ABOUT | Aside from being one of my best friends on this planet, Rasheena Taub is a woman who has a profound way with words and rich understanding of the human spirit. In her first guest post on CLOTH & KIND, she shares the story and images of her recent trip to Peru and the loving art of creating mantas textiles by hand, hecho a mano. This fall, Rasheena will launch Kickstand Collections, an online resource for parents seeking more personalized collections of children’s books and souvenirs.
I blame the elevation for my oversight in grabbing water bottles “con gas” at a small market on our way from the Cusco airport to the Sacred Valley. My nine year-old, who was newly exposed to Sprite, delighted in hydrating with a bit of bubbly. Our tour guide seemed less pleased. After twisting his bottle’s plastic cap off, he poured a healthy sip onto the ground. But then he chugged the rest. “Does it taste ok?” I questioned before committing to mine. “Si. That was for Pachamama.”
It turns out Spanish was not the native language of indigenous Peruvians – Quechua is. And in this ancestral language, Pachamama means “Mother World” or, as we know her, “Mother Earth.” Daily worship of their goddess of harvest and fertility includes this ritual of spilling a small amount of one’s drink onto the floor before drinking the rest — a personal gesture of gratitude directed at feeding and giving back to the land that takes care of us. I tried not to think about our water bottles piling up in some landfill.
In the small town of Chinchero where we stopped en route to the Sacred Valley, we learned just how Pachamama and the Peruvians take care of each other. Sundays usher in busloads of tourists to experience the market, but this weekday afternoon our van was the sole vehicle in sight. We felt transported into a centuries-old way of living. Free from tourists, the town itself resembled an unoccupied Epcot country with souvenirs lining storefronts on the cobblestone road. Our tour guide led us to the front door of a local family. When no one answered his repeated knocking, he turned around and tried the neighbor’s house. A wooden arrow overhead had the words “Ayni Ayllu” painted onto it. We lucked upon a cooperative of women who thread traditional culture into their goods and weave their way into the modern world of commerce.
A man, disrupted from siesta, descended from an upstairs room and greeted us. He then swiftly left us in the care of two women who welcomed us into their courtyard. In its center stood a working loom. As a writer, I am drawn to storytellers. These women understood their history and the importance of it, and they sought to preserve it by mentoring their children and educating tourists like us. They were also artisans, taking great pride in their handiwork and personal expressions of an ancient Andean art. A girl my seven year-old son’s age quietly fed guinea pigs while her mother set up a display of wicker bowls that held her show-and-tell. We were invited to learn how their most important textiles, mantas, are made. Symbolic and functional, mantas are the long weavings that women wear on their backs to carry babies and items such as food. Distinctions in pattern and color identify the community in which it is created.
Did I mention yet that Chinchero perches at 9,000 feet? We sipped coca tea and staved off altitude sickness while the women washed dirty sheep’s and alpaca’s wool with soap made from the root of a local plant. This natural detergent is also used as shampoo for their long, braided hair. Lack of oxygen may have something to do with my imagining these women in a detergent commercial where their strands of glistening white wool triumph alongside the unnamed leading detergent and an article of clothing still visibly stained.
My children loved the next step, which involved spinning the wool into yarn on small toy-like drop-spindles. We’d see women around town that afternoon multi-task as women are prone to do: conversing, walking and spinning wool. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I thought color thread was created in this remote region. Again, they turn to the earth for resources. Hand-gathered natural ingredients such as leaves, corn, flowers, sticks and seeds produce different hues for the dyes. Salt and lemon alter the shades of colors drastically. Even cochineal, a small beetle that lives on the local pear cactus, is crushed to create a red dye. This same pigment adorns women’s lips and cheeks as make-up.
The women boiled water in large, Strega Nona-like vessels and then added the desired dyes. They dipped single-ply yarn into the pots for varying lengths of time. The longer the thread soaked in the dye, the more intense its color. My kids grew bored of the demonstration. My husband refocused them on the tables of mantas, sweaters, dolls and pouches for purchase. He knows me well enough to know that I was staying put for as long as they’d have me.
The gorgeous yarns then had to be rinsed and hung to dry, all before being spun again to create thicker ply for weaving. Thankfully, balls of yarn crowded a woven basket near the working loom. We were good to go (not out the door, but toward the loom!). My son remarked that the simple loom, with its two upright poles and cross bar, resembled the top half of a field goal. He was right to be thinking of sports, since the two women tossed the yarn back and forth to thread the loom, creating a reversible textile.
A weaver’s story, though, is told in most detail on an individual loom. Designs depicting natural elements such as rivers or mountains, stripes of varying thickness and color, and even animal figures emerge from the weaver’s mind. During Incan times, textiles commemorated personal milestones and peaceful offerings while representing basic beliefs and values of their makers. Even now, hundreds of years later, you get the sense that whatever a woman is feeling – whether longing or love or loss, she is expressing this through her choice of color and is identifying with Pachamama’s serenity, strength and survival.
On the afternoon we spent in Chinchero, women gathered to weave in the town’s center and on a patch of grass beside the cobblestone road. Some removed their shoes, made out of recycled tires, and used their toes to hold the yarn. Others worked dutifully on backstrap looms designed for individual use. I envied these creative women for having their community within arm’s reach. Mine is dependent on email, phone calls and care packages. I missed my girlfriends, the ones who value the importance of making something with your hands, who turn hardship into something artful and beautiful, who own their power and use it for a greater good, who get that once you share your story, your few drops of water on the ground, you share yourself with the world, and in doing so, you are sustaining it.
IMAGE CREDITS | All photographs taken by Rasheena Taub.