would be arguing about the worth of tiny oil paintings found in tourist markets in Europe. How can that be art? Look at our textiles, now that is art.
With this in mind, there is still a time and place for textiles of all types and quality. Everyone has something different they are looking for and everyone has a different budget. I am dividing this Guide to Buying Textiles into three sections to help organize information you might want to consider when making a purchasing decision. This is the tip of the ice berg, but it’s a good place to get started. Happy textile hunting!
I. How to Tell the Quality and Authenticity of a Handmade Textile
Nut not every textile is created equal. The person trying to sell it to you, however, will certainly tell you it is as good as every other textile out there. They will tell you it is better. Unfortunately, the tourist and textile market are both very competitive and many people are more interested in making a profit then in 100% honest accountability. A friend of mine used to work in one of the ubiquitous textile centers of Cusco. She told me that the owners showed her how to wash and manipulate acrylic fibers to make it feel like alpaca. She was instructed to tell tourists that the textile was 100% baby alpaca when at the most it was a mix of alpaca and acrylic fibers. Knowing how to tell the difference yourself between a high quality and low quality textile can prevent a lot of doubts and buyer’s regret. There are six important issues here to consider:
Acrylic Fiber vs. Natural Fiber
Chemical Dyes vs. Natural Dyes
Check the Edges
Check the Yarn: Handwoven or Machine-spun?
Check the Weave Tightness
Ask the Weaver about the Designs
Acrylic yarn was invented in the early 20th century and is made from synthetic materials. Many weavers in the Andes stopped using natural fibers in favor of acrylic because pre-spun acrylic yarn was cheap and easy to use. Also, many indigenous people preferred the bright colors they offered. (Neon is very popular in some communities where traditionally the aesthetic is ‘brighter is better.’ Which is one reason natural dyes were pushed aside for chemical dyes). Today natural fibers are making a come back partly because this is what tourists prefer and partly because of efforts by different organizations to bring back traditional practices.
There are four camelid fibers available in the Andes: guanaco, vicuña, alpaca, and llama. The guanaco and vicuña were never domesticated. They live in very high areas and produce the finest of fibers. The Inca especially prized vicuña, which boasts the finest fiber of all four camelid species. Today wild vicuña and guanaco are watched carefully as their populations were put in jeopardy in the past. Today, the natural fibers that indigenous weavers use are either alpaca, llama, or sheep. Sheep were introduced by the Spanish. Alpaca is the finest and is used for the finest textiles. Sheep is coarser and used in many high quality textiles, but is not as soft. Llama is only used for very low quality textiles, such as bags used in agriculture, because the fiber is too short to create the fine, thin yarn used to weave high quality items like tapestries. While alpaca is finer than sheep, alpaca wool does not readily accept dye as well as sheep. This is why sheep is wool is often used for textiles done in bright, dyed colors whereas alpaca is often used without dying for textiles in hues of browns, blacks, grays, and whites. Many high quality textiles will use dyed sheep wool for the warp and un-dyed alpaca for the weft. The warp are the threads that stretch vertically on the loom. Weft is the thread you pass horizontally through the warp as you weave. Andean textiles are warp faced textiles, which means you never see the weft as it is hidden entirely in the warp thread. By using dyed sheep for the warp you achieve the stunning colors that you see on the finished textile. By using alpaca for the weft you achieve a softer, more supple feel without limiting yourself to only natural tones of alpaca.
To tell the difference between acrylic and natural fibers, you can technically tell through the feel. Acrylic should be rougher. As technology has improved, however, it is now very easy to make acrylic fiber that is remarkably similar to natural fibers. It doesn’t help that some places specifically try and make acrylic feel like alpaca through manipulation of the textile. If you aren’t experienced in textiles the differences is almost imperceptible.
Another way to tell the difference is by putting the textile in the sun. Acrylic fibers normally have a shine to them that natural fibers do not. If the yarn catches the sun’s rays and glints off in various places as you move it, then it is made of acrylic or a mix of acrylic and natural fibers. You can also get up-close and personal with the textile in two ways. Use your sense of sight to see if any stray fibers are pulling off and have stuck to the surface. Acrylic fiber won’t have animal hairs decorating it unless it’s just a dirty textile, which is a possibility. This method doesn’t work for all natural fiber textiles, however. It mostly goes for lower-end textiles that are made with natural fiber but that haven’t been spun or woven well and have individual fibers that escape. You can also use your sense of smell. Natural fibers, especially sheep wool, have a very distinct odor, even more so when wet. Does your textile smell like plastic? Not a good sign. Do your textile smell like your wool sweater? That’s heading in the right direction.
Without experience, it is often hard to tell the difference between natural plant and animal dyes and chemical dyes. We say plant and animaldyes because red comes from cochineal, a small insect that grows on the prickly pear cactus. Fun fact: cochineal dye was almost as valuable as the gold and silver exported back to Spain in colonial times. This was because the red dye native to Europe was not nearly as strong and vibrant. Pirates went after shipments of cochineal as readily as galleons carrying gold and silver. Today cochineal is still just as valuable and sought after, especially by the cosmetic industry because it is non-toxic. That bright-red lipstick you put on the other night? Chances are you smeared a bunch of ground-up dead bugs onto your lips for that special night on the town. The bright-red cocktail you drank? Could be the dead cochineal bugs used for the red dye in the drink met up with some long-lost dead relatives on your lips.
Since tourists prefer natural dyes, but because they are more expensive and harder to use, many places use chemical dyes and pass them off as natural dyes. It used to be fairly easy to tell the difference. Anything super bright was a chemical dye. Today, however, chemical dye companies are producing products that mimic the colors of natural dyes. It is easier to pass something off as natural and harder to tell if it is real. One way, however, is to look at how evenly something is dyed. If a large section of green is a complete even shade of green everywhere, then that is fairly suspicious. Is there is obvious or very slight variation in shade between different parts of that green section of the textile, then it’s more likely to be naturally dyed. If the textile wasn’t washed well, you might even find bits of the dye material still stuck between threads.
If a textile is well woven it will have straight edges and no escaping threads. Also look for threads that are poking through in the body of the textile, not just the edging. These stray threads mean that the weaver didn’t pay attention to finishing their textile well. These stray threads just need to be cut off. (They are the ends of broken warp threads that were tucked into the weft)
In Chinchero, a small village outside of Cusco, weavers often weave a traditional border onto textiles called ñawi awapa as both a physical protection to keep the edges from fraying and as spiritual protection. The diamonds in the patterns are ñawi, or eyes, that are said to protect the textile from harm. If your textile has this tubular border edging with multicolored diamond patterning, then that is a big plus. While some communities outside of Chinchero have begun to weave this border edge as well, it is original to Chinchero and mostly seen there, so don’t be worried if the textile you want doesn’t have the border.
This might be a little harder to tell, and doesn’t necessarily denote a better textile. Weavers either spin their own yarn to weave, or buy machine-spun yarn. If you want a 100% handmade textile, then look for one with yarn that is hand spun. You can tell because the yarn is not perfectly even. There will be small, or large, irregularities. Machine-spun yarn can be of high quality as well. It will appear 100% regular without small variations in thickness.
In the past, weavers used to test the quality of textiles by spilling a few drops of water on the surface of the textile. If the textile absorbs the water quickly, then it is considered low quality. If the droplets of water rest on the surface and don’t absorb, it is a high quality textile. The longer the drops of water remain on the surface without sinking in, the higher quality is the textile. Why is this? Weavers here give higher standing to a very tightly woven textile. The tighter a textile is woven, the longer it takes for a water droplet to soak in.
Most sellers, however, probably won’t appreciate you dripping water all over their products! This test might be better suited for your own curiosity after you buy the textile. To determine the tightness of weave another way, look at how many warp and weft threads there are per centimeter. The higher the number per centimeter, the higher the quality. A very high quality textile will have about 14 warp threads per cm and about 6 weft threads per cm. The warp are the threads that run vertically on the textile. The weft are the threads that run horizontally. In back strap loom technique used here, called pallay, the thread that you see in the textile is the warp. Most Andean textiles are warp-faced. The thread that you don’t see is the weft.
This may seem strange, but ask the weaver about the meanings of designs in the textile. If they give you a long, over worked story about Incan ancestors…they’ve probably made half or more of it up. The reality is that today we know very little about what the designs used to mean or represent. Much of the meanings we do know are new interpretations that became attached to the design in the last hundred years or so.
For example the design luraypu from Chinchero is said to be a representation of a medicinal plant. This explanation, however, arose in the community in recent years possibly due to the fact that the name for the actual plant is very similar: lorapu. There is no other connection between the design and the plant, though, and the design looks nothing like the plant. Most likely tourists began asking about the meaning of luraypu and weavers cast about for a handy, easily explained answer. This is a medicinal plant! Tourists can understand that, they associate indigenous cultures with traditional plants in general. It fits with with preconceived concept of the world. It would be much harder to explain that the meaning of a design is connected to the other designs it is woven with. This complex layering of patterns side-by side is a representation of the social organization and gender roles of the community. Also, the plain-weave part of the textile is just as important as the designs. It is not just one pattern’s meaning, you have to take the whole textile’s structure into account. This is much harder to explain to a tourist.
Most prudent merchants and weavers know that tourists are pressed for time and that they have a preconceived idea of what their textile should mean. They don’t want a lecture about the loss of culture and the complexities of possibility. Tourists are more likely to buy a textile if it has a concrete meaning that interests them. This means that the significance of the textile must be connected to a noble Incan past. Tourists come to Cusco for the Inca and generally hear nothing else but Inca, Inca, Inca for their whole trip. So sellers spin them a tale of a textile connected to a noble Incan past, the tourist’s interest is perked, the explanation fits their preconceived ideas, and like magic they buy the textile.
To help you better understand what is being lost in the transaction here, could you explain everything about the Mona Lisa and European painting in one sentence to someone who is seeing European painting for the first time and is thinking about buying a piece? No, you can’t sum up all of European painting in one sentence. So with that one sentence explanation you have time for, you put into that it something that manipulates the truth to make your potential client interested enough to buy the painting. It is the same issue here with textiles.
II. Where to Buy Quality Handmade Traditional Textiles
If you are looking for high quality, handmade, traditional textiles then your first stop should be the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC). The CTTC is a non-profit established in 1996 who’s mission is to research, preserve, and promote the traditional textiles of the Cusco region while also supporting the weavers and their families through the fair trade sale of their products. The CTTC began in Chinchero with a group of weavers, led by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, working with supporters in the U.S. to start a textile center. The CTTC expanded to work with nine other communities, including Accha Alta, Chahauytire, and Pitumaraca, and established their headquarters in Cusco. The Center organized a museum, Weaving Lives, at their offices in Cusco and published three books, Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands, Textile Traditions of Chinchero, and Faces of Tradition. Weavers at the museum and store in Cusco give free weaving demonstrations, as do the weavers at the Center in Chinchero. (The other communities are too remote to receive tourists frequently, the weavers there use their weaving centers as a place to gather and work.)
You will not find higher quality traditional textiles with anyone else. Consequentially, expect to pay the full value of what these textiles are worth. CTTC prices textiles in dollars, not soles. (You can pay in either soles or dollars though). In the market and in most other textile centers, a table runner might cost around 100 to 200 soles, which is about $33 – $65. A table runner at the CTTC costs anywhere between $100 – $300. You may think that the prices here are steep, especially if you compare them to other sellers. There are two reasons for the high price. One, they are of extremely high quality. Two, the weaver actually receives a fair price for the work that goes into the textile. The average table runner takes about 3 to 4 months to make. Approximately a month or more to spin, dye, and over spin all the yarn necessary to weave the textile, about 2-3 months to weave it, and a week or so to finish borders and ending details. If the weaver works 4 hours a day on their textile for 3 months, and the textile sells at $200, then they are makingapproximately $0.67 an hour. (I am assuming here that they don’t weave every day of the month. I am using this for my calculations: 4 hours a day, 21 days a month, for 3 months, selling price $200). So stop complaining about the high sticker price. When you do the math, it still seems like the weaver should be paid more. Incredibly, the CTTC weavers are lifting themselves out of poverty with this type of income from their textiles. The impact on women especially is massive as now they not only have an independent income, but are earning more than their husbands to become the primary bread-winner for the household.
Now, do you want to do the math for someone who sold a similar textile for $65? One, it will be lesser quality, so we’ll say they spent maybe 2 months making it at 3 hours a day. (Check my math: 3 hours a day, 21 days a month, two months, selling price $65) That means they are earning about $0.34 per hour. Technically, that is, if they are paid on a fair-trade basis. But even though many centers say they work on a fair-trade basis, this is often a big fat lie. Which brings us to our final topic.
III. The Problem with ‘Fair-Trade’ Textiles
There are three basic places you can buy textiles from: stores, the market, or on the street. Street vendors and market vendors are more willing to haggle prices. They also sell more machine-made textiles than handmade textiles. The problem with stores and textile centers, are the claims they make to selling on a ‘fair-trade’ basis. While there are legitimate organizations that work on a fair-trade basis, like Awamaki in Ollantaytambo, there are many more centers that do not truly work on a fair-trade basis but claim to.
This problem is rampant in Chinchero where many small textile centers have opened in the wake of the CTTC’s success. They explain to tourists that they help the poor of the community, especially single mothers. Or they say that the women who work at the center weave the textiles themselves. The problem is that this is often a big fat lie. More often the owner of the center buys up textiles at a cheap price from rural women who do not have access to the tourist market. The owner resells the textiles in their center at an elevated price and pockets the difference. The women who work at the center giving demonstrations may make some of the textiles, but they normally don’t make most of them. The owner prospers while the weavers scrape by. Additionally, the owner often has a pre-arranged agreement with tour guides. The owner will pay the tour guide under the table between 10% and 20% of any purchase that their tourists make at the textile center. This 10-20% ‘commission’ is included in the price of the textile, which means the tourist is footing the bribery bill. Consequentially, the tour guide pressures their clients to buy textiles at this particular center, not because it is an outstanding establishment, but because they get a cut in the profit. So of course tour guides are willing to say what it takes to get a tourist to buy at that center, and if that means saying they work on a fair-trade basis, then they’ll claim that. How do I know this? Because one, it is common knowledge in Chinchero, and two, I posed as a potential tour guide looking to find a center to work with. One center offered me up to 30% of the profit from purchases by any tourist I brought them.
The problem is that what often happens in these centers is that women dressed in traditional clothing are the ones to interact with the groups of visiting tourists. The tourists never see the owner, not dressed in indigenous clothing, who works ‘behind the scenes’ of the big ‘act’ that the weavers put on. They stay in the office out of view, or simply aren’t there at all. The tourists are lead to believe, by omission of a full explanation, that these weavers are the owners of the center. The tourists just assume that they are. They are not told, and don’t realize, that a very modern businessman or woman is reaping the profit.
So You Want to Learn More about Traditional Textiles?
I did my job well and your interest is peaked, you’d like to learn more about traditional textiles from the Andes. I recommend that you check out these books:
- Weaving in the Andes by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez of the CTTC
- Textile Traditions of Chinchero by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez of the CTTC
- A Woven Book of Knowledge by Gail P. Silverman
- Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals by Andrea Heckman
I hope that this guide changed how you view the textiles you bought in Peru, or hope to buy. Please be considerate of both weavers and middlemen when it comes to prices, both of them are just trying to make a living. Now go enjoy the amazing textiles that Peru has to offer.