A First Look At Something Huge

It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll dive right in. Something arrived in the mail last month, packed in an Interweave envelope and bent in half (argh!) in my mailbox. I knew right away what it had to be and I was torn between opening it on the spot in the chill at the end of the driveway, and getting back in the truck and driving up to the house to take it inside where I could really have a look at it. I’m a smart girl sometimes, so I chose the latter.

So let me backtrack a little now. Well, a lot. It was the very start of 1977, very early in the morning, and I remember the airplane landing after it seemed like we’d been traveling forever. My mother carried my baby sister down the steps and I followed her with my father riding herd behind me. My ears popped, then swelled again. The world tilted funny. A long long way away across the tarmac there were pillars and a building. The air smelled like dust and nothingness and live growing things. People were talking and I don’t remember much about all of that; I just remember I walked, dizzily, faint, feeling like my feet didn’t quite touch the ground, eyes focused on one of those pillars, till I reached out a hand to steady myself on it, and puked my guts out, sobbing, choking, and short of breath.

Room 4, Hostal Loreto
I know that days passed after that, but I don’t remember them much, except for a hotel room with an Inca wall in it, the taste of chicken broth with noodles and cilantro, simple bread, and Coca-Cola. Eventually, I remember sitting in the courtyard of the Hostal Loreto, whitewashed walls and cobblestones and geraniums, and the sounds outside of a city speaking languages I didn’t know — car horns, street vendors hawking their wares in singsong refrains that would become very, very familiar to me in time, but which then were new and alien. The sun was so very, very bright, clear, yet chill; I was so hungry and so tired all at once, and the sorroche or extreme altitude sickness was fading. A man was talking with my parents in Spanish. “Sunday, market day, we’ll go,” my father translated for my benefit. “My birthday!” I said gleefully, and the man asked me in English how old I’d be. “Five,” I said proudly.

That man came back to take us to our destination. “For your birthday,” he said, “I brought you earrings,” and gave me a pair of dangly, jingly, silver things. “You don’t have pierced ears!” he said, then turned to my mother, “You haven’t pierced her ears!” Laughing, my mother affirmed this, and thanked the man, who insisted she keep the earrings for when I could wear them. And then we were off.

We were, it turned out, bound to see the town of Chinchero for the first time. “If we like this town, maybe that’s where we’ll live,” my mother explained. “We’ll like it!” I insisted. “It’s my birthday.”

In retrospect it all should have seemed more foreign than it did. Perhaps if I had been old enough to know what foreign was… but I guess I wasn’t. There were lots of kids, and lots and lots of them had no shoes. In fact, neither did lots of grownups. But some people had great shoes made out of rubber, and I envied them those incredibly cool shoes. There was a marketplace filled with people, a constant underlying murmur punctuated by occasional braying donkeys, someone yelling at a scruffy dog, children shrieking and running around. Fish was frying and I stepped on a mango peel in the cobblestone walk. The sky was perfect blue and I wanted to run and run and run with the other kids but I was tired just from walking.

Chinchero, 2005

We were the only gringos around. People pointed, talked amongst themselves, ran up and touched my hair — which in those days was as blonde as blonde can be. My parents were asking what seemed like everyone in the market about some piece of weaving; people were laughing. When it was time to eat, we walked away from the hubbub a while, out into the nearby ruins, and sat on a large, carved-up boulder I later learned was called the Pumaqaqa. My father opened cans of tuna with his pocket knife, and we feasted on tuna sandwiches made on the small, flat round bread that was a Peruvian country staple. We washed it down with Coca-Cola and had watermelon for dessert, and back we went to the market.

At some point that afternoon, the tone of things changed. My parents were talking to a Big Girl (because that’s how you see the world when you’re a girl who’s just turned five: there are grownups, and there are also Big Girls, you know? Impressive, awe-inspiring Big Girls) and then we went with her to her house, and a field just above her family’s courtyard. She was showing something to my parents about some weaving thing, and they were intently watching and listening and asking questions, but honestly, I didn’t care that much because she did have lots of sisters and nieces and several were about my age, so we played tag until it got dark and we had to go.

Our house, only in 2005

The next thing I knew, we’d moved into the upstairs of a house right on the plaza where the Sunday markets happened, a house that belonged to the town. My parents were learning weaving stuff, lots from that same Big Girl, whose name was Nilda. She and her family lived down the hill. The lady across the street came and got me one morning and sent me out with Sabina, the Big Girl who lived down the street, to learn to tend to the sheep, and after that, I didn’t see my parents as much because I was out with the girls tending sheep all day every day. People would come get my father and whisk him away in a swirl of men, out to work in the fields, and he’d stagger home at night under the weight of enormous sacks of potatoes. The whole town would come check on us and make sure we were eating and knew what to do with potatoes and things like that. I showed some kids how to color with crayons, eventually breaking my crayons in pieces so I could give them away. Kids gave me yarn, old ladies gave me scrap wool and a spindle. Bigger girls made small warps, tied them around my waist and nailed the other end into the dirt, then stuck my hands in the yarn of it all, earnestly, assuming I knew what this was, and why, and that I’d learn it.

One day my parents sent me to go buy matches from the store around the corner. They sent me with an empty box of matches, and enough money for them, and told me the word: fosforos.

“Fosforos,” I repeated, “fosforos, fosforos, fosforos.” All the way to the store, and then I walked in, and the Big Girl who was obviously in charge said something, I didn’t know what, and I went to say “Fosforos,” but I couldn’t remember the word, suddenly. I held up the box. “Inti?” she asked, looking at the picture of the sun, also the brand name for the matches. I shook my head. That wasn’t it. We went on and on. More of her family came in. I kept showing the box and trying to think of the word. Then finally, the girl said, “Fosforos?” I brightened right up, the transaction was complete, I ran home with the matches, and my parents cooked dinner on the Primus stove.

A few nights later I woke up in the middle of the night when some men walked outside, talking loudly. What woke me up wasn’t the men talking — it was the realization, in my sleep, that I understood every word they were saying, and it was in Quechua. From then on, I spoke Spanish and Quechua too.

I had the run of the town, which really, all the kids did, so long as they were also getting their work done. Mind you, the adults and Big Girls of the town also had full say to scold, discipline, and school any kid found out and about. I ran with the girls aged 5-10, and we looked up to the girls aged 10-adult, and we answered to them too, and the one Big Girl that everybody knew was the Big Girl, the one who everyone looked up to and stood in awe of, was that one named Nilda that we met on my birthday.

“Nilda still goes to school,” someone would say. “I think I’ll do that, like Nilda.”

“You will not,” another little girl would scoff. “She’s the only girl that does. Girls have work to do and can’t waste time in school.”

“Nilda’s not wasting time. Plus she does everything.”

“Yeah well that’s her. She can do that. It’s just crazy.”

We grew up that way. And the amazing Nilda would do all manner of amazing things. She was the one we copied tactics from when we were selling our little weavings to tourists. We’d go to her as often as not to get tricky weaving questions refereed, things that the grown women would have answered more brusquely. She’d call us all waylakas and we’d all work harder. She was our role model.

Jump now to about 1981. My family was back in New Hampshire, and winter was settling in, and I got out of going to school for a whole week! What a great deal! What was the occasion? Nilda was coming to the US, and staying with us for a bit, and we were all going to New York City so she could do some demonstrations and lectures. I wondered what she’d think of the US. I’d answered questions for everyone in Chinchero, lots and lots — but it’s not the same as being there, just like you couldn’t explain Peru to people who’d never been there. I thought it was so cool that we were going to get to show someone from Peru around the US a little bit. It was like totally separate parts of my life coming together. It seemed fair.

I was old enough, worldly enough, by then to realize how vast the gulf was between the worlds in which I’d lived. I’d seen gringos in the Andes completely fail to cope. I’d met people in the US who couldn’t envision it, had never heard of Peru. I’d known people from the country in Peru who tried to go to the city and it didn’t work out. There were gaping chasms between the vast gulfs separating my worlds. What would Nilda think of November in New England, the poptop soda can, the fact that literally everybody has plumbing and electricity and cars?

Well… I think she blinked a couple of times, took it all in, and in a totally unassuming way, gave these lectures and presentations at the Smithsonian with the same ease and presence she commanded anywhere in the rural Andes. In one breath, she’d tell me in Quechua to fix a loose braid in her hair while she demonstrated backstrap weaving, and explained things in English to people who’d come to see her at a gallery.

Back in Peru in 1982, my peer group was in full production mode weaving things to sell to tourists. There were lots more tourists now than there had been five years earlier, and also, sometimes we’d all go in to Cusco and sell stuff there. We quickly realized we could sell stuff at a certain price point far faster than we could make it; and so we solved that problem by simplifying designs, using more plain weave, and ultimately, buying machine-spun Dralon synthetic baby yarn, then overplying it to add sufficient plying twist to make it stand up to weaving, and using that instead of handspun. The grown women and bigger girls scoffed at us, called us waylaka, and shamed us into learning the more advanced patterns regardless. Some girls just stopped at the tourist production level though. Traditional production for traditional reasons was falling out of favor. But you knew you couldn’t show those tourist goods to Nilda and expect her not to point out what was wrong with them in ways that really made you think — think about how you marketed them to the tourists, how you made them, the time you spent on what parts of production, everything.

Skip now to 1985-86, a time we lived high on the hog in Peru, in a posh apartment in Cusco, after so many of the roads had been paved. I think that was right after Nilda finished up at the University there, and she was in the city too. City life was different from country life in Chinchero; all Spanish, not so indigenous, everything that entails, which is far too much to get into just yet, but believe me, it’s a big deal. There, too, was Nilda, gracefully and easily hanging yet another whole scene, managing all sorts of projects for tourism enterprises, getting everybody else around her to do all manner of things, and making it look easy.

Carolina Concha's Hands/><br />
Or there’s 1990. Nilda came to the US again, this time for longer. She’d been multiple other times. I worked with her that summer on demonstrations that she did, and we spent lots of time together weaving, teaching, demonstrating. She forced me to tackle my stack of unfinished objects, and finish them, deriding me nonstop for my waylaka ways, asking me to simply consider what my godmother would think if she were still alive, and who among my peer group back in Chinchero did she think I’d tell first, and look, she’d set up 31 warps and I’d only done 2 dozen, was I not even trying? She’d never stop smiling, the ribbing was always good natured, it was a dose of Chinchero womanhood, in jeans and t-shirts in a conference room at an American art museum.</p>
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Or maybe 2002, when I helped my father with a textile tour to Peru. It was the first time I saw the growing Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, founded by Nilda, and visited the towns where she was working her magic. One night I sat with her in a tent as the members of the tour settled down for the night. It was a bitter cold night and we were drinking tea to keep it at bay. “So your father’s diagnosis is serious, isn’t it?” she asked me. “Very,” I said, “You know, his doctors told him that other than his scheduled treatment, he should continue living his normal life, but then they really honestly weren’t prepared for what his normal life is like.” She made me more tea and we talked about cancer, out on a plain beneath a glacier two days travel from anything like the facilities my father would need if something unexpected happened.

A few nights later, back in the city, we all had a special dinner at a top-notch upscale restaurant run by friends of Nilda’s. My father’s back was hurting badly. “If I can’t go to Pitumarca,” he told me, “I’ll stay in Cusco, and you’ve got to do the tour stuff. But while you’re there, there’s a weaving they only do there, and it’s really hard, and you should learn it quick while you can.” I agreed, we headed off, and in the whirlwind of it all I asked Nilda what this weaving my father had mentioned might be called. “Palmay Ramos,” she said, “there should be someone at the CTTC building today who knows it.” Once there, it took some asking around, and eventually, one woman surfaced, out of the handful of Pitumarca women still doing Palmay Ramos. I asked her to teach me to do it, and she stopped for a moment and looked at me, pure Gringa, jeans and steel-toed boots and whatnot, but with a country girl’s hat and a weaving needle stuck in it.

“No,” she said. “It’s too hard.”

“Well, teach me,” I said. I’d done this dance before. She’d have said that to anybody, most likely — but with someone visibly an Andean weaver, she’d expect them to debate and argue and wheedle the teaching out of her. So I started doing just that. We went back and forth a few times, till she laughed, and walked away — walked up to Nilda, the powerhouse woman behind this multi-town weaving empire of which she was a part, and said, “Can you believe this gringa wants me to teach her Palmay Ramos? Does she think she can learn it or something? I mean, can she weave?”

“Yes,” said Nilda, looking at me sidelong, “she weaves okay.”

There is no taller praise. And Palmay Ramos is weaver’s madness, best left for another discussion.

Or there’s 2004. I was at my computer job on Page Mill Road in Silicon Valley when my phone rang. “Hey, it’s Nilda,” she said. “Meet me for lunch at the Stanford alumni center!” She was there, at a conference dealing with, I don’t know, philanthropy and third world economic development or something, with her husband and two sons in tow. We ate, and talked about lots of things, and when I left I got pulled over for speeding on my way to a parent-teacher conference at my son’s school. Not two weeks later when my father died, Nilda organized memorials for him back in Peru.

In 2005, CTTC’s new building opened, with a museum and a shop and class facilities — a building located on the grounds of the Qoricancha, the site which is perhaps the most egregiously-pillaged site in the history of the conquest of Peru, from which tons and tons (literally) of gold were stolen. CTTC’s building there is the first time since 1535 that indigenous Peruvians have owned any part of that land. And when it opened, the city of Cusco closed off part of the main street of Avenida Sol, a street where I remember, in my childhood, seeing city men drag and kick old indigenous women off the sidewalk and into the street, spitting on them, saying “Sidewalk’s for people, not indigenous dogs!” They closed it off — and weavers from all the CTTC communities came to town, in indigenous dress, and had an indigenous party with a Quechua-speaking master of ceremonies.

I cried my eyes out. This is the first time I’ve written of it; it was that emotional. In my life, to have seen such change — and to know that it happened because of Nilda.

Last year she called me up from Toronto, at the Textile Society of America meeting. Unable to keep laughter from her voice, she said, “They tell me you call yourself a spinner now!” I verified this shockingly humorous statement — me, a spinner.

I do, when faced with quandaries dealing with textiles, business, economies, family, culture, and identity, ask myself “Well, what would Nilda say?” I’m a woman who has struggled with her sense of self, and lived with parts of me in several worlds, wondering how to integrate them all and be who I am without constant existential crisis. And in general, I think I do a pretty good job. But if you want to see someone who makes it all look easy and who makes me look like I never achieve anything and just know a little tiny bit about textiles, well, go meet Nilda. Go see the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

And that, folks, is where I’m going with this whole long thing. I’ve been saying “Meet Nilda, and go see CTTC” for years now — but that’s prohibitive for some folks, obviously. Not everyone can go to Peru and see the textiles, meet the weavers, learn about their cultural aspects, and so on. But you could see what I saw in my mailbox:

Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez!

Nilda has written a book! I knew she was doing it; first of all it’s something we’ve all talked about for ages, and second of all, being on the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts, the not-for-profit which sponsors and assists CTTC, I hear a thing or two about what she’s up to on a pretty regular basis. Third, at the 2007 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat, I met Linda Ligon, founder of Interweave Press, who had but recently finished editing the book. And then fourth, I’d heard from a limited number of people who’d seen it in its just-pre-press stages, telling me they liked it quite a bit. Truly, I was beyond eager to see it. And now I have.

For me, of course, it is impossible to detach the extremely personal closeness I have to the subject, and give only an unemotional review of this book. It’s impossible for me to tell you about it, without telling you all the things I just have, simply to let you know why this is so huge and momentous, even though it’s something so small and ordinary that the postal carrier can bend it in half and cram it in my mailbox.

This book is a triumph for Nilda, for CTTC, for Chinchero, for all of our families. It is glossy and beautiful and approachable and real and perhaps it is only the tip of the iceberg but it’s there, it’s really there, this 96 page opus that can take you straight to a world where knowing of textiles is like literacy, a world where the things we yarn dorks feel drawn to are known to be essential and urgent, a world which could so easily have perished entirely a decade or two ago, and didn’t. Didn’t, because of Nilda and a small number of other committed people, who just made the world change a little here, a little there, until now, when a tiny and wizened old indigenous woman can stand barefoot drinking chicha at a gala on once-conquered terrain, beside city folk who she now out-earns with her traditional skills — skills that a decade or so ago, she thought she’d take to her grave and they’d be gone forever.

This book is not a how-to guide or instruction manual. It’s not a simple buyer’s guide or catalog. It’s not an ethnography or a memoir. It’s a little bit of all of those things. It’s a trip to meet Nilda and see CTTC and visit the world of the Andean weaver (who is by very nature also a spinner, knitter, and anything-involving-textiles-er). And if all of that weren’t enough to recommend it, there’s the fact that the profits all go to support CTTC. I just don’t know what else I can say, except to congratulate Nilda on its publication, thank everyone Interweave for bringing it to press, and hop up and down hollering “OH MY GOD YOU WANT THIS BOOK!” to everyone I know with any interest in yarn, the Andes, grassroots development, or social change. Go! Find the book! Buy it if you can, ask your library for it if you can’t, and if you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

The photos interspersed throughout are all from 2005; I’m still looking for, and digitizing, older ones, but it didn’t seem right to have no photos. Most of these are from my trip to Peru for the CTTC building’s dedication and opening ceremony.