The latest in our series of 'Long Threads', this article was written by Cristina Gutiérrez.
Image: All photographs by Maud Lerayer for Behind the Hill
Cotton is an ancient material that made its first appearance during the Miocene era at around 10 to 15 million years ago. It is then that its trans-oceanic dispersion begins, spreading all over the globe until its geographic distribution creates lineages across five continents. In America it appears at the same time both in Mexico and the northern coast of Peru where it became the cornerstone of civilisation through its domestication. Having said that, the later development of cotton in Peru is very different to that of its peers in the other continents: in this part of the world it not only acquired a series of unique characteristics but it also played a very important role in the cultural development of Andean civilizations.
Modern Peru is shrouded in the magic and legends of its ancient origins. Often, new and unexpected discoveries or findings compels us to reconsider our preconceptions regarding the country. That is precisely what happened when the Lord of Sipan´s tomb was unearthed. Among the treasures with which this dignitary had been buried, samples of colored cotton, scientifically known as gossypium barbadense, were also found.
When on July 21, 1987, the tomb of the Lord of Sipán was discovered inside a temple buried under the sands of the Lambayeque region´s desert in northern Peru, it marked a watershed in the country´s history. This lord, warrior and ruler of the Moche kingdom, who lived around the year 250 of our era, was buried with all the magnificence that his rank demanded: a fabulous treasure in gold, silver, precious stones as well as copper, terracotta and textiles. Next to these, cotton acorns of different colors were also found. With the eyes of the world on such a discovery, scholars and archaeologists embarked in the endeavor of explaining this lost civilization´s culture and way of life. But above all, we had to understand what had been of this cotton that had called the Spaniards´ attention upon their arrival and precisely because of its many colors.
This cotton that was a fundamental piece in the life, civilization and identity of the refined Moche and Lambayeque cultures, offered scholars new clues leading to unraveling the life of the peoples that inhabited these coasts so many centuries ago. Their findings were as revealing as the tomb´s discovery itself. Many of the answers to their inquiries were to be found in the proximities of the archaeological site, especially in the adjacent and arcane villages of Mórrope and Túcume. The humble descendants of these ancient lineages conserved the live-style and traditions of their predecessors. They even farmed the same crops, among them the colored cotton. Why were the archaeologist surprised? They thought such a crop had gone extinct as a result of an unjust and arbitrary ban imposed by the government in 1949 that prohibited the farming of native cotton varieties and sought to eradicate them altogether. The government considered them a threat to the fine white Pima and Tanguis varieties, both being the flagships of the national cotton industry.
Archeologists and scholars gave the voice of alarm, these native cotton varieties that were unique to Peru ought to be salvaged and recuperated, especially given their amazing color range going from white to brown through the most rare red, blue, yellow, green or coffee hues, all of them preserved thanks to the local inhabitant´s tenacity and devotion to their traditions. The nation was confronted with an inconvenient truth. Traditional weavers were weaving with the forbidden fiber. This concern became official, the damage had to be repaired.
Native cotton´s revival got started with the building of the museum that would house the Lord of Sipan and its treasures. Similar cotton garnets to the ones found in the tombs were required to represent various Moche scenes. Native cotton was tracked down all over the surroundings and a significant quantity was gathered. Local spinners and weavers were commissioned to work on reproducing the whole of Sipan´s trousseau. As the museum´s construction got under way , these women spun and weaved non-stop meeting the deadline on time. By the time of the museum´s inauguration, the interest and curiosity about the colored cotton had grown as much as the one for the tomb´s treasures: the moment had come. All of that tenacity over such a long period of time finally bare its fruits: a campaign to training the weavers was started. This allowed them to improve their production both in qualitative and quantitative terms. The objective was to prepare them to compete in the free market and by 2008, twenty one years after the Lord of Sipan´s discovery, the native cotton ban was finally lifted. By this time there was a strong team of young women weavers that had resumed tradition, forming a critical mass of weavers that would guarantee the colored native cotton revival.
The women artisans also work the land and grow the cotton that they themselves harvest. The productive chain of this fiber starts at the various family-owned small plots in the region. These plots are so small that a different color is grown in every groove. Once harvested, cotton is thrown onto the floor and whipped with a flexible rod in order to separate it, followed by the clearance and the carded processes. To witness these woman engaged in such activities is like traveling in time to the distant past depicted in the Moche vessels that populate museum´s showcases all around the world.
The organization and training of these weavers implied the recovery of a set of ancestral knowledges, but it especially meant the revitalization of usages, techniques and aesthetics expressed through the art of textile. I can proudly say that I assisted this upgrading endeavor since its very beginnings as a consultant and a trainer. I lived through this art´s rebirth and was amazed not only by the strength of a tradition that never went away, that survived both oblivion and the pressures of modernity, but by its permanence concealed by the hot sands of the desert without us Peruvians noticing it, in the same way as the Lord of Sipan himself did.
Written by Cristina Gutiérrez.
All images in the article are credited to Maud Lerayer for Behind the Hill. They create contemporary textiles for home decor using a variety of heirloom color-grown cottons which grow wild in natural shades of pink, terra-cotta, green, beige and cream.