Today I have a Q&A with Dana from Pichinku Yarn, which just launched their shop with their first batch of beautiful, hand-dyed yarn!
I found Pichinku months ago when they were just starting out on Instagram, before they even started their KickStarter campaign! That campaign ended this summer, and Pichinku was fully-funded, with awesome rewards for the backers! As soon as I read about their company and got to know Dana through it all, I knew I wanted to do a Q&A with her, to get a look behind-the-scenes, and get to know more about Pichinku! As Dana says. . . “Pichinku is unique because it tells the story of an ancient heritage, of 100% Peruvian-made yarn and the legacy of the Quechua people.” So read on to learn more about Pichinku, and make sure to follow them (links below) on social media and their shop!
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(My notes will be in blue!)
— Why ‘Pichinku’?
Pichinku means “little bird” in the native Quechua language, and “little bird” is my nickname for my dearest friend, Schuyler. It also represents a profound cultural and emotional connection that I feel to this breathtaking Andean landscape and its inhabitants. The melodic rhythms of Quechua, embodied in one word that has always resonated with me for its playfulness, is as much part of these dyeing traditions as the yarn and plants.
— How many artisans are employed?
I’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of weavers since moving to Peru but one family in particular has become like my own. Pichinku will begin production with four incredibly beautiful and talented sisters – Angela, Leonarda, Sabina and Santusa – from the Andean community, Totora. In addition to having an awe-inspiring knowledge of traditional dyeing, they are hands down some of the most accomplished artisans in the Cusco region. When asked, they will be the first to share how deeply they appreciate that their mother and grandmothers patiently taught them these skills, that they passionately feel obligated to continue practicing.
— Where did you grow up?
Though I claim to be an honorary Peruvian, I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii (where my mother’s side of the family is from; my father is from Oakland, CA) and was raised in southwestern Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. It was a “go outside to play and come home when the street lights come on!” childhood spent in the company of my fellow adventurers, my brothers, climbing trees and creek walking.
But despite the small town upbringing, I’ve always been the “wanderer” in my family, fascinated by world travel, people and culture. When it came time to fly the coop, leaving quaint Belle Vernon for college, I chose to study Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. And when I began to travel internationally in college, I never stopped!
— Why Peru?
I relocated – Pittsburgh to Cusco – in 2013 and in less than two weeks after accepting the position of director of operations for Threads of Peru, a not-for-profit social enterprise that connects the world to handmade treasures of the Andes, helping to strengthen ancient craft techniques and empower artisans. Let me tell you, my parents were thrilled!
Our team at TOP provides support and training to indigenous artisans that practice totally non-mechanized weaving and natural dyeing techniques. We work to improve the quality of their products and market them internationally. With rusty Spanish and absolutely no Quechua, it was the most extreme, breathtaking environment I can imagine even now. In days I was traveling to remote, in-need communities where basic education, running water and electricity are just now arriving.
To say that the past 4 years have been an educational and life-changing experience is to say very little. When the success or “failure” of your efforts could in part determine the well being of impoverished families, you find yourself striving to do much more than you would have imagined yourself possible.
— What do you use to dye the yarn?
These natural dyeing techniques are ancient knowledge of the breathtaking landscape that has become my adoptive home. They have been practiced for thousands of years by Quechua communities to create vibrantly colored, hand woven textiles; some of the finest known to world history.
All our botanical materials are locally sourced by hand from the distant mountains and valleys of Cusco, and include everything from tree mosses to ground roots to teeny yellow flowers. Working with natural materials, our yarn lines will follow natural cycles, planning production around the availability of different plants at different times of year.
— Where do you get the fiber to spin?
We source all our yarn (highland wool, alpaca and baby alpaca) from Michell and Cia, the highest quality producer of Peruvian fibers. And although some have questioned, even criticized, my decision to source commercial yarn, I believe it’s better left to the experts!
I have worked with Michell for close to 5 years and not only are they family-run and trustworthy, their work has provided employment opportunities and genetic research advancements that will keep the alpaca industry alive in Peru. Their production is 100% ethical, down to their fiber being hand-sorted (no machines) by micron quality and sourced from traditional alpaca herding families in the Andes.
— Why yarn? / What inspired you to start Pichinku?
My passion is to preserve world heritage by investing in the artisans that carry on traditional practices today. In making them economically viable, we better ensure that they will survive, and support the well-being of artisans and their families.
It’s disheartening for those of us that work with traditional pieces, and natural fibers, that the market doesn’t seem to know the difference between those high quality products and cheap synthetics.
After working hand-in-hand with the Threads artisans, I started to imagine things differently because heavy textiles are difficult to sell whereas yarn is “simple” and globally marketable. Pichinku aspires to help fill the lack of naturally dyed fiber on the market. And just by purchasing yarn, consumers positively impact the environment and generate long-term opportunities for artisans in Peru.
— Do you knit or crochet (or weave)?
Confession: I’m more beginner than the beginners, but I’ve knitted a couple hats and scarves that could pass as acceptable! Makes me wonder though, because I’ve never seen those people actually wear them. Maybe I should just stick with making beautiful yarn and keep “master knitter” on my bucket list!
As for weaving, I know the process of back strap loom weaving much more from an academic and/or observer perspective but have often settled into the waist strap of one of the artisan’s looms to work on a row or two with their guidance. The connection of thread and body, manipulating the tension of the loom with your own movements, is such a beatiful experience.
— When will Pichinku launch?
After 7 weeks traveling in our Mahindra through Patagonia, arriving back to Cusco in mid April and 3 days spent scrubbing my home office with a toothbrush, we are full steam ahead! First on the time line: product development and reward fulfillment! (Amalia here. The rewards (yarn!) have been received by the backers (who love them) and Pichinku just launched their Etsy shop at the end of July (link below)! I can’t wait to see more of their beautiful yarn!)
— Do the artisans use their yarn?
Absolutely and for thousands of years! Perhaps a better question would be: have they ever used this knitting weight yarn? And the answer would be no!
Much of the inspiration behind Pichinku is the lack of this product on the market, let alone in Peru. Traditional, natural dyeing techniques are widely practiced but the yarn weights used (e.g. very fine) are really only suitable for loom weaving.
Knitting and crochet, like in many other parts of the world, has become much more commonly practiced in Cusco, however, including by indigenous women. I’ve seen that their weaving skills and patience translate quickly from looms to needles, and it is a wonderful alternative e.g. making instead of buying clothes for their children.
As Pichinku moves forward and grows, I can imagine few things more fulfilling than to see local artisans purchasing our yarn for their projects!
— What is hardest about this process?
Inter-cultural communication, even with translators, can be challenging. It’s not so much what you say, but how we are shaped to think, feel and value things differently by our respective cultures. And particularly as an American, I was brought up to be kind of manic about time management. Well, things don’t really work like that in Peru, especially not in the Andes.
— What is most satisfying?
What I find to be most fulfilling and inspiring is when we connect just as people, communicating more with smiles and hand signals than words. And that whether it’s a little or a lot, that my work truly is having positive impact on lives other than mine.
— Does Pichinku have a website, or will there be one before you open?
It’s definitely in the plan but the complexity will depend on budget! I hope that in the next couple months, we’ll have a simple website with company information, contact and retail purchases. Who knows, maybe even a blog though my “free time” at the moment is rather limited! (I love reading the little snippets on Instagram, and I think a blog would be lots of fun, to see what’s going on and read more in-depth behind-the-scenes! But for now make sure to follow along with their journey on Instagram to see more!)
— What are your long-term goals/dreams for Pichinku?
Immediately, Pichinku will provide stable work to skilled artisans, at fair wages and a comfortable schedule. But this “simple” yarn idea could grow much bigger than our humble beginnings!
For example, I daydream of incorporating other 100% natural fibers like cotton, which evades the limitations of heavy materials like alpaca and wool e.g. wool cowls don’t wear well in summer! And that while we grow and expand, Pichinku will provide more opportunities for more people, not just artisans, to have stable work, embrace their cultural heritage and learn about sustainable practices.
— How often will your yarn be available for sale?
Toward the end of this year, I’ll be able to more confidently answer that question for the long term but at least for 2017, I anticipate opening wholesale orders in late July and an online retail platform for late October.
— What colors, weights, kinds of yarn will you be offering?
This year, “getting out feet wet”, we’ll offer baby alpaca, alpaca and wool yarn in worsted and DK weights.
As for colors, the sky – or better yet, the rainbow – is the limit! During product development in April-May, we will be experimenting with as many dye plants as possible, to create as many shades as possible.
From there, a selection of colors will be chosen for the Kickstarter rewards, another selection for the fall-winter line and a wider variety for online retail.
— Will you be offering products other than yarn?
I sure plan to!
Both knitting and home-dyeing kits (oooh! Another hobby I need!) are on the creative development board, in addition to many other Andean inspired trinkets, notions and accessories. And although I’ll keep you all in suspense, I’m fairly confident that the beautiful yarn that we’re cooking up will have the maker community buzzing in the meantime.
— Is there anything else we should know about Pichinku?
Pichinku yarn embraces that hand made items have identity. They tell stories of families and entire civilizations that can stretch back thousands of years.
Naturally dyed and natural fibers are qualities found in yarn from around the world. Their production may even employ artisans much like we do. But Pichinku is unique because it tells the story of an ancient heritage, of 100% Peruvian-made yarn and the legacy of the Quechua people.
Thanks for joining me today Dana, and giving everyone a good behind-the-scenes look at Pichinku!