Cusco, Peru, is renowned for its buzzing traveller atmosphere but the authentic local buzz is found a block or two off the tourist track. A mere side step away from the city’s main drag, the Avenida Eel Sol, led my mum and me past twenty-somethings beginning Friday night drinks and commuters from outside villages taking their unsold wares home. A small wooden door labelled ‘Apus Peru’ opened to reveal Threads of Peru’s (ToP) only paid employee Dana.
Let me, as succinctly as I can, explain ToP’s origins. It is an NGO founded in 2009, based on a project created by a class of interdisciplinary design students at NSCAD University, Halifax, Nova Scotia called Project Peru. The class leader was Adam Foster Collins who wanted students to see that design can be a social process “…drawing out the collective strengths of people working collaboratively across boundaries of culture and discipline.” The class’s task was to find a region anywhere in the world where help was needed, travel there and use their design skills to help. After much research, Peru’s weavers were selected as the craftsmen the project wanted to work with. The students felt Peru’s rich and high-quality weaving tradition needed to be preserved authentically whilst also providing its creators with a sustainable income. Having sent many e-mails, Project Peru received a reply from Ariana Svenson of travel company Apus Peru who was interested in the mission and thus ToP was established.
Although this was my first meeting with Dana, she greeted Mum and me like reunited friends. Conversation quickly turned to how the day’s photo shoot for the new collection went. ToP lives and thrives off the talent and abilities of all its workers. The father of the current graphics intern is a photographer and was in town to see his daughter. The team jumped on the chance and asked if he might take photos of the latest collection. Doubling up as models, Dana and the intern had headed out to Cusco’s historic and iconic sight, Sacsaywaman, and improvised the shoot.
ToP works with two women’s weaving cooperatives in the Patacancah Valley, Rumira Sondormayo and Chaullacocha and master craftsmen. ToP buys the handmade textiles directly from the weavers at fair trade prices, marketing and selling the prices via the web. Apart from some consignment items from master weavers, the artisans receive their money upfront and decide how to spend it themselves. A mark-up is placed on the goods to pay for website, material, shipping and admin fees. Working with the communities themselves, ToP helps with projects in these areas contributing to the advancement of education for all, construction and improving skills of the artisans. That said, ToP respects the tradition of Anyi, or Andean reciprocity, whereby when help is given it is repaid in the form of similar work.
My reason for meeting with ToP was to gauge its quality of product and mission. Other NGOs also work with textile makers in Peru, I wanted to understand what made ToP different. I put this directly to Dana. She explained that the work of the other NGOs was also valuable but no single organisation can help all the communities. Indeed, ToP sees itself as part of a wider network ensuring communities have the option to maintain any aspect of their traditional culture, lifestyle and crafts should they wish to.
I also asked Dana how ToP, established and run by Westerners, gained the trust and respect of the communities they worked with. Dana paused, taking a deep breath, suggesting this has taken and takes much work. “I bond with the women as a woman. I have to show them that I understand their concerns, whether it’s about the care of the children in the community or the standing and respect as a female.” Dana attends some of the meetings of the elders in the community so that she can see first-hand the issues affecting and the environment the women work in. Dana’s presence also shows that ToP is with and supports every facet of the community’s development, not just the economic.
Glancing at the beautiful images on the ToP website the products looked attractive but having the chance to see them at close hand and touch them was enough to confirm, in my opinion, the superior quality of what was in front of me than what I had seen anywhere on my trip. Dana was clearly pleased to hear mum and me cooing as we pawed at the bedspreads and clothing put in front of us. “There’s a joke in Peru” Dana smiled, “Walk in to a market in Peru, and the sellers shout ‘baby alpaca!’ What they should say is ‘maybe alpaca’. Baby alpaca wool is so fine and of such high quality that the products you find in Peru’s markets being touted as genuine cannot possibly be if they are sold at the prices they are.” Admittedly, your average traveller in Peru cannot afford a $1500 bedspread. So who buys from ToP? “US, Australian and Europeans on the internet” Dana explained. “We know the buyers are out there, we just need to find them and get the products to them.”
I for one am still not sure how ToP is financially and logistically viable when shoppers cannot see the products in a store and when there are cheap imitations available. However, much of its survival is due to the dedicated team behind the project; their energy and passion is infectious. I wish ToP the best of success and will do my best to promote its exquisite products and supportive cultural work.
All images in this post have been kindly donated by Threads of Peru and it’s photographers.