An Unbroken Thread: Accha Alta Young Weavers Carry On Valued Traditions

In 2020, ATA and the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) completed interviews with several young weavers from communities throughout the Peruvian highlands. This is the first in a series of blog posts based on those interviews. I hope you enjoy meeting these remarkable young women as much as I have enjoyed summarizing their stories.

Lourdes Sullca Gutieerez and Nery Condori Layme are young weavers from Accha Alta, a Peruvian village high in the Andes Mountains. Nestled on a steep mountain slope close to the ruins of an ancient Incan granary, the village is the home of the Munay Pallay Awaqkuna weavers, an association in which Lourdes and Nery are members. 

Like many young people in Peru’s highland villages, Lourdes and Nery learned the basics of their textile heritage at a young age, 8 and 9 years old, respectively. Accustomed to seeing their mothers weaving beautiful things, they wanted to weave just like them. But the family ties that enticed the two girls to start weaving go back even further. “Weaving is a way to honor my grandparents and ancestors,” Lourdes explains.  

When the girls first started to weave, they wove plain cloth without any designs. As they gained more experience, they learned ley, a  supplementary warp-faced technique commonly used by Accha Alta weavers to create numerous simple to complex designs. “I know the designs for roses, boxes, eyes, and órgano (a design with little holes),” says Nery, the oldest of the two girls. Lourdes can now add qochas, flowers, q’ergo and chilipica designs to her woven pieces. She also has two favorite designs for chalina shawls. “I like the órgano, also chaska, and I mix in roses or boxes. We call it chaska because they are like the stars of the sky.” 

Many of the patterns used by the girls have origins that date back centuries. That important cultural history also applies to the traditional clothing and household items they produce. Nery typically weaves ponchos, cushions, and sacks used to carry potatoes and other food. Lourdes weaves belts, sashes, blankets, and cushions. Asked what is their favorite thing to weave, both girls agree on scarves. “I enjoy weaving scarves and shoulder cloths, but mostly scarves because they take more time and I use them to relax,” explains Nery. Lourdes adds, “I enjoy weaving scarves because I use them.” 

A young girl from Accha Alta learning to weave traditional patterns
from an older, more experienced weaver.

A piece such as shoulder cloth (also known as a manta) can take Lourdes two months to weave. “It takes a long time because I go to school,” she says. If I wove full time, I would finish them in one month.” 

While the girls do less weaving while they are in school, the weaving they can complete helps pay for their education. “At the end of the month, we bring what we made to the center (CTTC) and they buy our weavings,” Nery explains. “With the money we help our parents and use it for our studies.”

According to the girls, the center also teaches them new techniques, provides them with materials, and helps them promote their work—both woven and knitted pieces.

“We also know how to make chullos (hats),” says Lourdes. “For the chullos there are designs called puytu, k’uta, and pesqochakuna. To make these, we use the five palitos (knitting needles, literally “little sticks”) that are made of wire.” (For decades, Andean knitters used knitting needles that were sharpened bicycle spokes.) In addition, Nery says they also uses palitos to knit socks, coin purses, and headbands.

Everything the girls knit and weave is made with hand-spun yarn. Lourdes recalls when she started to spin at five years old: “My first yarn was ugly and thick, and we made our own spindles using the branches of trees. Now that I know how to spin well, mama gave me a spindle. She bought the spindle from a craftsman who makes spindles from wood.”

For Lourdes and Nery, continuing their textile traditions is a family affair. “In my family, everyone knows how to weave, spin, and twist,” says Lourdes. “My mother is a weaver. She taught me first, and then I taught the younger children, sister-to-sister. Now my younger sisters also are in weaving workshops. My brother also knows how to weave, and my father knows how to weave without designs.”

The situation is similar for Nery. “In my family, also, everyone knows how to spin, weave, and knit. We knit chullos. The first to learn was my mother and she taught my sister. Seeing this I also learned, and I taught the younger children.”

Listening to these two young women, you can hear the commitment they have to protect their textile culture, despite prejudices that still exist against their heritage and way of life.

“We are not ashamed,” says Nery. “We are proud of what we weave.”

Lead photo: Nery (left) and Lourdes (right) during their interview with CTTC.

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