Weaving the Past, Present and Future, With Pumaq Wasin

women weavers in Chinchero

A few blocks from the shore of Laguna Piuray in Chinchero, a small group of women from the Pucamarca community gather around a woodfire stove as a herd of guinea pigs rustle in their nooks nearby. We follow the trail of steam emitting from the blackened pots sitting on the stove and our eyes land on a rainbow of naturally dyed yarn, hung over a display table of a few select plants used to achieve the wide color variety.

Wearing traditional Chinchero dress— black skirts (representing Pachamama), red embroidered jackets (strength and blood), and white shirts (purity)— the women usher us from the courtyard area into the kitchen for some coca tea.

We’re in the home of Braulia Puma Choqueconza, where she hosts weekly gatherings of Pumaq Wasin, an association of local women weavers that she founded in 2018. Using backstrap looms and naturally-dyed fibers, this six-person crew is preserving an ancient tradition of Peru that is fading as synthetic and low-quality alternatives fill Sacred Valley textile markets. Through experiential visits, immersive workshops and even homestays, Pumaq Wasin is eager to share their artform.

“We want the world to know our craft, but perhaps more importantly to understand the value of our pieces,” says Braulia. “There is so much dedication behind the process of what we do.”

Braulia, Carmen and Nilda, of Pumaq Wasin

Past: Weaving For A Better Life

“The story of how I came to be where I am is a bit of a sad one,” tells Braulia, cupping her mug of tea. She occasionally glances at her team members, Carmen and Nilda, who have joined us at the kitchen table. “When I was 11 years old my father passed away. This was the 80’s and there was no electricity or water here in Chinchero…not even plastic, so everything was handwoven– clothes, bags, sacks for crops. My mother would weave everything, and I’d often lie under the yarn as she worked.”

In the absence of her father, she began to take notice of her family’s economic needs and the differences between farming families like her own and her classmates who seemingly had more money. While she wore ojotas (traditional rubber sandals) other children had tennis shoes; at lunch, she ate boiled mote as she watched her classmates buy sandwiches and packaged snacks from vendors.

“I asked them without shame how they made money,” recalls Braulia, her eyes glistening with nostalgia. “They told me that they helped their families sell in artesanias [handicraft markets]. It was at that moment that I realized that weaving, something I had learned to do by watching my mother, could improve my quality of life.”

A few years later, at age 16, Braulia became the only member of her community to join an association of artisans in Chinchero. She would remain with that group (even becoming president at one point) until 2015, a departure largely driven by a series of opportunities and experiences that widened her perspective of what an association could become.

Present: Growing As An Association

In 2018, Braulia launched her community’s first association of women weavers, Pumaq Wasin. The animated leader tells that it has been a challenge to convince women in her area to join, as their roles have been typically limited to tending to the children, animals and general housework. Plus, as pointed out by one of the youngest members, Carmen, “…new generations don’t give much importance to weaving, they want to have more modern jobs or move to the city.”

Though the association launched with 15 women, the 2020 pandemic took a toll on tourism and consequently sales, forcing many members to look elsewhere for jobs.

Pumaq Wasin relies completely upon visitors who come to Braulia’s home for workshops in traditional weaving and natural dyes. Homestays are also an option, and will only become more accommodating to the tourist in the near future when a small on-site lodge is completed. They currently do now showcase their high-quality textiles in any shops or hotels; sales are made direct through the association.

A table full of natural pigments and fibers, ready to be hand spun

Nearly all the Pumaq Wasin pieces are done using telar de cintura (backstrap loom), a technique that dates back to the 5th millennium BC. While they prefer high-quality alpaca, the group also uses sheep’s wool as it has been easier to come by since the loss of their alpaca wool provider and the ongoing political unrest in Peru. One of the factors that sets Pumaq Wasin textiles apart from those of large companies is their transparency as well as true artisan skill.

The fibers are all washed, spun and hand-dyed by Pumaq Wasin. Natural elements, such as flowers, leaves and even a moss native to the Sacred Valley, provide the mesmerizing colors that bring woven stories to life.

Future: Modern Expressions in Traditional Form

Braulia wraps the mobile loom around her back and prepares to tie it to a wooden post before she remembers a very important element: chicha de jora. After a few rounds, the ladies of Pumaq Wasin are ready to show off their talents.

Nilda works on a piece utilizing a newly acquired skill, hand embroidery

Carmen sits by the woodfire stove and works on a beanie. Nilda advances on a rare piece of hand embroidery, an uncommon technique in this area of the Sacred Valley. They converse amongst one another in Quechua before we ask about the traditional iconography woven into the designs, which we learn have names such as kuti (an agricultural tool) and chaska (star). Soon after, our attention is quickly brought to Braulia’s current work in progress, full of modern icons.

“Here I’m telling a story of the past, present and future,” she says, moving a wooden rod up and down multi-colored pieces of yarn to finish weaving the roof of a single-storey adobe home, a once standard design found in nearby Chinchero that has since been replaced by concrete buildings. Below the house is a river, which Braulia comments used to pass through the area (not even a trace of it is seen today due to the unusually dry past few months), followed by a cell phone and a car (now the main transportation of goods and crops, instead of the donkey).

Innovative and creative, Braulia is creating contemporary icons to express what she is feeling and seeing in regards to climate change as well as modernization, such as the oncoming Chinchero International Airport.

Braulia weaves contemporary icons into a textile

“I feel mixed emotions but mainly I’m worried,” she comments, when we ask about the airport, reportedly set to cover 450 hectares of fertile land. “Our natural environment is at risk and, simply put, we’re not prepared for the changes to come. Who knows what will happen to communities like ours…There could be positives to come out of it, but we will also lose so much, especially the tranquility that this community is used to.”

It’s a powerful form of expression told in a traditional format, an aesthetic risk taken by Braulia to have the voice of her community heard. Hopefully the greater population will listen before the expected changes are in place.

For an immersive and educational experience focused upon naturally-dyed fibers and backstrap loom weaving, contact Pumaq Wasin via Braulia (+51 984 633 296) or Coco Esteve (+34 669 67 77 80).

All photos: Erick Andia

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