I am back from the highlands. I know I have told you in past posts about how wonderful it is when I receive my box of woven bands from the co-operative of weavers high in the mountains of Cochabamba. Each year they supply me with beautiful bands woven with their hand spun wool which is dyed with local plants and cochineal.
The box would arrive filled with the colors and aromas of the highlands which would then fill me with a longing to return to the places where my various highland weaving teachers live. This year, I managed to find time to give in to that yearning. I went up to the highlands, at Dorinda’s kind invitation, to collect my order in person and meet the weavers whose names have become so familiar to me over these years. Each band in the boxes I received would be labeled with the weaver’s name and I soon started to be able to recognize the characteristic style of certain weavers in the way they arranged their colors.
It was easy to see when a new weaver had joined the co-operative and was weaving bands for my orders. Her style would be just that little bit different to what I had become used to seeing.
Here is the latest order laid out in Dorinda’s yard in the highlands. Dorinda has been working for many years with the weavers helping them to recover lost natural dyeing techniques, encouraging youngsters to learn, helping them to design products that are attractive to foreign markets and to manage orders and accounting. I use these bands in my workshops when I teach tubular bands and finishing techniques and these workshops often generate more sales for the weavers. My students are always more than happy to buy more cloth for making pouches and practicing the finishing techniques they have learned. The fact that their purchases help support the weavers is an added bonus.
There I am with my teacher and friend Maxima who is the head of the association of weavers. Maxima and I first met at the first Tinkuy in Peru. She, Dorinda and I were roommates. I got together with her another time when she came into the city of Cochabamba and gave me some weaving lessons.
On this trip, Maxima and I spent three amazing days together hanging out and weaving. She normally teaches me but, on this trip I got to watch her teach three teenagers from the town and I also got take on the role of teacher and show her some new patterns. It was a blast. Dorinda and I spent 4 days together as we had met and traveled up from Cochabamba together on the bus. We left at 5am for the 7-hour trip and wound our way up from the valley floor to skirt the mountain tops on dirt roads up and over 14,000-foot passes to then descended to the lovely town of Independencia at 8,000 feet. It was a wet and muddy trip and we were delayed 2 1/2 hours when a truck that had gone off the road had to be winched out.Clouds spilled over the mountain tops and mist crept upwards from the valleys. There was not much that could be seen through all that on the way there but I was blessed with beautiful weather and gorgeous views on the way back. On the return journey, we stopped for llama crossings rather than fallen trucks.
Independencia is a lovely little town…one of those places with an altitude that allows it to enjoy eternal spring-like temperatures. Rainy season downpours in the very early morning hours left everything clean and fresh by sunrise. The hillsides were green and lush.
Dorinda and I plodded up the hill to her home from the bus stop. I had my luggage and the altitude to deal with while Dorinda had all her purchases from her monthly visit to the city of Cochabamba. We stopped a few times along the way! That was some hill. I spent the first afternoon exploring her extensive garden, getting acquainted with the 11 cats that reside there (they belong to her landlady) and investigating her workshop areas and store rooms of yarn, sewing machines, looms and art supplies.
The workshop room had this wonderful poster that Dorinda had created which records the natural dye plants the co-op has been using and the various tones that have resulted from the use of different mordants…
These lovely hand woven pillow covers were on my bed, a woven rug was on the floor and large hangings adorned the walls.
Outside my bedroom window, pieces of the leaning vertical looms that are typically used in this area were standing against the wall. I got such a rush seeing those… I was going to be with weavers soon…I couldn’t wait!
The first day was ”Club Day” and three of Maxima’s teen-aged students who are members of the ”Club de Chicas”came to learn to weave patterns on bands. Of course, the tendency these days is for youngsters not to learn to weave at all as all eyes look to the large towns and cities for higher education and work. Many men in the community associate weaving with poverty and do not want their wives and daughters involved with that. It is wonderful that Nelva, Abigail and Veronica had decided that weaving was precisely what they wanted to do during their summer school holidays.
First, the youngest, Nelva, was set-up to learn the ”linquito” pattern. Maxima would call out the color sequence to her as she picked up the threads to form the pattern. Then Maxima wove a new pattern and called out the color sequence to Veronica and Abigail row by row. They wrote it all down in their notebooks….two black, four white etc. This was Veronica and Abigail’s second band and they already know very well how to create sheds, form the picking crosses and select the threads. Weavers in this area use a technique where they form a cross, called the picking cross, using two fingers of one hand. They then select threads from this cross with their other hand to form their motifs. There are no sticks or swords or beaters involved.
The girls helped me write the words for numbers and colors in Quechua in my notebook even though they preferred to note everything down in Spanish. I remembered the words from the time I had spent in Potosí with my weaving teachers. Remembering those Quechua words came in very handy the next day when I went out to one of the outlying communities to weave with the ladies there.
With notebooks on knees and heads down, Veronica and Abigail settled down to weave and the race was on. I sensed a healthy competitiveness between them. They were very methodical and never lost their way in the instructions. We hardly heard a peep from them for the rest of the day!
Nelva’s ”linquito” pattern was coming along but her younger age and, perhaps the lack of a competitor, showed when she got easily distracted and often lost her way. Maxima was there to set her back on the right path.
Once the girls were up and running, I showed my backstrap loom and some woven samples I had brought to Maxima, Antonia (who also weaves bands for my orders) and Adviana. Adviana, now 21, had learned to weave at age 16 in the Club de Chicas. I think they all politely watched my backstrap loom demonstration but what really got them excited was not the loom, but, rather, the pattern I was weaving along with those on the samples I had brought. They liked the softness and smoothness of the cotton I use and the fineness of the wool samples I had. Adviana immediately wanted to learn a new pattern for a wrist cuff after seeing mine. Maxima chose a wider and more complicated pattern.We stopped and went our ways for lunch and Maxima returned with spindle in hand adding twist to some of her hand spun wool so that she could learn the new patterns.
When it was clear that adding twist to the three colors she needed was going to take too long, she went into the store room and brought out a bag of cones of perle cotton. I was surprised to see that. These had been donated by Cotton Clouds one time when Dorinda was in the USA at a WARP conference. No one had put them to use until now. There was a certain sense of urgency. Maxima knew that I had only a few days there and she wanted to learn everything she could in that time.
I explained to Maxima that her pattern was much wider and that it would be very difficult for her to hold all those threads on two fingers.She would need to set this up on her leaning loom. I figured she would relent and decide to learn a narrower pattern instead. But, no, before I knew it, out came the leaning loom pieces and Antonia and Maxima were seated rolling the cones of cotton back and forth to each other creating the warp. Then it was my turn to get excited. I hadn’t expected to get to watch them warping.
Normally, they roll balls of yarn back and forth to each other and years of practice have them smoothly and efficiently launching the balls with just the right amount of force. Rolling the cones was a different story. They simply would not cooperate but things had certainly improved by the time they got almost to the end of rolling and winding.
Adviana finished first and made her heddles and I set about teaching her the new pattern that she liked. Her patience was put to the test when her youngest little boy wanted attention, swinging off her braids and throwing himself on her back at regular intervals.
I had spent the lunch break drawing out a pattern chart for her. That way I could demonstrate the first few rows, teach her to read and mark the chart and then move on to teach Maxima. There just wasn’t time to weave the full 24-row repeat of the pattern for her to copy and my wool sample was too fine to easily read. She really took to the charts and came two days later and happily sat and copied several pattern charts from my book. You can see her band taking shape above.
I had a hard time convincing Maxima, that, although I set up my backstrap loom very differently to the way she sets up her warps, (I use two sets of string heddles and one permanent picking cross while she uses one set of heddles and two temporary picking crosses), she could still weave the new pattern using her methods. We both weave the same structure but just use different ways to create it.
Because she lost confidence after her first attempts to copy the pattern from my cotton sample, she asked me to set her loom up the way I do and to weave one complete repeat so that she could watch me.
She then wove another motif almost completely on her own and had just started a third when it was time to stop for the day. She is really motivated to weave a new aguayo, or carrying cloth, with this new motif. I left her my cotton sample which has three other new patterns. You can see Adviana in the background of the above picture, copying pattern charts into her notebook.
She was not able to weave with her leg extended any more. She could have just added some string to end of her band to extend it so she could continue weaving with a straight leg. Well, she’s 13 and supple and I don’t think she was experiencing any discomfort sitting like that. She was far too absorbed in finishing the band. My knee and hip ache just looking at her! She didn’t finish that day but showed up two days later to show it off with its ends nicely braided. She said that her grandmother was very proud of her and had shown her how to do the braiding.
Where will this young lady be headed next with her weaving?
Maxima and Adviana also came over on this day to learn even more patterns. These particular motifs are not unknown in this area and have, in fact, been used by some of the weavers on the bands that I ordered. But, not all the weavers know all the patterns and it seems to be that they are not in the habit of getting together to teach each other motifs once they are adults.
This is the band that Maxima wove with two new patterns that she wanted to learn from me. We continued using cotton as time was short and no one wanted to wait until yarn could spun. Plus, I think they really enjoyed trying out cotton for the first time.
That morning I had risen early to wind a warp and weave a narrow band with more tawa chinito, or 4-pair, samples that I could leave behind for Maxima. I pounded some stakes into the ground for that. You can just see the tip of it next to Maxima’s band above. I can’t wait to see if some of these motifs show up in my next order of bands.
If I wind using four stakes rather than just two, I can eliminate one of the steps in the setting-up process as I can separate my two colors into two sides of the cross as I wind. When you use a finger and toe as your warping stakes you don’t have the opportunity to add two extra ”stakes” in the middle. I don’t live in a place where pounding stakes into the ground is possible and I welcomed this chance to get down and grass-rootsy at ground level.
I scouted about the garden and found a stick to break into pieces. Of course one of the resident cats had to come over to inspect the intrusion, approve it, and then claim it as its own.
At lunch time, I went up to Maxima’s place to see the latest piece she has on her leaning loom. It is one of the two panels that she will weave to make the new aguayo that she wants to use at the Tinkuy in Cusco, Peru this November. It has two strips of warp-faced double weave patterning along with two strips of pebble weave. That’s a lot of pick-up! I love feeling the firmness of the cloth which is the mark of a good weaver in these parts. She is using the brightly colored fine synthetic thread that is sold in the market and I was surprised to see the Cotton Clouds cotton being used for the heddles. She likes the way it behaves.
That evening, I discovered a supply of dyed hand spun wool in the store room that belongs to the co-op. This is sold to the weavers who have run out of certain colors and who would like to weave for one of the orders. Generally, each weaver has a stash of yarn that they take away from the communal dyeing days. Maxima allowed me to buy some and I am keen to weave something. I have woven with this tightly twisted yarn before but, this time, I would like to experiment with it by taking out some of the twist.
I have described our activities over two of the three days that I spent up in the mountains….the first and the third days. The second day was something else again when Dorinda, Maxima and I traveled about an hour away to the settlement of Huancarani and met with the weavers there for a ”weave-in”. That event will have to wait for my next post. There is so much to tell! Many thanks to Dorinda who supplied some of these pictures.
When not weaving, I had lovely peaceful times chatting with Dorinda sitting out on her ”stoop”, swapping travel tales, enjoying her garden and her fabulous home cooking. She makes do with so little…no fridge…everything is fresh, and she loves to bake! Morning break on Club Days is spent eating her freshly baked muffins and cookies. She always has something tasty ready for visitors from Huancarani who come into town on Sundays to sell their produce at the market. We took walks around the town in the evenings, greeting her neighbors and local shopkeepers. Everyone seems to know her by name and they show their warmth in their kind greetings.
I am already making plans for my return. I’ll continue the stories in the next post. Now, to get back to my silk weaving!