Soft alpaca wool scarves in different shades of gray, ruanas and vicuña-colored ponchos with careful finishes are some of the pieces woven by Berta Quispe, an artisan from the Arica and Parinacota Region, in a picturesque town located in the highlands at more than 3,500 meters high. Between the snow-capped peaks of the Andes and green Andean terraces dotted with llamas, Berta conveys through each of her garments her affection for the customs, traditions and textile art of her people, a heritage that she learned in her first years of life.
The first steps: grazing the animals and cleaning the wool
Berta's parents were Quechuas from Ayachucho, who taught her the language and the art of weaving. The family had flocks of lambs and llamas that she herded as a child with her sister: “we took care of the sheep that had babies, while my dad went somewhere else with the male lambs, because they were divided. My father also herded the males, along with the lambs,” the artisan recalls and adds: “we had plenty of lambs… I watched as my father cleaned the wool and grazed in the field… he spun and twisted the wool and all that.”
When she was older, when she was about 8 years old, Berta learned the steps prior to weaving. First her mother sheared the wool from the sheep or llama, which she then helped to clean: “the wool comes with dirt, like the animals eat on the grass, are full of straw or sleep in the corral… all of that has to be done.” clean it first,” he explains.
Spinning on the pushka and knitting the first pieces
The next step that little Berta learned was to start using the pushka or spinning wheel:
“The pushka is a stick that has a little thing at the bottom to turn. The wool is wrapped like a ball, when you clean it, you have to throw it away and throw it away like a wide band-aid and from there the ball is formed and from there it begins to be spun with the pushka . First it is spun from one strand, then another strand and then the two strands are joined together and the wool is twisted, it is made into a ball and then it has to be skeined, it is washed and from there it is woven.”
At that time, natural colors were used or her mother dyed the white wool with green, orange powders, among others. The first pieces that Berta made were small vests and skirts for her dolls, woven with sticks from green tola or chilca branches, typical bushes of the highlands. “The tops of the sticks were cleaned with a knife and the tips were formed by scraping well so that the wool could be woven,” recalls the artisan.
In her adolescence, Berta ventured into knitting larger garments, such as skirts or bags for notebooks, and at the age of 20 she was already knitting pieces of alpaca and lamb wool for sale, such as collars, ponchos, scarves, children's vests, and baby kangaroos. .
Valuing the job
For Berta, the beauty of her job is that it is related to keeping alive and rescuing the traditions and customs of her people:
“When tourists arrive I always talk to them about the festivities… because each town has its customs. For example, here in Putre we have carnivals in February that last a week, in May many towns celebrate the May crosses, they dress the crosses, they bring the crosses from the hills, then they dress them and after a week they take them to the church and then they take them to the hills... Then comes pachallampe , the potato field, here in November, they also dance beautifully. So I always talk to them about the customs of the town here…”
In the artisan's opinion, knowing the work behind each garment helps tourists value the product, for which she always explains the difference between machine weaving and stick or loom weaving, which takes much longer. Every time she sells a garment, such as an alpaca shawl, Berta details the entire manufacturing process: from cleaning, spinning and twisting the wool to the final product. Finally, he always recommends treating the piece that is purchased with great care: “alpaca fabrics cannot be put in the washing machine, they must be washed by hand, in cold water with a mild soap and rinsed with soft , letting the water drain and then lay it out…” he adds.
One of the aspects that the artisan highlights most about her craft is that each handmade fabric is unique and unrepeatable: “there are different hands, there are some that weave looser, others that weave tighter, so each fabric is unique and cannot be "You can compare it with someone else's," he emphasizes. Their fabrics, for example, are neither very tight nor very loose, “average range,” he explains, laughing, and adds: “the important thing is that the garment looks good, that the wool is clean, and that it has good finishes.” His favorite colors are marengo lead, silver lead and vicuña, which are also the ones his clients like the most. Currently she mainly weaves alpaca wool, which due to its softness and texture is highly valued by tourists, especially Europeans. In this sense, one of the main challenges that Berta faces is to continue the interest in weaving and wearing hand-woven pieces.
Nowadays Berta travels through the highlands of Chile, Peru and Bolivia buying wool or commissioning pieces from other artisans, thus spreading the love for art that she hopes will be passed on to future generations, “I hope that the customs and fabrics will never be lost.” of our people,” she adds hopefully.
*This is the second in a series of articles and research dedicated to traditional crafts, the work of our great collaborator Christine Gleisner @christine_gv