Sustainable Peru: The Impact of Textile Design on Profits, People, and the Planet

Peruvians in traditional clothes




Senior Lecturer, Fine Arts

Project Summary

In a span of my 14 days traveling through the Sacred Valley in Cusco, Peru, I visited eight different weaving communities, three alpaca farms, two natural dye workshops, survived two car rides through foggy and winding mountains, consumed a guinea pig, spoke to countless Peruvian weavers, and got lost in Cusco no less than six times.

The objective of my research in Peru was to learn from an indigenous design practice to gain insight on sustainable systems of design. Sustainability is most often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. While most consider sustainability in terms of the environment, there are actually three main pillars: economic, social, and environmental; in other words: profits, people, and planet.

Each community that I visited provided me with different perspectives and insights on how textile weaving affects each community. In terms of profits, textile weaving provides both men and women alike with off-season work. While they are waiting for their alpaca to grow wool, they weave. When it is shearing season, the weavers take time off from weaving to tend to their alpaca. Weaving is work that mothers can partake in while also being able to care for their children. One poncho, which is made of about 200 g of yarn, takes approximately 7 days to weave. This poncho can then be sold for x soles, which can sustain 1 weaver’s cost of living for x amount of days. Weavers report that their highest profit seasons are during the tourist high season in Peru: June to August. Their highest spending season generally falls in March, since this is generally the time during which weavers will purchase all materials necessary to prepare for weaving and selling their products during the high season. Weaving, for many, is a secondary source of income apart from agriculture or tourism.

In a country that is wrought with tourism, the culture of Peru is both celebrated more deeply, and in danger of being shaped by other cultures. Weaving traditions generate an unspoken and unexplored language of Peru in which communities sustain their histories by telling stories in their textiles. Each textile is woven very considerately, with designs and symbols imbued with meaning. Many symbols are the same across communities; however, the meanings change from one location to the next. The symbols are depictions of everything surrounding each community. For example, in a community called Chaullacocha, the weavers use a symbol of huaccontoy, which is a flower that only exists in the mountains of Chaullacocha. While someone from Totora may not know what huaccontoy is, everyone from the Chaullacocha community recognizes the symbol as the flower that grows in their mountains and is good for stomach pain when consumed. When the symbols are woven together, they tell a story about the land that these weavers have lived on for generations. The culture is sustained through this weaving practice that has been passed down from generation to generation.

As far as weaving as a sustainable practice for the planet, my findings were contradictory. While traditional weavers make their dyes from natural resources and minerals without chemicals that harm the earth, these natural resources (one in particular) is running low in the Sacred Valley. Yanali is a tree native to the mountains of the Sacred Valley, and its bark, when peeled off, provides a bright orange pigment that weavers use to dye their wool. When this tree is cut down, it does not grow back, so yanali faces danger of extinction. While there are efforts to conserve this tree, not enough people care about the cause and yanali becomes increasingly tougher to find in the mountains. When this natural orange source is no longer available, weavers must find another source of orange pigment or rely on chemical dyes.

My travels in Peru equipped me with another layer of knowledge that I could not have gained without traveling to 8 different weaving communities and speaking to weavers in person. In my design practice, the best thing I can do to become a better designer is to continuously seek out different perspectives to inform the work that I create. Sustainability is an encapsulating term that I hope to dig deeper into within my own design work. By researching a practice that has existed for centuries, my goal is to create work that mimics and borrows concepts and perspectives from Peruvian textile design in hopes that my design can also have a lasting effect on my community.