Where do you go if you have a passion for travel, textile design, embroidery and weaving? Well, if you’re my mother, the answer is naturally Peru.
Though she founded Balmain & Balmain over 30 years ago with my father, my mother Sarah has now reached the point where she also lists “international globetrotter” on her CV. After commenting some time ago that in all seriousness she didn’t see why gap year students should have all the fun, over the past 20 years or so, her life has been largely dedicated to the maps and plans that adorn the walls of her kitchen. She has travelled extensively and literally on all seven continents — including Antarctica. Typically these travels are focused either around wildlife and birds, or – as in the case of her most recent trip to the Andes, native crafts and textiles.
While Dad held the fort at home, Mum hooked up with an American party earlier this month and headed to the verdant terraced landscape of the Cusco Highlands and the salt-licked Atacama desert to explore the region’s rich textile history – a history that the likes of Fermoie have recently been exploiting with their own Aztec-inspired fabrics.
Mum went to the region with Andean Textile Arts, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the people and communities of the Andes in their efforts to preserve and revitalise their textile traditions. Founded in 2000, ATA’s work includes education, cultural revitalisation and, crucially, support for the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), a Peruvian non-profit body.
Well before the end of the twentieth century, the traditional weaving skills and designs of the region were in danger of disappearing from Andean communities. Support from ATA has helped CTTC’s weavers recover or improve these skills, learn to use natural dyes again, and to produce marketable goods. More proficient weavers teach those just learning, and the weaving knowledge of the elders has been recorded, preserved, and passed on. One of Mum’s highlights on the trip was being able to bring home some of the first commercial pieces by one young weaver who couldn’t believe her luck that someone actually wanted to take her work home! It’s hard to say who smiled more.
As Mum’s photos show (she took more than 1,000…), there is an emphasis placed on adults and children being encouraged to wear and take pride in their traditional dress, further driving the motivation to revitalise their traditional textiles.
Accompanied by Quechua master weaver Nilda Callañaupa, Mum was able to learn backstrap loom and drop spindle weaving techniques that she has already passed on to my daughter Isobel. Another highlight of the tour was the opportunity to take part in a natural dye workshop, using the landscape’s materials to create fabulously rich wools in the vibrant, earthy colours of the area.
For Mum, dying wool at altitude in the Andes and being able to experience life, albeit briefly, weaving with this community of artists was certainly a huge step up from the big vats of Dylon that used to stink out our kitchen when we were small. The memories she now has made her punishing schedule and the altitude sickness pale into insignificance.
If you would like to find out more about ATA and the CTTC, do check out the ATA’s excellent website, where you can learn more about the skills and techniques they encourage and find out about the fascinating and life-affirming textile-focused tours that they operate.