Textiles of the Andes

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by Simon Ross-Gill

One of the most striking aspects of culture in the Andes Mountains is the beautiful array of textile arts that communities have been producing here since centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Bright reds, purples, oranges and browns; intricate linear and floral patterns; symbolism of birds, animals and reptiles are all the hallmark of what is a fascinating and mystical textile tradition.

Today this tradition is continued and when travelling in any Andean town such as Cusco, La Paz or Quito there are an abundance of vendors selling scarves, hats, gloves, wall hangings and near anything that can be produced on a loom or with a pair of knitting needles. Alpaca is the main wool of choice: a relative of the better known llama, this animal sheds perhaps the finest and softest natural fibre on the planet.

This vast array of options can often be overwhelming for travellers. For those looking to ensure the high quality of their purchase, there is a selection of workshops and associations that ensure excellent textiles while at the same time guarantee that the artists themselves are given a fair price for their work.

When travelling in Cusco, Peru, I was lucky enough to stumble across a few of these. The Centre for Traditional Textiles of Cusco is a good place to start: this is full of quality wares including exquisite ponchos and Andean hats. Tours can be organised to the communities where these are produced and there are also weaving classes available. Another great place to look is the Store of Weavers. There are some absolutely wonderful and original woven goods on offer here and if you are lucky you will get to watch the artisans at work. Although the prices are high, the store ensures that 50% ends up in the hand of the weaver.

For those travellers who are on a budget, the Sunday market of Pisaq in the Sacred Valley – just a couple of hours bus ride from Cusco – is also brimming with quality textiles. Here textile artists descend from the surrounding regions to sell their textile arts to tourists and to exchange them for necessary supplies such as food and fuel. There are lines of colourful stalls traversing the streets and the prices are most reasonable. I was lucky enough to pick up a wonderful woven wall hanging dyed in earthy oranges and browns. I also found my mum some cochineal dye from one señora who had barrels of the stuff.

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For those of you who have the opportunity to travel to South America and Peru, check out these places and others like them to find some Andean textile arts of the highest quality.

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The Centre for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, Avenida El Sol 603-A, Cusco, Peru, Tel: 51-84-228117

http://www.incas.org/SPChinchero.htm

Asociación Central de Artesanas y Artesanos del Sur Andino (Store of Weavers), Av Tullumayo 274, Cusco, Peru

Tel: 51-84-233466/227656

http://www.cbc.org.pe/tejidosandinos

Pisaq Sunday Market, Pisaq, Valle Urubamba, Peru