Rising before sunrise, I was accompanied by three other girls and Mieke Briejer, our Awamaki tour guide as we departed on the four-hour journey that would take us to Parobamba, a village of about 250 inhabitants located in the mountains outside Cusco. We were greeted by Daniel Sonqo Gayoso and his wife Leonarda. They had prepared a nutricious lunch that re-fuelled us just in time to take on an afternoon search for native plant species.
Daniel guided us through the village to the outskirts where plants such as Chillka, K’imsa K’ucho, Yanali, Chapi and Lichen were in no short supply. His eight-year old son, Acner, was never far behind, chiming in with any facts his father may have forgotten to include. After a prosperous search, we returned with our bounty to learn more. Daniel laid out various examples of previously dyed yarns and explained how each plant’s ph level dictated the mordant required to achieve a desired color. The range was stunning- from the reds, navys and purples obtained with Cochinilla (a small parasitic insect found on cacti) to the dark olives and browns that result from Moti Moti to the vibrant yellows that Tiri reveals. Just the Quechua names of the plants themselves were enough to enchant!
Plants in hand, we were now ready to learn about the mordants. With just four mordants- copper oxide, iron oxide, alum stone and sal de limon– we could manipulate the pH of the plants to produce over 15 colors! And so the process began.
Once a huge cauldron of water had come to a boil, we decided our first color to test would be navy. This required boiling Cochinilla with the yarn for about 15 minutes before adding iron oxide. The iron oxide began to immediately transform the plum colored water to a darker blue which increased in intensity as we added more until we were satisfied with the hue. Letting it sit just a little longer, we then removed the yarn from the bubbling cauldron. As we were in an environment with few luxuries, we were challenged to work within the given parameters. Carrying the bucket of wet, dye-laden yarn through the town and up a hill was no easy feat but upon reaching the natural stream where we would do the final rinse certainly made it worth the effort.
Over the next two days, we repeated the process until we had achieved all the colors on our list. With plenty of time between each step, we were able to learn more about the surrounding environment, not to mention getting a hands-on lesson on how to make tamales. Not only a dye master, Daniel also raises bees and sells their honey and pollen to locals as well as stores and businesses in the region.
Beyond the dye workshop, Daniel also collaborates with several organizations to help revive natural dyeing and standardize the process. As synthetic dyes entered Peruvian markets, many were drawn to the new neon colors and the dyes’ ability to withstand sun and daily wear. Environmental consequences aside, the relatively low price of the synthetic dyes was often the deciding factor for people who make just enough to live day-to-day.
In an attempt to promote natural dyes and re-instil a value for native flora, Awamaki and other organizations in the region have initiated projects aimed at local artisans. Greenhouses are being built so plants necessary for the dyes will be available year-round despite altitude and temperature differences. Daniel hosts regular natural dye workshops for Awamaki’s weaving cooperative to help them standardize their colors and be able to offer consistent products- something absolutely essential to appeal to international markets that have the potential to provide additional income for the women. He has also been working on a book to document native plants and the dye process that will undoubtedly be of great value to natural dye enthusiasts and future generations alike.
A collaborative effort, much progress has already been made. As Awamaki continues to develop its sustainable tourism program, it now has the capability to offer outsiders a quality, inside look at how a traditional practice is being revived to meet modern demands. And not only do tourists and artisans benefit. Awamaki Lab continues to serve as the research and development arm which transforms the naturally dyed, handwoven textiles into well-designed products that appeal both in Peru and abroad. Designers and companies searching for sustainable and ethical sourcing alternatives may also do well to join one of Awamaki’s tours to see the whole operation for themselves!
Now through August 15, you can vote for Awamaki in the GlobalGiving 2012 Photo Contest to help them win $1,000 to go towards their work with communities in the Sacred Valley.