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Jessica Joy

Knitwear designer, teacher and author

While I dust the cob­webs from the cor­ners of this blog I need to share with you my where­abouts for most of Octo­ber. It’ll be fun, there are pic­tures! I’ve been on the most incred­i­ble (much needed) hol­i­day to… PERU. I hon­estly can’t say enough good things about this beau­ti­ful coun­try. It’s vibrant, friendly, his­tor­i­cal and breath­tak­ing; there are so many eco-systems and extremes of nature in its rel­a­tively small area.

Aside from vis­it­ing all the cities and tourist attrac­tions one of the biggest high­lights, for me, was doing a ‘home­s­tay’. A lot like it sounds, you go to a local vil­lage and spend a day and night expe­ri­enc­ing real life with the locals… and it just so hap­pens that the com­mu­nity we stayed with sus­tains itself using tex­tiles and agri­cul­ture — this meant yarn… and knit­ting… and alpaca’s!

My lovely fam­ily con­sisted of Mama Theodora, Matthew and their eldest daugh­ter, Nancy. After wel­com­ing us with lilly flow­ers and a huge two course lunch we were dressed up in their every­day attire and put to work plough­ing a field. Their lives revolve around, and rely upon, the crops that they grow so it was a huge plea­sure to help them and repay their kind­ness in this way.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, after lots more food, danc­ing and music, we were given a demon­stra­tion of their knit­ting and weav­ing process; from the Alpaca and Llama’s wan­der­ing around the main square, through the spin­ning and dying, to the fin­ished prod­uct. The wool is spun still unwashed from the ani­mal as this makes it eas­ier to work with.

The dying aspect was the most impres­sive; I couldn’t believe the vivid colour yarns hang­ing to dry were all pro­duced from local plants and nat­ural min­er­als. The darker green shades are achieved by boil­ing the spun yarn in a cook­ing pot with Euca­lyp­tus leaves.

The inten­sity of colour is deter­mined by how long the yarn is left to steep and the colour is then set and yarn washed by adding crushed rose quartz and lime juice to the mixture.

This amaz­ing mus­tard colour comes from a small tree indige­nous to the sur­round­ing val­ley called Qolle. The flow­ers are used in com­bi­na­tion with salt and lime juice to pro­duce the vivid yel­low. I’m not sure why but appar­ently sheep’s wool pro­duces the bright­est yel­low. Maybe it has some­thing to do with the oil con­tent of the wool?

The pinks and reds are pro­duced in a slightly dif­fer­ent way. Peru is well known for the dye pro­duced from a small par­a­site that thrives on the leaves of cacti. The Cochineal par­a­site is a small white insect which is har­vested from the plant and dried. When ground up it pro­duces a bright red, which is used most widely in lip­stick colour­ing as a nat­ural alternative.

The dif­fer­ent shades are pro­duced by com­bin­ing salt and lime juice again, allow­ing any­thing from a bright orange to a deep pur­ple depend­ing on the yarn and size of batch.

The women are taught to knit, cro­chet and weave from a young age by their moth­ers, usu­ally around 9 or 10. They par­tic­i­pate in mar­kets to sell their wares to tourists and pro­vide the vil­lage with clothes and blan­kets. Any one takes up to a month to weave, using Alpaca bone to tighten the threads on the loom.

Aren’t they incred­i­ble? Each fam­ily has to spin and dye their own stash; I couldn’t con­trol my excite­ment and bought a 100g ball of Alpaca died with the cochineal par­a­site from my host, Nancy. I’m already think­ing up some­thing spe­cial to do with it that will hope­fully involve a dona­tion back to the com­mu­nity. Watch this space if you’d like to be involved!

I’ll leave you with my other most tri­umphant moment on the trip. Con­cur­ring Dead Woman’s Pass, the high­est point on the Inca Trail at 4600m after an 800m ver­ti­cal climb! God damn, that was hard work!

  1. […] may remem­ber that towards the end of last year I men­tioned want­ing to do some­thing spe­cial with the hand­made yarn that I acquired on my trav­els across Peru. […]

  2. Shannon 2 February 2013, 4:57 am

    Thank you Jes­sica for the beau­ti­ful images and descrip­tion of your expe­ri­ence. I will be trav­el­ing to Cusco/Sacred Val­ley next month and really look­ing for­ward to vis­it­ing the mar­kets. Since the last time I was in Peru Ama­zon a few years ago, I was so inspired, I have cre­ated an online Fair Trade Store (site will be up soon) and I will be look­ing for alpaca prod­ucts from local women. Would you sug­gest any one area in par­tic­u­lar? i would like to find a group of women to knit a sim­ple pon­cho design for my col­lec­tion and pro­vide con­sisted work and pay for them, any sug­ges­tions would help. Thank you so much, Shan­non Logan-BC, Canada

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