There are two roads to Lurin, Peru running from the capital Lima. One is the old, two-lane Pan-American high way – a constant ongoing construction zone filled with potholes, traffic, an occasional donkey and the sea of shacks that have emerged throughout the outskirts of the city. The other, the newer Pan Americana, a road crowded by intense commercial through-traffic. At the end of either of these two roads, both wind towards the beaches South of Lima where there’s a small community of artisans in Nuevo Lurin called the Barrio de Artesanos. Peruvians have migrated from around the country to the urban center as small-scale agriculture gives way to opportunity in construction, factories and to the beckoning call of a more secure life braced in access to better education, commerce and healthcare. The Barrio of Artesanos can only be identified by a small brown sign posted on an overpass with a symbol of a weaver.
Behind these doors survives a multitude of traditional techniques reflective of the diverse cultures throughout Peru. The principal craft that one encounters is traditional weaving, using pedal looms, operated by men. Our team developed a long-term relationship with the Apu Hurin Association of Lurin whose members include master weavers, retablo artists and wood workers from the region of Ayacucho in the central Andean region of Peru. The group invited us into the entire process of their weaving, from the building of the looms to the natural dye process, giving their pieces stunning colors and highlights their one-of-a-kind designs that often represent visions or memories of the weavers themselves.
We are in the home of Urbano, President of the Apu Hurin Association. Urbano moved to Lima in the 1980s to look for work and discovered the community of weavers in Lurin where he re-learned the craft of weaving. Also present is his wife, Teodora and Juan Carlos, an associate who is building his new home next door with the hopes of creating a large workshop with Urbano. Wood fires burn under boiling pots of water, filling the semi-covered patio with smoke. Sitting on the dirt floor, Teodora is manually separating natural sheeps wool to be dyed. Next to her, Urbano is working with industrial yarn using a technique known as enmadejar or the spinning of yarn into meter long swathes to be washed and dyed.
There are bunches of plants gathered around the workshop, molle, nogales and chilka. Each will provide a range of distinct colors. Grindong the plants, Juan Carlos explains the variants of colors per plant. Each plant generally has twelve grades of color; nogales, for example, extracts greens and yellows. To control these gradients, they measure the shades in five minute increments – the lightest being submerged in the tinted water for five minutes only, while the darkest they leave for up to 45 minutes.
Urbano explains that using distinct minerals, they’re able to set the colors and prevent the dye from bleeding. He has two, iron and copper sulphates, one a bright blue and the other a turquoise - while appearing to be chemical, these are in fact all natural and were used by the Incas.
The group collects the materials from the local market in Lima called the Parada. In order to buy the appropriate ingredients for their dye process, Urbano and his team must arrive before 9:00 am as these plants are in high-demand and often difficult to find. Similarly, buying the yarn is an arduous event, as naturally spun sheep’s wool must be bought in the rural provinces themselves, where each producer may only produce a half a kilo a day of wool to be sold. This led the group to increasingly utilize industrial yarn, more readily available, and cheaper, but many clients have observed the difference in both color and design that is possible with natural yarns (it is both thinner and dyed easier).
While Teodora and Urbano spin the wool, Juan Carlos submerged the three plants into the boiling water, stirred them and covered them to soak. As each reel of wool is prepared, the three then wet the wool in the sink so the colors can be better absorbed.
“Before, this process was ceremonial always. Even the plants were soaked for up to a week: it was the week of dying, the week of weaving. Everything was a process. Now we do it much quicker, as we do it for money.” Juan Carlos removed the first batch of yarn, gone from natural to a light yellow-green, which he hanged on a wooden rack above the pots to drip, changing colors every second as it dries. “We did not have money before. We did not know what it meant to exchange money – everything was truce or the barter system. If you dyed yarn, you would exchange it for ceramics, if you had potatoes you would exchange those.” In their communities, the process was always passed down through the generations; majority men were in charge of the dying and the weaving, they share. The looms are large and many women cannot reach the pedals or do not have the arm length to meet the demands of the larger tapestries. “But everyone was involved, the whole family! You cannot do this alone,” shared Teodora.
Over the next three hours, six large, steaming swathes of recently dyed yarn gradually filled the drying rack. Nogales has produced shades of green, molle as well. The chilca is a lighter yellow that glows in the afternoon light. Teodora brought coffee to the group and we discussed the great effort exerted for one color, for one rug. These plants are common in the market, while others are a larger investment. Cochinilla, the small bug that produces red dyes and its variants (from purple to blues), for example costs 100 dollars per kilo. This lasts them for up to half a year, and can be used in over 20 tapestries. The group is working on creating inventory of colors as well as color cards to be able to share the availability and variations to potential clients.
Weaving is one small offering tucked behind unmarked doors, in back alleyways and down dirt roads. The crafts featured range from weaving to ceramics to retablos (traditional wooden collages often depicting scenes of ceremony or daily life); gourds, woodwork, paintings are a few of the rich cultural techniques represented in this zone where many associations and small companies have formed to continue the legacy of their craft in an urban environment.