Whether it’s a flavor of ice cream served in La Plaza Mayor, the name of a massage offered in a boutique hotel or an overheard conversation between a tour guide and group, the word “sacred” is trending in Cusco. Fair enough — Cusco lies in the middle of the Sacred Valley, an area most well known as the home of Machu Picchu.

During my time in the ancient metropolis surrounded by mountains, the overly used word was making my reaction to the majesty of the city feel more like a forced spiritual experience than any true interconnection.

Most travelers who make their way to Cusco are here only for a day or two before or after visiting Machu Picchu, a place that upon first sight leaves one in awe of human potential. Although the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu will floor its viewers, during my time based in Cusco, I discovered that a broader connection to an ancient civilization’s culture is not limited to its landscape.  

An hourlong taxi drive heading south from Cusco took me to Sallac, a village surrounded by the Peruvian highlands, where a weavers guild creates immaculately detailed textiles by hand. When I arrived at the community weaving center midmorning, the artisans were well into the process of dyeing their bundles of wool, sheared from their own alpacas.

Wool being dyedThe weavers, all employed by the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, were learning how to dye wool with all-natural sources that do not disturb the environment, unlike the synthetic dyes that have become popular in the Peruvian textile market. One natural resource used for dye was the cochineal insect, whose carminic acid gives fiber a rich crimson hue. Other nonsynthetic dyes include q’olle (flowers), molle (leaves) and checche (root).

With wool soaking in the vibrant colors of freshly brewed dyes, the weavers invited me to join them for lunch. Having spent the morning watching the artisans diligently brew the most beautiful dyes in a way that is harmonious with the environment, I felt honored to be sharing a meal they had also produced directly from the earth.

We ate a bright yellow corn soup served with a side of potatoes and corn in shades of white, yellow, blue and purple, all gathered from the gardens of the weavers. The soup was as hearty as oatmeal before a long day of winter skiing. Like the rich natural dyes the weavers brewed, the meal was simple yet delicious, full-flavored but not heavy enough to keep the weavers from quickly returning to their wool.

Removing wool from dye

Artisans pull their wool from vats of dye. (Photo: Natalie Deuschle)

After lunch, with long wooden poles in their hands, the weavers lifted their wool out of the steaming pots and rinsed off the excess dye. The bundles of wool were separated by color and spread out on the grassy earth. With nimble fingers, they gracefully pulled insects and plant particles from the fiber. Finally, with a moment to rest while the wool dried in the sun, the weavers sat quietly together. I wondered if their silence was the same as mine: reflection and gratitude for a day spent witnessing beauty from ancient traditions, hard work and respect for the environment.

Book coverI first began to admire these weavers when I read “Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands: Dreaming Patterns, Weaving Memories” by CTTC founder Nilda Callaunapa Alvarez. From this book, I learned that the CTTC craftsmen find and revive techniques that date back to pre-Columbian times. These artisan traditions, many nearly extinct, have been slowly forgotten because of globalization in the Sacred Valley and the resulting modernization of the Quechua tribes. The CTTC weavers save these customs and safeguard their cultural heritage with the power of their wooden looms.

“Each piece of cloth embodies the skill, spirit and life experience of an individual weaver,” says master weaver Callaunapa Alvarez, who recently received the Artisan Hero of the Year Award from the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise of the Aspen Institute.

The tapestries have varying purposes, from marking important stages of life to more sacred uses, such as prayer rugs and walls pieces to protect the home. CTTC also has a unique initiative to teach weaving to children so that the traditions will carry on with younger generations.

Weavers take a breakSafeguarding these customs ensures that the culture and identity of the Quechua are not lost among the whirl of tourists there only to see the preserved ruins of the Sacred Valley. These techniques, like Machu Picchu, are scared and timeless in their own way. The artisans’ perseverance in maintaining their culture made me realize that the sacred is not always on display for the world.

Finally, the weavers packed their wool into knapsacks for their walk home. They would work with their wool to create one immaculately detailed textile each month for the next four months, when it would be time to shear their alpacas and start dying wool again.

As I left the community weaving center, I felt small and alive as the sun set below the mountains surrounding Sallac village. For many travelers, the experience of sacredness comes from this very landscape, but for me, this encounter offered itself through time with the Quechua weavers.

To meet the weavers in Sallac village, contact the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco at cttc@terra.com.pe. Sallac is accessible by car, and trips to the weavers guild can be organized. All funds directly support the weavers of CTTC.

Natalie Deuschle is a freelance writer and a program associate at the Aspen Institute's Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, which promotes artisans around the world. Through a Freeman Grant, she spent a summer conducting AIDS relief work for the Salvation Centre Cambodia in Phnom Penh and Battambang, Cambodia. During that time, she created a successful artisan project called Akun Cambodia. She has also worked for an anti-human trafficking nonprofit called The Senhoa Foundation in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Her written work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Mother Nature Network and Art Focus Oklahoma Magazine.

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Inset photos (except book cover): Natalie Deuschle