( LEFT ) The traditional aguayo, in addition to its functional use, it is a work of art in itself. It is a multicolored square piece of cloth which is characteristic of the Andean part of Bolivia. It is an indispensable everyday tool that is used as a tablecloth, blanket, or a wrapping cloth commonly used by Andean women to carry their babies and all kinds of items on their backs. Handmaking it with all the symbolic drawings specific to each region takes months of work and requires skill and ancestral know-how. ( RIGHT ) A long piece of Bayeta, a traditional textile handwoven with alpaca and llama wool, has been naturally dyed with cochineal and is drying in the sun. This traditional textile is becoming rare as the weaving techniques are slowly disappearing.
When searching for genuine indigenous textiles, Véronique Valdès discovered that they were extremely difficult to find. Such was the case for the handwoven bayeta, a coarse woolen fabric of a thin but resistant weave. Originally introduced by the Spanish, it was used by indigenous people to make everyday garments such as women's skirts and jackets and men's pantalones (knee-length pants) and shirts. By 2000, bayeta was silently dying out in Bolivia. Only three families could still weave the rough-looking fabric and there was a yearlong waiting list to get 300 meters of genuine bayeta. Since the presidential election of Evo Morales, indigenous culture has been revitalized and several communities are weaving bayeta again. The annual Oruro Carnival, a major indigenous event that has been listed on Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2008, plays a key role in its revival. For four days, some 30,000 dancers gather in the otherwise sleepy town of Oruro to celebrate their religious traditions, proudly wearing their indigenous clothes and showing their full artistry.
( LEFT ) Preparation of two-strand yarn balls for carpet weaving.
Washing the warp with cold water before warping the loom.
After the warp has been washed in cold water it is hung outside to dry in the sun prior to warping the loom.
The Jatan Aku, or striped plain weaves, is a traditional multipurpose textile that is made from alpaca or llama wool and is commonly used as rugs in mud houses, carrying bags in the potato fields, or blankets for the freezing nights in the Andean High Plateau. "Jatan" means big in Quechua and "aku" is a generic word for weave. In the past, they were made by indigenous farmers for family use. Each piece carried functional and aesthetic aspects, purposefully arranged in specific combinations of colors and patterns. "Before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, each family had its own design styles. In the absence of a writing system, these patterns were the ID cards of pre-Columbian Bolivia. Specific colors and designs were sure ways to identify which bag belonged to whom during the communal harvests. Indigenous people could use a great diversity of native plants, minerals or insects to dye the llama and alpaca yarn into their distinctive colors. Some textiles were decorated with anthropomorphic characters, symbolizing indigenous religious beliefs but these motifs were banned by the Spaniards for two centuries and they nearly disappeared. Today, these rugs are very rare and hard to find," explains Véronique.
The aguayo is a traditional blanket, or wrapping cloth, commonly used by Andean women to carry their babies and all kinds of items on their backs. According to Véronique, it is literally the "handbag" of every Andean woman. The native aguayo is handwoven with naturally dyed alpaca, llama or sheep thin wool. The large square weaves typically feature symbolic motifs that recount stories linked to a region and community. When girls are 13 years old, they make their first aguayo as part of their dowry, using motifs to convey their dreams and expectations. The width of the backstrap loom does not exceed 75 centimeters, so aguayos are woven in two long matching halves that are later sewn together with an ornamental stitch. Traditional aguayos take up to four months to weave and are highly prized works of art. For the past ten years, semi-industrial aguayos made with synthetic materials have become popular in most urban areas. They are more affordable but do not last as long as the traditional ones.
Indigenous market in El Alto, (La Paz) Bolivia.
The camelid fibers and sheep wool come from the Bolivian Altiplano, a harsh but spectacular area located from 3,600 to 4,200 meters in altitude. In the wool section of El Alto Market (Mercado 16 de Julio), a huge open-air market, wool fiber are carefully displayed on the ground. They come in 1-ply yarn in 400-gram balls, or directly from raw fleeces that can weigh up to 6 kilograms. Alpaca fiber is soft, light, tough and warm with some unique elasticity and hygroscopic properties. Baby alpaca, which is usually obtained from the animal's first shearing or from an adult animal with a very fine coat, is the finest quality. What makes alpaca fiber so special is the wide range of natural colors this animal can produce, ranging wfrom white to black to multiple nuances of beiges, camels, browns and exclusive greys. Llama fiber is more popular but is heavier and more rigid.
( LEFT ) Yarn balls of llama wool and natural (untinted) alpaca wool sold individually in 400-gram weight. ( RIGHT ) Llama and alpaca fleece.
Sheep pen built with adobe.
German, a Quechua-Aymara farmer in Toledo near Oruro, supplies AndiArt with fine alpaca, sheep and llama wool yarn. He owns 80 llamas and 600 sheep. His adobe pen is a 45-minute drive from his home.
Each part of the llama body produces different types of fiber. The legs and lower parts of the body yield a rough fiber, perfect for weaving rugs. The "saddle area" yields a softer and longer fiber used to make sweaters and knitted hats. Sheep wool is naturally coarse with fewer natural colors than camelid hair, although Merino sheep raised in Southern Bolivia in the Sucre region produce high-quality fine wool fleece.
The rarest and finest wool comes from the vicuna, a small and delicate camelid that roams wild in the nature reserves of the high Andean Plateaus. The soft and warm fleece produces a creamy white to light brown fiber used exclusively for luxury goods.
German, a Quechua-Aymara farmer in Toledo near Oruro, supplying fine alpaca, sheep and llama wool yarn.
Germans' wife Ilaria cutting wool fiber from llama fleece for spinning.
"Large wool growers typically sell their production to large textile manufacturers and I don't have access to this wool. I work with small-scale farmers who raise herds of about 80 llamas, sometimes even less. The llama is such an integral part of Andean life that even the smallest farming families own at least one or two llamas. It's like having a pet! Llamas can live between 15 to 20 years, but the fiber becomes stronger and feels less soft over the years. I buy handspun balls at the big El Alto Market. We must buy wool from over thirty different wool producers since gathering the right quantity and color shades can take some time. We may buy ten or three kilograms, depending on what we can find. In Bolivia, alpaca wool is typically uncarded because the fiber has a natural sheen and inherent softness, but it is handspun with the Andean drop spindle, the pushka. Women spin all day long, throughout their lives, while walking to the fields or watching over their flocks," explains Valdès.
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Anne Laure Camilleri is a freelance photographer based in Paris. She studied Film Making at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français and worked as a post-production supervisor before shifting to photography. Combining her passion for arts, journalism and cultural preservation into her features, she explores the spiritual values that permeate traditional craftsmanship and maintain cultural resilience. Her features have appeared in various media outlets including Selvedge, Embroidery, Inspirations, Handwoven and Pèlerin.