It was at an oxygen-starved altitude of 12,300 ft (3,800 m) that I got my first headaches. Higher than even nearby Cusco, the town of Chinchero in Urubamba province has nights so cold at this time of year that my home-stay host family of Paulino and Vilma Quillahuaman put seven woven blanket layers on the bed. As in most towns in the mountainous parts of Peru, there are very few level areas, which are usually relegated to their Plazas de Armas, all the other narrow streets and lanes at various grades lined with dressed stones or stone steps. Walking even the slightest rise can tax un-acclimated lungs.
Chinchero, or Chincheros, is known for its Sunday market and a colonial church built on an ancient Inca stone foundation that features ten enigmatic trapezoidal niches. Behind the church are incredible Inca terraces and walls.
Chinchero is also home to world-class weavers, including a cooperative, Minka Chinchero, that has as its mission the passing down of the craft to future generations, not an easy task when young people are flocking to the cities. Tourists come from all over the world to see the beautiful woven fabrics and perhaps to purchase one or two.
Central to the tradition is the end-to-end use of natural materials, starting with alpaca wool, down to the plant-based, color-fast dyes. It occurred to me that the art is not a reversion to earth-friendly methods but the way things have been done for a long time. It’s just that we in the 21st century need reminding that there was a way of life before chemistry and industrialization.
My wife and I had a private demonstration of how the entire process is done.
In making their textiles, it begins with wool cleaning. Rather than using chemical detergents, the weaver grates habonera root that saponifies in water and does a remarkable job of cleaning the wool.
Except in one case, plants are used to make dyes, which requires hours of boiling to intensify the colors. Following are the plants and their color extracts.
The range of red colors is extracted from a tiny scale insect, the cochineal, that feeds on prickly pear cactus. When crushed, the cochineal turns a bright scarlet or carmine. Used as lipstick, I was told it was good for a thousand kisses. With a squeeze of lime, the color turns purplish.
Next comes the yarn spinning with a puschca. This task takes years to master. It has gotten so second-nature that the women can do it while carrying on conversations or walking down the street.
The final step, of course, is the weaving, an art that completely evades me, how intricate and precise patterns are imagined and translated onto the work from the weaver’s mind. A typical woven table runner, for example, will take months to complete. All Chinchero woven fabrics are traditionally finished with tubular edging containing multicolored diamond patterns.
Our host family has been intimately involved with the co-op. They warmly took my wife and me into their home, made us part of the family. We talked and shared stories as best as we could, considering the language difficulties that confronted both them and us. It was a brief two nights, but we benefited from our stay because we saw first hand how weaving has become the fabric of their lives.