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