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Inside a Peruvian Textile Studio

Creative sister duo Marta and Sandra Castañeda are the founders and designers behind and Pais Textil, a Nest Artisan Guild business. Together, Sandra and Marta have dedicated their lives to keeping the craft of textile art alive in Peru.  Sandra studied filmmaking and then worked as an Art Director for years before joining Marta to be part of the Pais brand. Marta, who studied literature, worked in journalism and then as the press secretary for the former First Lady of Peru, which gave her the opportunity to travel around Peru, explore the opportunity for storytelling through artisans, and to grow her passion for textiles.

We visited Pais’ beautiful studio in Lima, on the top floor of a traditional colonial home in the artistic neighborhood of Barranco. Now we share we invite you to be a part of our conversation with Sandra, and we hope you enjoy.

Julie (Nest): Can you tell us how you work with your weavers?

Sandra: We do not own the work of the weavers. We are their customers. We make sure that they are their own their businesses and teach them to be entrepreneurs. Before weaving, many of them were working in recycling and trash collection. Our mission is to ensure that our weavers can live from their weaving, and that the coming generation continues this type of art, because it is a true art form. The idea is to preserve the art of textile, preserve the education of the weaving technique from generation to generation.

The majority of our tejadores are women taking care of families and weaving is their way of life. We teach them how to work with first class materials (pima cotton, alpaca); educate them on pricing; make them command a higher price for their labor; train them in weaving in ways that are more easily commercialized; and encourage them to grow their client list outside of Pais.

Julie: What is Pais’ connection to Peru’s textile tradition?

Sandra: Marta started to collect traditional artifacts and was fascinated by masks from the Andes. Our mother was an appreciator of Peruvian handicraft. We had the ceramics made from mud, textiles hanging on the wall, chandeliers made from tin in a very traditional fashion, an old wood fountain from Arequip. Our mother truly appreciated Peruvian art, and so we were surrounded by it. We moved from Arequipa to Lima in the 80s and when we arrived there, we saw that they were offering many similar products in Lima! We asked, “Mom, why didn’t you but the product from the stores here?” and she said, “It was important for me to purchase directly from the artisan.”

Marta fell in love with textile and yarn, and she started weaving to get a better idea of the process. She created Cumpi on the basis of purely supporting the artisans: training them to be their own entrepreneurs, teaching them to demand higher prices, and helping them to work with high quality products. A huge problem is that the market is not informed and is commanding a lower price, so the quality is disintegrating and destroying the art. We aim to educate the market, so that we keep this art alive! We fight to recover, foster, and make sure people can live. We are always asking how we can bring our artisans more work. So we decide to work on stock in order to keep their businesses running.

Julie: What technique of textile production to you practice? Why were you drawn to these crafts? What inspired you to begin your design work with backstrap woven textiles in Peru? 

Sandra: We do almost everything on backstrap looms. We work this way, because it is the ancient technique of textile weaving in Peru. I think Peru’s textile past is rich and important. Before the Incas, every small culture in Peru had this technique and they produced very exclusive textiles – something our country has been losing. Handicrafts in Peru have been dying with time because they haven’t been valued enough. Traditionally, this craft used beautiful alpaca, vicuna, and pima cotton, which are very expensive for the people who weave. Because of this expense, artisans began using cheaper materials, which lowers the quality of the textile.

My sister Marta fell in love with textiles. Maybe you are drawn to ceramics of Peru – the gold shiny pieces – but I think textile is the real gold. You see the gastronomic boom in Peru, but I feel the next boom should be textiles. You go to the jungle, to the highlands, to the coast – there are people who are, and always have been, making textiles. We need to start looking inside and not outside Peru to produce our fashions. The upper class has been drawn to foreign items, but now for the first time, there are fashion designers who are beginning to look inside of Peru, and we are in the midst of a revaluation of things, though we still have a long way to go.

Julie: How is Pais innovating traditional backstrap textiles? What role does contemporary design play in your process? 

Sandra: We innovate by using the traditional way of weaving with a twist. We use modern warping by hand – starting with a simple box of wood with sticks. This process of the setup of the warp alone takes about four hours. We also realize that the commercial market appreciates more a well-designed, repeat pattern, which also makes weaving easier for our artisans. Because of this, we can more easily bring new weavers in to work, those who do not have decades of experience. This helps us bring impact more women with increased quality of our products, while meeting commercial needs.

In terms of design we are trying to make a contemporary look without sacrificing the traditional elements – our ideal world is a mix. Sometimes we veer more toward contemporary, and we have done more traditional work –Incan woven belts for women – but we are always thinking on how to make a twist on these. As we innovate, we want to make sure we are not losing our identity. We want to always capture the feeling of Peru – for example, carrying through the tassels that always remind the consumer of the traditional. It’s not always easy to have the perfect mix, but we aim to communicate both worlds, and I believe it’s how we stand out. It’s like a singer, you get tired of singing the big hit every time. You have to twist and see what works and what sells and how people respond.