High in the Andes Mountains, a respected Peruvian artist is reviving interest in weaving, which she feels captures the essence of her people
Ellen Warner

Peruvian textiles, recently believed to be a generation away from extinction, are making a surprising comeback. The revival of the country's 2,000-year-old weaving techniques is largely due to 37-year-old Andean artist Nilda Callañaupa, who is working with six mountain villages to resurrect symbolic patterns and avoid the use of garish chemical dyes and synthetic yarns.

Four years ago, Callañaupa watched children in her home village of Chinchero knotting friendship bracelets to sell to tourists, rather than traditional jakimas, ribbons with decorative beadwork. That's when she decided to found her Center for Traditional Textiles, headquartered in Cuzco, the south-central city that was once the capital of the Inca empire. "Parents were encouraging children to give up weaving and stop wearing traditional clothing, in order to look more like the Spanish and mestizos," she said.

As Peru's oldest surviving art form, textile production has always been used to express respect for the land, and for the Indian concept that people are related to other forms of nature. In the early 1400's, woven fabrics were used as a form of payment to Incan rulers. Villagers made clothes according to standard patterns and sent them to Cuzco, where monarchs gave the most intricate weavings as rewards for military and administrative deeds. The rulers' own clothes were woven by specially trained, sequestered women.

Over time, each Andean settlement developed its own weaving techniques and motifs; villages attached special meanings to animal and geometric patterns. For centuries, knowledge about textiles was passed on through observation, explanation, and practice. Girls would begin weaving yarn in small groups at age seven or eight while they watched over the village's sheep. Then, in their early teens, they'd ask women in their community for further instruction. At 17 or 18, about the time they married, they would form a working partnership with an older woman that lasted a lifetime.

But this custom started to decline in the 1970's as children began attending school rather than herding sheep, thus losing the first step in the practice of weaving. At the same time, radios and roads arrived in the hinterlands, bringing influences from radically different cultures.

Gradually, the descendants of the Incas abandoned local arts in favor of crafts produced for the tourist trade, and shed traditional clothing for T-shirts and jeans. Some women put their looms aside to farm while their husbands labored as porters on hiking expeditions. Others sold to factories the fleece they harvested from llamas, alpaca, and sheep, and did their own weaving with acrylic.

Today, Callañaupa is encouraging women to use the yarn they spin, as they did in the past, and to dye it with coloring made with indigenous plants and insects. Meanwhile, her researchers are combing villages in the two-mile-high mountains that surround Cuzco, and discovering almost-forgotten techniques and patterns. One weaving process found in Pitumarca dates back to a.d. 500; another design, used in belts made in Cotabambas, is believed to have originated in the 13th century.

In the village of Chinchero, artisans have come up with 42 patterns for the center to study, and Callañaupa has set up a classroom program in which children interview weavers about their art and its meaning. Because Peruvian schools ban traditional dress in favor of uniforms, she says, "young people have gotten the impression that our two-thousand-year-old textile tradition isn't important enough to preserve."

Meanwhile, textile production is rising in the six villages where Callañaupa is active. Since her Cuzco center does a brisk business selling their goods, villagers don't need to leave home to supplement their incomes. And people are wearing traditional clothing again. "My hope is that this new generation will appreciate our culture and wear our textiles on a daily basis," says Callañaupa, "rather than only on fiesta days."

CENTER FOR TRADITIONAL TEXTILES Cuzco; 51-84/229-299; www.incas.org; or Box 1378, New Haven, CT 06505.