As a volunteer at Awamaki, I’m expected to work a few hours a week in the fair trade shop here in Ollanta. Every time the shop’s empty or the internet stick is being extra grumpy I find myself staring dreamily at one specific wall of textiles we sell: the Sanco family wall. Daniel is our go-to master dyer and Leonarda, his wife, is an incredibly talented weaver. I sit and I lose myself in the intricate designs, the bright colors and the symbolism of the pallay (iconography) sighing over the fact that I’ll never own one and will have to settle for a cheap knock off.
This weekend I had the opportunity to go on Awamaki’s dye workshop and spend 4 days with Daniel and his family. We talked weaving, dying, bees, and life in general. I’ve never been big on knitting or weaving (or dying for that matter) but this was a truly special experience in my life. After 4 incredible days of living at their home in the cloud forest of Peru I also came away as the proud owner of not one, but two (!), of the Sanco family weavings. Que bueno!
We left Ollanta at 4:30 in the morning and about 6 hours and 3,000 vertical feet later we arrived in the tiny and quaint pueblito of Parabamba. Parabamba sits at almost 13,000 ft in the cloud forest of Peru. It’s perched on a mountainside and the walls around you are either plunging thousands of feet to the river below or rising up only to disappear into the clouds the area is so aptly named for. Animals of all shapes, sizes and varieties wander the streets, mingling with smiling adults and shy children. Walking back from the market one morning I heard a sharp, “fuera!(out!)” from inside a home and watched in amusement as a dog ran out the door followed by 2 cats and then an entire gaggle of chickens and roosters. We went to sleep when the sun did and woke up sometimes to the murmuring of people outside the house or the incessant crowing of roosters, determined to alert us that the day had in fact arrived. Every day was filled with good food, good company, foraging for materials, bubbling, leaf-filled dye pots or an excursion into the surrounding landscape. It was great. Now, all I have to do is learn how to knit the kilos and kilos of dyed fiber I have.
And now for a quick overview of the natural dying process:
1. Collect natural dye materials which can range from leaves to berries to beetles
2. Grind said material if necessary
3. Boil a huge pot of water and throw the dye in
4. Add your fiber. Alpaca takes longer to soak up colors than sheep so alpaca must be put in before the sheep
5. Let it cook. The longer the cooking time, the deeper the color
6. Add your mordent if necessary. Mordents, such as citric acid, iron oxide, copper, can both change the color as well as fix the color. The amount of mordent you add can completely change the color.
7. When the fiber is the color you want it to be, use sticks to pull it out of the hot water and place in bucket to cool
8. Truck a whole bunch of finished fiber up the hill to the stream where you wash out the yarn.
9. Place the yarn in a sunny spot and let dry.
10. Ball the yarn and get to knitting! Or weaving.
The first natural material we used was called cochineal. It’s a beetle. The cochineal beetle can make up to 12 different colors ranging from deep purples to blues to orange-reds. Its versatility lies in its PH which is 7, or neutral. Because it’s neutral the spectrum of mordents you can add to alter the color is nearly unlimited, making the cochineal beetle invaluable to natural dyers. The beetle lives on the prickly pear cactus and feeds on a specific mold that grows on that cactus. It takes nearly 70,000 little beetles to dye 1 kilo of yarn. While I’ve never been to a cochineal beetle farm I like to imagine acres and acres of fungus covered cacti just crawling with happy little beetles.
We also used Kinsicuchu, a fungus that grows on a plant. The cool thing about Kinsicuchu is that the PH of the plant counters the PH of the fungus meaning you don’t need to use a mordent in order to fix the color.
We also used the bark of the yanalee tree to make beautiful, rich yellows. The bark of the yanalee tree looks like fire when you harvest it. Also, the Sanco family had an adorable cat named yanali and I might just steal that name for some future pet of my own
We also used a dark berry called Moti Moti to make browns
And a leaf called Chilka to make all sorts of fun green colors. We wandered into the cloud forest to collect a huge bag of chilka leaves. The best leaves are the ones that look slightly rotten. Leaves that are green on the outside but which have a yellow hue when flipped are the best for dying and impart the most color into the bath.
We also go to do all sorts of fun things around Parabamba. Mieke and I went for a beautiful run at 13,000 ft (never thought I’d say that!) and Joey, Mieke and I even woke up early enough one morning to do some yoga while looking out over the valley.
One day we got to walk down to Daniel’s chakra to see the vegetables he grows, the dye plants he has and the apiary he keeps. Every morning we were treated to fresh honey from his bees and while breakfast was always delicious sometimes I wished I could find a wooden honey dipper and just sit in the corner happily munching honey until I could munch no more. Alas, that remains a dream.
Some days we just got to hang out in the house and watch the magic happen. The weaving magic.
And at the end of the day, we got to relax our tired bones to this
And of course, in typical Peruvian fashion, we took a short walk to some pre-Incan ruins that just happen to sit on the hillside above Parabamba.
And finally…the moment you’ve all been waiting for…. my rainbow of yarn!
Also, this happened.