Alida Vanni

The country of a thousand colours

Arriving in Peru means travelling through time and rediscovering the ancestral traces of the Incas, the Chancas, the Chachapoyas, the Mochicas and the Wari.
Colours of Peru | Alida Vanni, ©2019

This post is also available in: Italiano


Peru is a sum of languages, traditions and cultures that manage to coexist in harmony in the rough geography of the Andean country. A part of these millenary cultures still lives on in the customs of the people who live there.
Coming to Peru means travelling through time and rediscovering the ancestral traces of the Incas, the Chancas, the Chachapoyas, the Mochicas and the Wari.
Peru is particularly known for its colourful handmade textiles, so much so that both the weaving and the fabrics produced are considered an intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

Textile Art in Peru

This textile art is one of the oldest traditions, especially on the Andean chain. Thanks to the discovery of many archaeological finds, it is now possible to date the earliest evidence of textile art as far back as 5,700 BC. In fact, in the absence of written documents as in the case of the pre-Hispanic Andes (i.e. for those peoples who lived before the Spanish conquest), archaeological artefacts are the only informative materials available for reconstructing textile history.
Quechua, still spoken today, was an oral language and textiles were a means of conveying thoughts and impressions. Even today, Andean textiles are omnipresent in the lives of the indigenous people and play an important role in communication, forming part of the powerful Peruvian identity.

Colours of Peru | Alida Vanni, ©2019

Andean textiles

The large, colourful clothes are not only aesthetic and symbolic, but also an indispensable and inseparable tool of Andean daily life. Its use is varied. They are used as blankets, and tablecloths, used by mothers to carry children on their backs, to transport weights and materials, as a cloth to sit on, or more simply to display products at markets.

The motifs that are represented on the fabrics are varied: animals, flowers, lines, rectangles, or magical geometric designs with an extraordinary sense of symmetry. A very ancient tool, the spindle – which is still used in various parts of the world today to transform textile fibres into thread, for example in most inland areas of Sardinia – is used by Andean women with great skill. It is fascinating to see how they master its use by twirling the stick and the alpaca or cotton thread between their fingers. At the age of 5 or 6, girls are already beginning to study manual skills.

Where colours are born in Peru

The materials, techniques, spinning, weaving, and patterns, have been inherited from generation to generation, as has the art of preparing the dye to colour the fibres. To obtain it, specific plants or minerals are used, sometimes even insects. The natives have a deep-rooted knowledge of plants suitable for dyeing: where they grow, when they grow and how to care for them. Indigo, for example, is extracted from Indigofera leaves; red, on the other hand, is from the cactus mealy bug. The leaves are washed, dried, ground and then immersed in boiling water in different quantities. The result will be a combination of a myriad of different nuances.

Today’s globalised market economy produces cheap, machine-made products. This can destroy respect and interest in handmade products, and it is feared that Peru’s prized textile identity may be at risk. Several indigenous communities, especially in the Cuzco area, are fighting to keep their thousand-year-old tradition alive so that the extinction of one of the world’s oldest textile traditions does not occur.

Text & Photos: Alida Vanni 
Original text in Italian - In house translation
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Alida Vanni
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