Much as they did almost 4,000 years ago, Peruvian weavers still blend the fine fibers of llamas and alpacas with rich natural dyes to create a dazzling array of vibrant geometric designs.
Cusco’s Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (Avenida Sol 603) is an excellent place to start learning about the craft of textile weaving. The center offers a number of live demonstrations, as well as a small but informative museum, and ensures that 70 percent of all sales go directly to local artisans. Roughly halfway to Pisac from Cusco, Awana Kancha (Km. 23 Cusco-Pisac Highway) might first appear like a certifiable tourist trap, replete with a llama petting zoo, but the wares we found here were the finest on our trip, including tapestries and blankets, as well as ceramics and wood carvings from 14 surrounding communities. Of particular note were the bright Incan tapestries (a 2-by-3-foot piece cost about $400).
The famous market in the town of Pisac is also well worth the effort, if only to see the Quechua women in their distinctive bombins, or bowler hats, plying fruits, vegetables and brilliant dyes. While many of the textiles here are obviously mass-produced, we found an excellent batch of chullos, or distinctive ear-flapped woolen hats, decorated with lively zoomorphic shapes and selling for $10 each, and bought several for children back home. Note that particularly bright colors generally indicate commercial dyes and machine processing, while our chullos had the rich, deep shades of the naturally dyed fiber that we saw earlier at Awana Kancha. The market is held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, but the Sunday market can be quite crowded.
On Lake Titicaca’s Taquile Island, the men, rather than the women, are celebrated for their knitting skills, particularly with regard to their distinctive fez-like hats and fetching cummerbund-like belts. Indeed, before a man can marry, he must submit a hat to his prospective father-in-law for careful inspection! As much as we admired the hats, we couldn’t quite picture ourselves sporting one in public, but we did find several table runners that had to be purchased (the villagers generally present these items on large blankets in front of their homes).
And finally, on Lake Titicaca’s marvelous Uros floating islands, the women create extraordinary embroidered tapestries that feature designs derived from ancient Andean myths. A relatively small tapestry takes three or four months to complete, and a 3-by-5-foot piece sells for a remarkable $50. To ensure that the tapestry is authentic, look on the back side for telltale knots in the thread— machine-made textiles don’t have them.
A Few Notes on Alpaca
Shopping for alpaca-fiber garments in Peru can be dicey - sales pitches claiming “baby alpaca” can often be translated as “maybe alpaca.” Here are a few notes on the grades of alpaca fiber, and some Cusco shopping recommendations.
The highest grade of fiber is called “royal alpaca,” and is extremely rare. The next grade is “baby alpaca,” and is a fine, luxurious product. The next grade, “superfine,” is a bit coarser than baby alpaca but is the most common, and finally, the lowest grade is “adult alpaca,” but it is unlikely that you will find clothing labeled as such.
Men will probably find sweaters most appealing, and they come in a variety of solid and patterned styles. For women, adaptations of the traditional Peruvian poncho make a dramatic accessory. For sweaters, expect to find prices in the $300 range, and ponchos are from $300 to $500. Prices can vary widely, depending on the style.
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