Fountain of Colours in the mountains of Peru
Leymebamba community is located in the Amazonian Peru at an altitude of 1,800 metres.
This location became internationally renowned due to the archaeological finding at the Laguna de los Condores in 1997.
The 200 perfectly conserved mummies have brought not only recognition and notoriety to the Leymebamba community, but also a renewed sense of identity.
In some cases, like that of Señor Miguel, this brought the personal discovery of new skills. In others, it was accompanied by the magical return of indigenous designs and the creation of original colours.
For Isabel, the latter was true.
Norma Isabel Tafur Bardales knew that the technique she had acquired from her mother on the loom was ancient, but she would not have imagined that it came directly from the Chachapoyas.
When the mummies were found near the lakes, they were wrapped in their cloaks and accompanied by other pieces of ornamental fabric, according to the funerary traditions of the pre-Incan civilisation of the mountains.
Isabel was part of that group of women which was granted direct access to the museum rooms where the mummies and their clothing were kept.
Isabel’s first research work started in that room, closely watching the unfamiliar patterns – and that was when she realised that they had undoubtedly been created using a waist loom.
The patterns, called “griegas” by the anthropologist, were minimalistic ornaments running along the centre and the margins of what looked like a comfy duvet for the crouched mummies.
In some cases, it took up to six months of work for Isabel and the women to retrace the steps that shaped one particular “griega”.
Some examples of “griegas” that Isabel has created from the mummies’ clothes, shared with Traveller Storyteller during our Video call.
REFINING & REFRAMING
Isabel might not have had the technical know-how, but courage and determination she could sell by weight.
Once she had studied and extracted the designs from the Chacha fabric, she then wanted to learn the fine art of a seamstress, and she started a practical workshop with a professional from Bolivia. Every day she waited at the door, after her session had finished, in the hope she could spot – and occupy – a vacant sewing machine to carry on practising for the other two daily sessions as well. She immersed herself in it completely, but she also pushed herself a lot, and as a result she learnt a great deal.
But there was another important battle she needed to engage with: the one with herself.
The organisation she started to take her first steps with – the AMAL (Asociacion de Mujeres Artesanas de Leymebamba) – shut down in upsetting circumstances after 16 years of activities in 2016, and this broke Isabel’s heart.
She did not know it yet, but this was the opportunity for Isabel to invest in herself and her own creativity as an entrepreneur, and to open her own shop.
Another journey has started. A new adventure, incredibly challenging for the shy lady who carried on working in a hidden little room at the back of her house where no one could see her. Her handcrafts were sold in the museum shop at the time, but there was no author name on the label.
She initially refused many invitations to regional exhibitions, still affected emotionally by the “disintegration” – to use her words – of the AMAL, but one day, supported by her family and close friends she decided to finally assume her professional role at the artisan fair on 19 March 2019. On that brave day, in Distrito Tingo, Provincia de Luya – Amazonas, she made her first public professional appearance. Her partner in crime was Señora Elena. They filled two spacious cases with their homemade products, designed on the traditional Chacha pieces, and set off. The fair turned out to be a real success. To Isabel’s surprise, they sold almost everything they brought with them. Her self-doubts about her skills and creativity vanished, and this gave her the strength she needed to take the next step.
THE MAGICAL SOURCE
Isabel was not new to adventures, and you could say that she actually quite enjoys experimenting and challenging herself. But the magical process she was about to create with her friend Elena was of a different kind, and it started with some field research.
“We prepared the wood for the fire and the water to boil and we went to the field to do our investigation.”
The process of transforming nature with ink and colours came from previous knowledge accumulated and passed down through their mothers’ words, as well as from the healing properties of nature and its plants. Like the Alfa alfa (the medicago sativa), known by Isabel because it helps with anaemia and it is very much liked by the rabbits, too. Many discoveries came directly – and literally from their hands-on experience.
“Our method was quite simple and intuitive. If when you touch a plant it stains your hands, it might be likely that it will mark the fabric too – that was our thought process” she told me.
Over long journeys they discovered that the purple corn is not only edible but – as I discovered to my surprise during my virtual chat with Isabel – also makes a refreshing drink, loved by all, especially kids; they also discovered that the grain gives that purple tint, and they started using this to dye the fabric.
However, the correlation between the colours that the plants showed in their leaves, branches, flowers and fruits was not always so direct.
For example, the Helecho – a local kind of fern – displays brilliant green leaves that create a curious grey colour – admitted to be Isabel’s favourite discovery. On the other hand, the walnut tree’s green leaves give a light brown shade.
Above: The leaves and the colour of the nogal (walnut tree).
Below: two more shades of green from the chillca (left) and the Hierba Santa (right).
Photo credits: Isabel.
Isabel and Elena started borrowing the colours from trees and flowers, abandoning themselves to the total untamed power of nature, which – ultimately – keeps deciding which shade to give to the wool. In fact,
Every yellow colour born from the Sucatrigo branch owns a mustard tone, but each one will have an unpredictable shade, never repeated.
Each colour that emerged in the massive metal pot was celebrated with festive hugs, but was no comparison with the first time, when “Elena and I started jumping around hugging each other like two little kids” – a moment that Isabel described with a smiling face as a “unique emotion”.
She is proud to admit that her knowledge does not come from the books, but from experiments conducted through direct interaction with nature in the fields.
The process of dyeing the organic wool (called teñir) involves a big pot of boiling water, different parts of the plant, the fabric, patience, but also a lot of trepidation.
The sheep also provide some natural colours, sometimes blacks and sometimes browns; however they normally just supply the fluffy white organic wool which encounters the unspoiled shades of nature in the waist loom (telar a cintura).
El teñir, though, is only the last part of the process before getting the wool on the loom.
It follows el golpeado, el escarminado and el hilado, all of which Isabel – now a master of this operations is always very happy to share with the tourists that visit her for a day workshop in her laboratory of colours.
In the pictures: (left) Telar a cintura.
Below (clockwise): The stages: 1) el golpeado, 2) el escarminado. 3) el hilado, 4) el teñir.
FROM HIDING IN THE CORNER, TO BECOMING A CREATOR
Isabel, a trained nurse, is one of the guardians of the Leymebamba traditional culture and of the secret colours of nature.
She used to hide herself, working quietly at the back of the shop, feeling embarrassed to show her art to others.
Today she is proud to put her name on the label, and she has just launched her Instagram account (@la_huayaquita) where one can find newly designed masks, plastic-free market carrier bags and the Chacha monkey, which adorns a finely embroidered cross-body bag in sheep’s wool.
The passion for her land and her determination to learn more about the designs of her ancestral traditions took Isabel beyond her fears and generated a fertile array of colours.
Her curiosity and desire to explore the infinite universe of colours and their combinations constantly mix past and present, blending personal creativity with unique tradition.
The diligent student has turned into a teacher today, helping tourists to create and combine techniques and colours on the waist loom themselves.
Many stories lie behind the experiences we are offered when we travel. Some of them we will never explore, others we can have the chance to unveil through a story, which has the power to bring the human aspect of travel to the surface.
“We are all travelling under the same moon.”