Volunteer Profile: Karen Sprenger

Textile tours of all kinds can make a weaver out of you. It certainly did for Andean Textile Arts (ATA) volunteer, Karen Sprenger. In the mid-80s, Karen dabbled with weaving rag rugs on an old two-harness floor loom (this type of loom is still widely used in many indigenous communities). However, a floor loom is anything but portable. So while traveling on a few textile-related tours to Central and South America, she became intrigued with the backstrap loom. The simplicity of the loom was certainly similar to her floor loom, but it’s portability was a draw and one came home with her.

Not many U.S. weavers in her area of Kansas City were studying backstrap weaving in the years following her acquisition of the loom. But through books, workshops with itinerant teachers, and the birth of online learning, she studied patterns and weaves. She discovered that the weaving of the Peruvian Highlands drew her attention the most—the intricacy of the weaves, the use of color, and deep historical roots. Karen heard about the gathering of weavers (Tinkuy) hosted by the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) in 2013, and knew she had to attend. (She also attended Tinkuy in 2017.)

Karen Sprenger (left) learns about natural dyes in the Chinchero community.

Karen remembers meeting CTTC founder and director Nilda Callañaupa at Tinkuy and making other early connections. She recalls, “I stayed on after the event as I wanted to visit more of the weaving communities, to see the weavers in their villages. It was during one of these visits where I met Cathie Joslyn who just so happened to be working with CTTC on a weaving exhibit and workshops in Kansas City where I lived. And that’s how I got even more involved with Andean textiles, learned more about ATA, and spent more time with Nilda when she came to Kansas City.”

In the years that followed, Karen studied more intricate weave structures beyond working on the backstrap loom. It was during a workshop with ATA board member Jennifer Moore (Jennifer is a renowned teacher of double weave) that she mentioned to Jennifer that she would soon be retiring and was looking at volunteer activities. ATA’s Peruvian Textiles in a Box program was just ramping up. Given Karen’s connections to guilds and her knowledge of Andean weaving, she embraced the program and soon found herself as the contact person for any guild or group interested in hosting the program.

It’s now been a few years since Karen joined ATA as a volunteer. Recently she moved to Arizona and joined the Tucson Handweavers and Spinners guild. She’s starting to meet others who want to learn backstrap weaving. She adds, “I have to take baby steps in introducing the backstrap as it may seem daunting. Maybe we’ll start with ñawi awapa (tubular border edging) first. It’s even more portable than my backstrap loom.” Knowing Karen, she’ll continue to make connections and introduce many to her passion of Peruvian weaving.

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