Textiles and fibers surround us constantly as an integral part of life. Our synod women’s group of ten intrepid travelers immersed ourselves in Bolivian culture last August, visually feasting on sights that truly exemplify the connections of fabric to daily life for many women of this vibrant country. Clothing and textile arts of Bolivia excel in color, pattern and craftsmanship. Exotic llama and alpaca fibers are the norm for clothing construction.
We explored market stalls crammed with jumbles of colorful fabrics. Llamas ambled among the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku. Women laughed and chatted together as they used drop spindles to spin superbly even yarns from llama fleece. Women, crowded into their tiny sidewalk kiosks, kept their knitting needles busy.
Short sturdy indigenous women wear multi layered petticoats, rainbow hued shawls, & in some regions, small bowler hats which sit precariously on their heads. Boldly striped and patterned woven rectangles of cloth, known as aguayos, function as carriers for babies and household goods, slung over one shoulder and knotted in front.
During our stay in Santa Cruz the members of our group were invited to join local church school ladies who met on Saturdays. They expertly painted delightful floral designs on aprons, napkins and table cloths. We quickly realized that they were expressing their hospitality by sharing this form of fellowship. We also realized that we had a lot to learn about the techniques which came so easily to them and also provided extra income through market sales.
The production of yarn, and creation of textile products is integral to the life and economy of Bolivia. Andean culture expresses a rich heritage of designs which are easily recognizable. Bolivian culture is truly evident in the textiles which are produced for domestic use and for export by the talented women of this vibrant country. Often these products are made by women who are the sole supporter of their families. Certainly their abilities have been a huge asset, for these women often have very limited resources. Their husbands may be employed in distant parts of the country, or may be unemployed due to mine closures. The women have had to develop an industry on their own, seeking markets for sales. Each worker must juggle home and family obligations with the need to spend long hours creating products to sell. They are among the ranks of an informal economy where each person must find their own way in the world of business.
While the concept of a flexible industry seems promising, and well suited to the needs of these resourceful women, the very independent nature of such an arrangement is also its weakness. Often each woman develops her own relationship with suppliers of her resources, as well as buyers of finished goods. In local culture, women are often excluded from commercial unions. As Melissa Crane Draper explains in the fascinating book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, the majority of women lack necessary tools for economic success such as education, physical assets, and networking options. With so many home based businesses, the organization of their labor, with resulting protections and positive government policies is exceedingly difficult to implement.
During our trip we were gifted with beautiful leather hand bags, embellished with woven inserts. Almost identical bags are being offered by a major US retailer for over $100. This prompts the question of how much of that selling price is returned to the artisans in Bolivia. The global economy sets the rules, and in some cases even affluent Bolivian women dictate the manner of business, with little regard or sympathy for individual craftspeople of a lower social status. As women visiting from the United States, we were both dismayed by the hardships these women must endure, and a profound admiration for their tenacity to succeed.
A personal treasured moment of connection with the women of Bolivia unfolded as I offered them one of my own weavings. Common language was not necessary as we communicated with animated gestures while sharing our love of creating unique textiles. Truly, through the mutual love of fibers we experienced moments of mutuality, an aspect of accompaniment with our companion synod. As equals we shared in the joy of creation and hope for future interconnected experiences. And dare I state the obvious? The women of the Montana synod are now more tightly woven together in faith with our sisters in Bolivia.