It’s always a good sign when the person I’m interviewing starts right off by saying: “I have this memory of the first time I met Nilda.” (Nilda Callañaupa is the founder and current director of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.) For the next half hour, Chris Switzer—a long-time ATA supporter—was full-on stories and while I’ve known Chris for many years, my admiration of her increased exponentially.
“It was the late 1970s, when I met Nilda for the first time. I had recently joined the Handweavers Guild of Boulder, having recently begun spinning and weaving. This day’s program was presented by (American anthropologist) Ed Franquemont, and Nilda Callañaupa was with him demonstrating backstrap weaving. Nilda didn’t speak English at that time but that didn’t stop me from communicating with her. I sat right next to her and was mesmerized by her weaving.”
Chris’s first visit to Peru in the early 80s wasn’t weaving-focused, however: it was llama-focused. Chris and her husband, Phil, had just acquired several llamas and had a steep learning curve. Their friend Jane Wheeler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, was gathering other llama breeders to visit Peru to learn more about this gentle animal. It was during this trip, that they visited Cusco and Chris reconnected with Nilda.
During this same time period, Chris was working toward a BFA in fibers with a double major in anthropology and archaeology from Colorado State University. It took her six years to finish both, and she graduated in 1984. She recalls, “I was determined to do this. Mind you, I was also raising two young boys and Phil and I were expanding our herd.”
By 1985 the Switzers had expanded their interest beyond llamas and became the first alpaca farm in Colorado and the whole Rocky Mountain region. In fact, the Switzers were the originators of most of the North American paco-vicuña herd. They shared this passion providing education about alpacas, llamas, paco-vicuña, weaving, spinning and the Andes region of South America.
As one thing led to another, they found themselves organizing small-group trips to the Cusco region of Peru, taking other alpaca and llama breeders along. Each time they would visit Nilda, and as the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) became established, they also visited the weaving communities who were early CTTC association members. She recalls on one of the visits to Pitumarca, “The baby alpacas were dying. Fortunately, we were traveling with a vet, and he was able to figure out what medicine was needed. It took time but eventually the babies were able to survive.”
All of this was years ago, and their Switzer-Land Alpacas business no longer exists as they are restricted by age and health. But that doesn’t stop Chris from continuing to weave and sell her work at local galleries in Estes Park, Colorado. She still contributes the profit from these sales and her talks to ATA in support of the work we do with CTTC and the weaving communities. “Part of my heart is in Peru, and I do what I can to help.”
Andean Textile Arts is thankful for the ongoing contributions made by Chris and her many years of commitment to the Andean weavers’ lives.
Marilyn Murphy is President of ATA and managing partner of ClothRoads.com, an online marketplace and blog devoted to global textiles. An ATA board member since 2013, she co-curated the exhibition, “Weaving Lives: Transforming Textile Traditions in the Peruvian Highlands,” at Colorado State University’s Avenir Museum. Previously Marilyn was president and editorial director for Interweave media. She also owned the Weaving Workshop in Chicago and founded the Textile Arts Centre there.