A Fiber Primer for Yarnheads.

Although I used to embroider and do crewelwork in a past life, I have never been known to Stitch without Bitching, and nobody has ever accused me of having any real talent in fiber handicrafts. However, I do know art when I see it, and the day I spent with Heifer at Ocongate, Peru in the presence of the Six Stars of Bacchanta weavers was nothing short of magical (quite possibly because there was a lot of shopping involved).

The Six Stars setting in the Ausangate Andean Range... not bad, right?

This Heifer/AEDES project is part of Heifer’s Cusco umbrella project to help 4,333 families in 22 Highlands communities close the value chain of breeding alpacas: raising, shearing, spinning, and weaving the precious fiber… then going all the way to the final step of producing knit goods that will maximize their income. After all, when the Highland families do all the hard work of producing the fiber, wouldn’t it be great if they got the major income that comes from making stuff from that fiber??

Master weaver Francisco

To that end, Heifer and its local NGO partner AEDES are helping the 120-member Six Stars organization, with the super-charismatic Francisco at the helm, to learn advanced methods to clean, dye, categorize, create and execute uniformly beautiful designs that can then be sold in local and regional markets (like in nearby, tourist-laden Cusco) at a highly profitable price point.

The women demonstrated “phusca” (Quechua for spinning), which the Highlands women do incessantly, walking around with balls of alpaca fluff that they relentlessly twist and refine to convert fleece into thread.

There are 31 different categorizations of alpaca fiber, from thickest to most desirable thinnest (31) and with Heifer trainings, Six Stars participants have become adept at both breeding their animals to produce fibers of a higher category, and learning to knit with these super-fine fibers.

Up close & personal with an alpaca's fleece --unbelievably thick & luscious!

Butterscotch beauty

Natural alpaca fiber in all hues, particularly blacks and browns, are hugely in vogue –particularly the darker colors (and Heifer is providing those alpacas for breeding). But for the sheep’s wool that is used in many other handicrafts, natural dyes are all the rage. Victoria showed us the flowers and herbs that produce the yellows, purples and blues for their wool weavings, as well as the scales from insects who live in cactus (!!) and produce a rich,vibrant red.

Alpaca fieltros..cute!

Felting (rolling tight little balls made from the short neck hairs of the hirsute alpaca) makes use of every bit of the precious fiber, and is used in necklaces, earrings and bracelets with a modern whimsical twist. But one of Francisco’s favorite claims is that Six Stars is bringing back ancient and forgotten Incan designs, with its plethora of birds, spiders, chicanas (the Incan cross) and condors that revere the past.

In the future, however, it’s all about these trainings empowering the Highlands people to stand up for their own food sovereignty, land security, and the right to the profits from their incredible hard work. One of the oddities of Peruvian commerce is that every organization needs to be legally registered with the government in order to be recognized, enabled to work with other organizations, and to sell its wares. Heifer has helped Six Stars to register (a lengthy and expensive process) so now the group can work with the Ministry of Tourism, export its beautiful fibers, and participate in the trade economy.

Softer than soft ...super-premium baby alpaca fur is the most valuable of all.

What can I say but … coming soon, to a store near you!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

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36 thoughts on “A Fiber Primer for Yarnheads.

  1. Ginger O'Neill

    Hi Betty,

    I know Martha Stewart would be envious of this blog. There are not enough accolades to describe these utterly hard-working, exceptional people and women; not to mention the extraordinary work of Heifer International!

    I am forwarding this blog to Olivia, as student at Parsons, she would find this highly inspiring.

    Hugs!

    Ginger

    • I was thinking that Olivia might like this — for anybody who loves fiber and fabrics, Peru is nirvana!! And the people who raise these animals are hardy and hard-working beyond belief! xooxxo b

  2. Hi Betty! Yet another fun posting, especially since I qualify as a “yarnhead!” What gorgeous photos and it was fun to learn about the process, dyes, and techniques. Michael and I bought some alpaca roving to spin at a local sheep and wool festival (yes, they exist!) but have yet to spin it (yes, I know, yet another hobby left unattended ;-) I want one of those felted ball bracelets—how cute are those?

    • Aren’t the felt bracelets adorable, Cindy?? Of course I bought one — only to find that here in NEPAL, on the other side of the world, felting is really HUGE and they have whole stores full of jewelry, necklaces, curtains, slippers with the felted balls on them — really fun! I’ll send you a photo! As for spinning, I can’t even imagine how time-consuming the process is but they just walk around doing it constantly … and THEN they weave with it.

  3. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Of course I loved this one. I had to dye and spin my own fibers for several projects in school. Spinning is a real art. Keeping the thread diameter even is difficult. I love how much this country loves color.

    • Hi Deb — wow, I had no idea you were so accomplished in the arts!! I know that it’s really hard to keep the diameter even, particularly with the super fine threads .. and YES, the colors in Peru were spectacular. It’s impossible to take a bad photo there… seriously!

  4. If I were there, I’d be rolling all over the yarn and woven products. The production of fabric/clothing is fascinating and often overlooked in the general context of history. It’s had a huge impact. Once again, a great post!

    • Thanks, Renee — and it IS remarkable how the clothing of indigenous people are both wildly unique and strikingly similar. I’m in Nepal right now, and it’s startling how much the Nepalese look like the Peruvian Highlands (they’re both high mountain people so it makes sense) — and yet, their clothing is markedly different. Just wait til you see my photos of the Yi people in China .. those people will give the Peruvians a run for their sartorial money, that’s for sure!! Really happy to hear form you!

  5. Sue McGrath

    What a great post. The colors and patterns are just gorgeous – I want 1 of everything! I love your spinning comment -it’s just that simple! They certainly make it look so but what talent and skill.
    Inspirational for sure.

    • It’s so funny that so many of my best girlfriends have been amazing seamstresses — starting with YOU! Sadly, it’s a talent I completely lack … but when you looked at every single step that went into creating just a basic runner or a sweater, it was humbling for sure. I loved these ladies … but in fact, the real master weaver was Francisco — and men make all their own vests/ hats/etc. so it’s a equal opportunity fabric culture!!

  6. That baby Alpaca is just the cutest thing with the little tuft of died wool from his ear!! Another wonderful and fascinating post … and memories of my lost youth spinning and weaving!!

    Thank you for bringing Peru so alive!!

  7. Martha

    I wanted to reach out and stroke that baby alpaca. Thanks for a great post!
    Martha

  8. I don’t know how to knit, but this would be shopping heaven for me! God, I would LOVE it.

    By the way, wondering if you caught any traffic from my FP post that linked to you yesterday. Just curious. I hope you did. LOVE your blog,, Betty!

    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Hey Kathryn — You’re a girl after my OWN heart, shopping -wise! And this was the place to do it. Usually, I’m in such small villages, there is no shopping (and hence, I tell my husband he is saving SO much money, it’s not to be believed) — but this was a Mecca! Sorry I have no idea about my traffic stats, but I will check — you are SUCH an angel to link to me from FB! Thanks a million & loved your wedding blog so much, btw … what an event!!

  9. It was magical because of the “shopping”! Witty and beautiful!! When I was in Peru I bought some mittens and a few other alpaca goods to give as gifts. There were women/children/and their animals scattered along roads, selling their wares. It was fun!

  10. Rachel Parris

    Hi Betty, Thank you so much for your blog. I truly enjoy it. I have shared this post on my Facebook page so that all my fiber artist friends can enjoy. Kudos to Six Stars and AEDES and Heifer, and these amazing women.

    • Thanks so much, Rachel — I hope your fiber artist friends will enjoy the handicrafts of Peru as much as I did … and the really special work that Heifer/AEDES is doing to empower these women (and men!) to profit from the fruits (and fiber!) of their labor … it’s such a worthy endeavor!!!

  11. George Weaver

    What a wonderful post!

  12. Cool photos.

  13. Definitely looks like those beautiful creations have potential in the marketplace.

    And I had no idea that there is 31 different categorizations of alpaca fiber. I may have to drop that on my farming friends and sound intelligent for once.

  14. teresa hart

    when and where do we get a chance to buy some of those beautiful fabrics and products? there must be a website or something, right? So terrific that heiffer is helping these wonderful people learn how to make money from there work.Being a Home Econ. major I can really appericate the amount of work that goes into producing these products…And bringing back ancient designs is a great way to perserve their culture, and is also very interesting and FUN!!

    They should make some baby alpacas out of yarn to sell, so adorable.

    Snuggle some baby alpacas, so jealous of you Betty…………

    teresa hart

    • Well, if I had the room, I’d lug back cartons of these beautiful weavings … but hopefully they will find a market in Cusco first, and then perhaps with Crochet Guys or some other venture that will bring them over to sell & return the profits to the community. It really gives you pause to see how much work goes into one beautiful little item — and btw, I DID get 4 little alpaca christmas tree ornaments that are beyond adorable! Love your enthusiasm, TH… thanks a million for the comment!.

  15. pattiebaker

    Oh, my goodness, Betty–I just attended the sheep shearing at my friend Farmer Sue’s Art Barn at Morning Glory Farm and this post increases my appreciation for what is possible! Maybe this is the year I’ll FINALLY learn how to make dyes with plants from my garden :)

    • Pattie — Yeah, I really think you need a new project to keep you busy! HA! But you would have been so jazzed to see these dyes… specially the red one from the scales of the cactus insect — when you popped it open it just oozed out the MOST intense red — glorious!! I love how these folks are so ingenious and creative … plus SO gifted with their weaving. I was spellbound!!

  16. Hi SD — If you want to sound REALLY intelligent, you can always go into the differences between the Huacaya, an alpaca that grows soft spongy fiber, has natural crimp, and makes a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting –and the dread-locked Suri alpaca, that has far less crimp and thus is a better fit for woven goods. It’s also a hypoallergenic fiber — and of course, totally beautiful!! Thanks for the comment!!

  17. It’s incredible to look at those beautiful animals and then to the finished products created from their fleece. Even when I see the steps involved to get from one to the other, I find it mind-boggling. Handmade beauty from natural beauty — how great that these people are finally getting a chance to profit from their hard work and skills. Thank you for telling us about this, Betty.

    • BB — I found it mind-boggling, too! I couldn’t even fathom how they get the fluffballs of fleece to transmute into that fine thread — and that’s just the FIRST step!! I’m so happy that you were equally amazed by this .. and that you think the alpacas are as glorious as I do!!

  18. Betty, lindo post, mas gostaria de saber: os animais sao criados e abatidos para se conseguir a fibra ou sao apenas tosados?
    Como se da o processo de obtencao da fibra?
    E maravilhoso que se use corantes naturais, evitando os produtos quimicos sinteticos e creio que devam cuidar bem dos vegetais…. mas como tratam os animais?

    • Elaine, I am so sorry I’m such a one-language loser — but I’m sure you were asking me some very intriguing questions. I’m going to have to wait til I get home from China & Nepal and can get my daughter to translate this for me!! Stay tuned…

  19. Betty you didn’t just go to Peru – you went to *P*E*R*U* – hundreds of miles and far away from tourist centers. The closest tourists would normally get to these people is to buy their knitted goods at the side of the road. You are taking us into their homes and farms. Great photos. I love the colors of the yarns, and the hats and that baby alpaca!

  20. Dearest Rosie, That is certainly the most incredible part of this journey — I literally am almost never in the places where I even see another tourist — and when I do, I snarkily think “Hey, what are YOU doing here?” But really, the joy of it is meeting the people in a way that is really low-key, natural and invariably takes me from feeling like we are so different… to the invariable realization that we are SO much alike. After we sit down and talk for awhile, I always start seeing the smiles, expressions or characteristics of my friends in these people’s faces — and the word “foreign” just completely evaporates. I’m SO happy you loved the yarns, alpacas and hats as much as I did!!!

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