Bringing hope to artisan communities

Over the past year, four remote artisan communities in Peru have been involved in a unique design partnership, bringing together contemporary design and branding with the very high levels of traditional skill found in the villages. This collaboration between Canadian designers, Peruvian designers and accomplished artisans, supported by the Governments of Canada and Peru, tells the stories of the communities, and celebrates their history and traditions through contemporary design collections aimed towards the international market. The initiative is the work of Brand[Trade], a Canadian social enterprise bringing high-end artisanal products to market with the goal of contributing to ongoing, sustainable livelihoods for global artisan communities through branding and design.

In ancient times, the Incan empire’s best weavers were brought to Cusco to serve the royal court; today the weavers of the region are still renowned for their skill and artistry. The Quechua-speaking communities in the Andean hills surrounding the ancient city of Cusco maintain specific weaving vocabularies of “pallays”, design motifs drawn from daily life and honoring the natural world. Weaving on simple back strap looms, the artisans create highly complex warp-faced patterning. Colors come from plant dyes, or in some cases reflect a range of natural colors found in the village’s own flock of sheep. In working with these artisans, measurements were translated into body measures, such as three fingers in width or an arm’s length, in order for the weavers to create consistent sizing and shapes. And, the designers had to work creatively with the loom width of the cloth, as wide as the weavers’ body, to design elegant contemporary pieces.

High in remote villages in the Altiplano near Puno there is a strong tradition of hand knitting using local alpaca fiber. Communities have their own herds of alpacas that they tend in the alpine plains. In addition to caring for the flocks, artisans process and spin the soft fiber, and dye it using local plant dyes, before knitting. These highly skilled women, many of whom are employed by European designers to create their knit collections, work with both the rarer and luxurious Suri alpaca and the more commonly available Huacaya alpaca; the smooth and hollow alpaca fiber traps air and is incredibly light, warm and comfortable to wear. Another specialty of the region with a history stretching back to pre-Hispanic traditions is fine gauze weaving, translated into a range of high-end shawls and scarves. The resulting clean-lined alpaca collection for men and women, called “Qoñi” meaning ‘warm” in Quechua, is quietly luxurious.

The Shipibo Collective collection represents several Amazonian indigenous communities situated along the Ucayali River. Shipibo artisans create song cloths using “kenés” or design elements expressing the Shipibo worldview. Geometric patterns called “ikaros”, are painted on cloth using natural dyes made from tree bark or translated through embroidery and appliqué, each line expressing balance and complex concepts such as ebb and flow. These designs may be transmitted between makers through song. Honoring the complex and sophisticated ideas found within this Shamanistic tradition, the design collaboration focuses on objects that highlight the culture of the Shipibo; jewelry made from local plant seeds, playful objects that incorporate traditional designs and materials, and beautifully crafted pieces for the home such as wall hangings and shaped cushions.  Some pieces, such as a set of combs, allowed community elders to teach younger artisans skills that were in danger of extinction; with renewed interest this important cultural capital is maintained.

In the arid, sandy landscape of Northern Peru, communities of grass weavers renowned for their work with Toquilla grass create exceptionally fine hats and baskets. Working with the design team, the artisans broadened the scale and scope of the objects they make. For example, by weaving over welded metal frames, furniture forms were introduced. Other new uses for traditional skills, such as lighting, large storage containers, tabletop accessories, planters and soft storage were also explored.  And, of course a range of beautiful hats and bags was created to highlight the skills of the community. The grass weavers were eager to try new ways of working, and the project has unleashed a wave of creativity in the community, with the weaving groups experimenting with form and scale to develop new designs and products.

An extraordinary collection of products and new brands is coming from Peru to the world. Brand[Trade] stands with small producer communities whose ancient skills, harmony with nature and handmade economies lead the way to a sustainable future.


Rachel MacHenry and colleagues Munira Amin and Jenny Boucher of Handwork Studio developed the Brand[Trade] Peru design collections. The Peruvian design team included Kristie Arias, Mauricio Navarro and Roxana Castillo and the support of Mincetur, Peru.



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