In 2013, Dana Blair moved to Cusco, Peru in order to take on the role of director of Threads of Peru, a social enterprise working to preserve textile weaving in the high Andes. Now, four years later, she is embarking on a new endeavor, Pichinku, an entirely fresh addition to the Peruvian artisanal movement. As the only artisan enterprise in Cusco, even in most of Peru, working with naturally dyed knitting yarn, Blair hopes that those who appreciate artisan techniques, quality goods and natural materials will support Pichinku's Kickstarter campaign, which begins today.
What's behind the company name Pichinku?
Pichinku is a Quechua word meaning “little bird” (also could just be bird or hummingbird but I prefer little bird) and has always been one of my favorites from such an incredibly beautiful language. It is also for my dearest friend and Cusco travel companion, Schuyler Arakawa, that I call “little bird” and that is recovering in the US from a very serious accident. Not able to join us in Peru, we’re keeping her close to our hearts with the Pichinku name!
Where does the yarn come from? What role do the artisans play and what can Pichinku offer them in return?
We are partnering with the Michell Group in Arequipa, which whom I’ve worked closely for many years, for all of our alpaca and wool yarns. Much better to leave that to the experts and guarantee customers the highest quality available! We purchase white yarn, and our team of three skilled artisans and sisters – Angela, Santusa and Leonarda from the Andean community of Totora – work their color magic, using ancient techniques handed down to them from their mother and grandmothers. We work as partners and offer them sustainable wages at an hourly rate in return for their incredibly skilled and beautiful work!
Kaka sunkha, or rock lichen, used to creae orange shades (Photo: Pichinku Facebook)
What are some examples of the plants you use for the dyes? Do all plants derive from Cusco region, or just the alpaca fibers?
There are dozens of known natural dye materials in Cusco, making every shade you can possibly imagine, from mustard yellow to celestial blues and barely-there lavender purples! Examples of those that we use are: kaka sunkha (rock lichen, orange shades), kinsa k’uchu (fungi infected plant, turquoise shades) and yanali (tree bark, creamy yellow).
How long is the process of naturally dying the yarn?
It really depends on the plant. For example, some artisans will leave kaka sunkha to soak overnight for the color to come out deeper or more vibrant. Another plant, a leaf named nogal which produces brown shades, can go from light brown to deep chocolate brown overnight. But the majority of colors only require that the yarn be boiled along with its plant for a couple of hours.
(Photo: Pichinku Facebook)
Many of us are familiar with the knit clothing sold at souvenir shops and in local markets in Cusco and province towns. Where does this yarn come from and how is it dyed? What is so important about using naturally died yarn instead?
It’s disheartening for those of us that work with truly traditional pieces, and natural fibers, because the market doesn’t seem to know the difference between those high quality products and cheap synthetics. The majority of what’s found in “artisan markets” these days are machine made with synthetic materials and chemical dyes, not to mention that many come from China. Imagine that! The importance of natural fibers and investing in them is in the long term benefit, not only for the environment but also for our own health and that of our families.
How many are on the Pichinku team?
Our team is teeny tiny, consisting of just myself full time and the artisans for production days in Cusco! We also have help from close, Quechua speaking friends of mine for translation. And of course there is our design and creative support, from Diego del Rio of Intu (photo and video), Daniela Gygax (graphic design) and Ivy Thompson of the Visantine Collective (creative direction), that have made Pichinku more beautiful than I could have dreamed!
(Photo: Pichinku Facebook)
Are you expecting greater sales from abroad or from within Peru?
Both! There are incredible opportunities for growth both within Peru and abroad, and we plan to begin sales and outreach in Peru before opening orders to other countries. There is also identity behind these yarns, an identity that is inherently Peruvian and that I cherish after living many years in this vibrantly beautiful country.
Any last words?
Pichinku is live today on Kickstarter [visit page here] and unless our campaign is successful, none of this will be possible! Your pledges are the funding that our team needs to make these dreams into reality. With them we will build a thriving social enterprise that supports artisans and embraces the long term benefits of natural fibers. Please pledge today and share our story far and wide!
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