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Quechua textiles

Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez:
Reviving Quechua textiles in Peru

Meet Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, founder of the Centre for Traditional Textiles of Cusco and champion of Quechua textiles. In this episode of Radio Ock Pop Tok, she recalls her childhood spent herding sheep and shares thoughts on what lies ahead for Quechua textiles and the indiegnous peoples of the Peruvian Andes. A creative innovator, Nilda believes the path to a sustainable future lies begins with a journey to the past.
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Meet Nilda, A Quechua Weaver in the Peruvian Andes

[1:52 minutes]

When Nilda was a young girl herding sheep in the Andean highlands of Peru, she fell in love with spinning and weaving. So much so that she would fall asleep dreaming about it. In 1996, Nilda galvanised other Quechua weavers in her community and together they created the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

The women weavers of this small, yet powerful collective, are reviving Quechua textiles and ancient Andean weaving traditions. And, she did all this without losing sight of her culture. Innovation, as she said a few minutes ago, must come from a strong foundation.

Nilda is humble, quiet, reflective and immeasurably empathetic. However, in her petite frame, she embodies the passion and determination of a revolutionary. We begin the episode in Cusco, where Nilda begins the conversation with discussing why she organises a tinkuy. The conversation leads to the history of discrimination and alientation experienced by Quechua communities, and why Nilda dedicated herself to restoring the traditions of her Quechua culture.

Who are the Quechua?

[6:40 minutes]

The Quechua have weathered a lot through history.

For most modern travellers, the road to Machu Picchu begins at Cusco. As the road winds into the Andean highlands, it passes through the tiny hamlet of Chinchero. This is Quechua country.  Quechua means “the people”, and they are the indeginous people of South America. It’s believed they originated in Peru, although various Quechua communities also live in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Columbia. Over time, they’ve developed different linguistic and regional differences, and they still share much in common.

The Quechua are accomplished farmers and shepherds. The Quechua have also advanced weaving in remarkable ways. Their repertoire includes making fabrics for everyday and ceremonial wear, for functional uses like bags and sacks, and of course refined garments for emperors and noblemen. Their triple, quadruple wefts and 600 thread count textiles date back to pre-Columbian times, a staggering accomplishment .. considering these days we can’t achieve this without machinery.

The Quechua have weathered a lot through history. They managed to get through centuries of warring Inca kings and assorted natural and man made catastrophes. But nothing prepared them for the arrival of Pizzaro and the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. The colonists forced the production of new crops, shaking up the region’s food security. And, they subjected the indigenous Quechua to extreme racism and alienation. This continued well into the twentieth century.

As Nilda was coming of age, she saw her culture falling apart. Very few people wore traditional clothing, weaving traditions were not being passed down, young people were increasingly seduced by the dubious promise of “progress’ in big cities. And now, with travellers filing in to see Machu Picchu, there’s talk of an airport being built in Chinchero. Change is coming, it’s inevitable, Nilda says. It’s how Nilda navigates these changes that we find so inspiring.

Learning to weave Quechua textiles

[17:48 minutes]

The way forward for my community is me staying close to my roots.

Nilda will tell you that she could not have accomplished her word without the women who inspired and helped her. Firstly, there’s her mother, who introduced her to weaving. Next, friendship with Doña Sebastian, shepherdess, a weaver, and a single mother. You’ll hear more about Dona Sebastian shortly. — Nilda also benefited from a fortuitous friendship with Chris and Ed Franquemont, two American anthropologists who were living and studying Quechua textiles in the 1970s. Nilda was Chris Franquemont’s weaving teacher, and together they wrote books on traditional Andean techniques and collected stories of Andean master weavers.

And there’s the women of Chinchero and the 10 communities that work with the CTTC framework. Nilda leads the way, but she’s the first to tell you that being with her community of weavers is her greatest inspiration and joy.

The power of community

[1:23 minutes]

I feel blessed.

In case you missed what Nilda says at the end, she says, “I feel blessed.” Nilda’s work reflects her conviction: The way forward for her community is my staying close to their roots. Her journey continues and you can follow along by visiting CTTC’s website, provided in the description of this episode. If your travels lead you to Peru, please go see the center in Cusco and Chinchero.

Radio Ock Pop Tok is a project of Ock Pop Tok. Laos is home to over 49 officially recognised ethnic groups, and Ock Pop Tok works with most of them through our Village Weavers Project. Our design collaborations with the weavers of Laos can be found throughout OPT’s online shop.

Join Ock Pop Tok’s mailing list to stay up to date on our projects and news.

About Nilda & CTTC.

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