A stroll through any of Miraflores’s handicrafts markets will show you the depth and variety of handicrafts in Peru. Weavings, knittings, pottery, jewelry, and carved gourds have made the long haul from the provinces into Lima. Each piece is modern but carries with it a tradition that has existed for centuries.
World-renowned for its textiles, Peru’s weaving tradition is over 4,000 years old. Using the wool of alpacas, llamas, and the precious vicuñas, the pre-Columbian cultures wove their stories into textiles. Abstract figures, deities, and colors described the lifestyles of these people, who had no written language. In turn, the textile and the quality of the wool reflected one’s social status and power. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced sheep’s wool and silk into the custom. Now, contemporary weavers have the advantages of machine-spun yarn and even woven fabrics. While those are undeniably used, there are still plenty of traditional weavers who continue to use natural dyes, drop spindles, and handmade looms.
The weaving culture exists primarily in the mountainous regions of Cusco, Huancayo, and around Lake Titicaca. In these areas, you are likely to see women walking through the streets, toting a basket of wool that they are aptly dropping and spinning into yarn. Guided by memory and years of experience, women then dip the wool into dyes and then thread it into a weaving. The start-to-finish process can take anywhere from a month to several months and, consequently, the minimum going price for a cloth is about US$100.
Knitting is another important aspect of Peru’s textile tradition. Chullos (hats), mangas (arm warmers), polainas (leggings), medias (socks), and monederos (change purses), are all typical products of the Quechua and Aymara cultures. As with weaving, the most prominent knitting cultures live in Lake Titicaca’s Isla Taquile, Cusco, and Huancavelica. Although customs change between communities, knitting responsibilities are typically divided between men and women. Women spin the yarn, and men knit it into clothing, most often hats.
Ceramics have also played an important historical role. Cultures as ancient as the Chavín left behind ceramic remains, and even later cultures like the Moche, Nasca, and Chimú were renowned for their craftsmanship and unique styles. The Moche perfected the skill of capturing human features and emotion; the Chimú pottery is recognized for its black surface; and Nasca ceramics are particularly prized because of their intricate paintings. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced a European form of pottery, which has been particularly influential in the designs of Urubamba-based ceramicist Pablo Seminario. Ceramics are best seen in the areas of Piura, Cusco and Ayacucho.
Other important handicrafts, like carved gourds, jewelry, and even instrument-making, are best seen in the mountain areas. Again, Cusco, Ayacucho, and Huancayo make excellent bases to begin your exploring.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition