On twitter a friend asked, “how have you been learning your Quechua weaving methods? Regular online lessons? Traveling to workshops? It’s something I want to do in the future.“
Start with a Master Teacher
What’s the best way to learn from a Master Teacher? Take every course offered, regardless the topic. No seriously. It didn’t matter if Abby Franquemont was teaching weaving, spinning, or fiber prep, or just giving lectures about textiles and culture–it all fed into my interests for more information.
Let’s start with the three-day weaving intensives offered by Abby Franquemont for the past several years. First, I went to Ply Away in 2017 *because* she was offering an intensive on Andean Backstrap Weaving. She was already my “spinning hero” for her book, Respect the Spindle. Any weaving she wanted to teach? I was in for the ride and I had no idea what I was really signing up for.
After the regular intensive in 2017, she offered two more titles in 2018: A one-day version and a two-day intermediate course. Unfortunately there were some folx who didn’t respect the pre-requisites and so some of the students didn’t have as good an experience as I had. And I think that’s just a shame–the arrogance of closed-minded “I already know what I’m doing” could have soured several people, but I didn’t let it sour me.
Then when Abby wasn’t teaching at Ply Away in 2019, I wrote her to ask about her 2019 travelling and teaching schedule. That’s how I found out that I could head to Prince George, BC, Canada in June 2019. Then an opening for a slot came available for the same intensive in the Boston, MA area in August 2019, so I squeezed that one into my budget and calendar. Didn’t matter if I had to sleep on a floor and eat bizarre groceries, I was going to this event! (Fortunately I ended up cementing my weaving-best-friend out of the adventure, so that was a plus.)
Abby also launched her Patreon somewhere in those years, and as my interest in weaving increased, I invested in taking private lessons online. With Abby in Peru and me in the US, having a monthly check in and status report gave me some deadlines and structure for my self-study pursuits.
Support the Teachers Your Teacher Respects
When I showed up for the Intermediate level intensive, Abby handed us each a copy of Textile Traditions of Chinchero: A Living Heritage by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. It’s one thing to take an introductory intensive course more than once. But where do you go next in your studies if you’re not embedded in the community and don’t have access to the primary sources? You find every book that has photos of the primary sources as well as rich narratives about all the textiles and cultural context. Not only have I been weaving my way through the examples in Textile Traditions of Chinchero: A Living Heritage (sometimes I label a specific band as from a specific page in that book), but I’m constantly reading and studying any book by Nilda.
These are not your typical “how-to” books with every single step spelled out for you, intending that you can learn just from the book. This weaving tradition comes from an experience of community and so you’re supposed to learn from your elders and weave in the courtyard with everyone else, developing your learning skills and your ability to do trial-and-error, hands-on with strings in your fingers.
Oh, and I hadn’t yet mentioned: You would typically be taught to spin first, as a very young child, before weaving. Because where else are you going to get a stash of yarn ready to weave if you haven’t been spinning it and contributing to the supplies of the community? Hmmm?
So in that vein, I also follow any and all information put out by CTTC in Peru: https://textilescusco.org – The Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco. If I’m not studying the communities and looking to the owners of this cultural wealth of knowledge, then I’m not honoring the cultural heritage that they are representing.
Memorizing the Content
This is a step that can be a stumbling block for quite a number of people. If you come from a literate society that no longer memorizes things, it’s hard to see the value in doing anything by rote anymore. That’s what we have Google for, right? IMDB? Calculators? YouTube?
Except that there’s something amazing about what happens in your learning process when you commit something to memory. You could perform a recitation of a story or a poem, paper in hand. But what if you memorized the whole thing and then got up on stage? You could read sheet music. But what happens when a Drum Corps takes the field with all their music memorized?
You could weave complicated material from a chart and stay glued to that chart. No one would know the difference looking at the finished work. But what if you started to learn to read the patterns in the strings, in the color, and then you wove? From memory?
This weaving style that I’m embedded in comes from thousands of years of community weaving and oral tradition. They could look at existing textiles or they could talk to one another, passing down the patterns. There is *not* a history of drawing up charts. So what if I tried to get to the point of weaving patterns from memory?
Do the Actual Work
The funniest thing was that I used to be slightly frustrated when Abby would ask me, “What happened when you tried weaving it?” for any of my weaving questions. Now I see how AWESOME that question is: Because tons of this learning HAS to be done in the hands, the body, and yarn.
In the stories Abby has told us, typically weaving instruction started with children as young as 5 years old. The first weaving is always the same pattern: They hand a properly warped band to the new weaving student, and everyone learns the same pattern when they start. They have many fundamentals to grasp first before they are taught to measure out a warp for a new band. And by the time you can measure warps and tie the various types of heddles, you have a responsibility to measure and prepare warps for new beginners. You have *chores* to do, to support your community.
That means part of my learning has to also come from creating and supporting new weavers. It’s part of my “teenager chores” to keep making warps for first-time weavers. It’s part of my weaving development to be there for encouraging weavers to go beyond the first lesson and try the second and third lesson. And when you’re lucky enough to have a blossoming advanced weaver trying to keep up with you personally, it means your own goals and boundaries get a great push from the camaraderie. Technically, I should have a weaving partner that I can warp with in person. And while geography and a pandemic have been keeping me apart from any student or any weaving partner, we still have found ways to connect online and spur one another on to better and more ambitious projects.
That means I just have to weave. Oh, and spin more yarn for my stash. Oh, and add twist to “student yarn” and measure warps and send them out to beginners. Oh, and address the issue of tools acquisition. I found some woodworkers who were able to recreate some of the shed sticks (kaulla) I needed, which then I made available to other weavers. I always have a tapestry needle (yauri) at the ready, and buying them in bulk means I can give one to every new weaver, too. I still need to acquire a few more tools for the more advanced work—there’s a llama bone beater (ruki) I really lust for, as well as my need for a serviceable pickup stick (tukuna). And since I cannot stake things in the ground and weave outside in the courtyard, I’ve had to create reasonable equivalents for sitting indoors on a couch and not completely blocking my Sweetie’s view of the TV. (Amazing what you can do with a luggage cart handle and a heavy Sparkletts bottle filled with over 50 lbs of loose coins.)
The TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) summary answer to the original question “how do you study?” boils down to, “In-person, online, with books for resources, and with online connections with a large community as well as a specific teacher.”
So What’s Next?
Who wants a starter warp and some time learning about Tanka Ch’oro, the pattern every weaver memorizes first? Drop me a note.