So I stumbled across this gorgeous photo of a yummy looking teal blue yarn with dried flowers as I was scrolling through my instagram feed one night - it was some ridiculous hour of the night and I couldn't sleep because I'd gone to bed at seven with the baby because I was exhausted and then I woke up a couple hours later, the rest of my night doomed because I'd tried to go to bed early. How does that even make sense!? But I digress. Back to the yarn.
Something about it made my sleep deprived brain stop and say, "Ooh, what's this!?" - and I followed the yarn trail all the way to this Kickstarter project for Pichinku, a naturally dyed Peruvian yarn. Now, I couldn't watch the videos (with sound, anyway) because it was the middle of the night, but needless to say I was intrigued. Pledging was a given but I had to know more!
After a brief internal debate, I finally convinced myself to reach out and see if I could get an interview - and she said yes! I can only imagine how busy she is in the middle of such a huge campaign, but I am delighted to introduce you to Dana Blair, Director of Operations of Threads of Peru, located in Cusco, Peru, and Founder of Pichinku!
Tell me a little bit about yourself and the journey that took you from small town PA to the Andes!
Dana: Though I claim to be an honorary Peruvian, I was born in Hawaii, raised in Pennsylvania and studied Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. And when I began to travel internationally in college, I never stopped!
I’ve always been the “wanderer” in my family, fascinated by world travel, people and culture. When I moved to Cusco in 2013, I had worked in Brazil with clay potters, and in the Anthropology archives of both the Matson Museum of Anthropology and Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
I relocated - Pittsburgh to Cusco - in less than two weeks after accepting the position of Director of Operations for Threads of Peru, a not-for- profit social enterprise that connects the world to handmade treasures of the Andes, helping to strengthen ancient craft techniques and empower artisans. Let me tell you, my parents were thrilled!
Our team provides support and training to indigenous artisans that practice totally non-mechanized weaving and natural dyeing techniques. We work to improve the quality of their products and market them internationally. With rusty Spanish and absolutely no Quechua, it was the most extreme, breathtaking environment I can imagine even now. In days I was traveling to remote, in-need communities where basic education, running water and electricity are just now arriving.
To say that it’s been an educational and life-changing experience is to say very little. When the success or “failure” of your efforts could in part determine the well being of impoverished families, you find yourself striving to do much more than you would have imagined yourself possible.
What's a typical day like for you and the artisans?
Dana: My day-to- day schedule in Cusco has never had much rhythm, but I’ve always taken it at my steamroller pace (“ritmo de miedo” in Spanish)!
But keep in mind that before now, I was working with textiles and will just now be switching to yarn! The exploration and adventure of creating our own production systems, quality control processes, etc. for Pichinku begins when I get back to Cusco. And I’m already counting down the days!
Nevertheless, my work has mostly been 50/50 split between “normal” and“dreamlike” e.g. some days spent on my Macbook in cafes around Cusco sending emails, and others spent working with the artisans at 13,000 feet in the mountains. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been paid to do it!
What's it like living in Peru? We lived in Colorado Springs for a few years and while we never hiked Pikes Peak, although I would have LOVED to have been able to, I imagine the altitude took some getting used to! I think I'd be distracted by the views, though...
Dana: It’s funny that when I was home for the first visits after moving to Peru, a lot of people asked me “what’s it like being home?” And I would laugh and respond, “it’s totally normal. I lived here for 22 years.” Peru is the “new normal” and there are still every day challenges to confront like cultural norms, institutionalized disrespect for traffic laws, and that vegetarianism is only acceptable if you’ll still eat chicken.
And the altitude, oh my! You can live at 12,000 feet for many years, like I have, and never adjust 100%. In many of the high Andean communities where I’ve worked, we’re at 13,000 - 15,000 feet, and exposed to extreme climactic conditions (think warping textiles in the freezing rain). For the average visitor though, it’s mostly head and belly aches, all curable with steamy cups of coca leaf tea. It tastes like grass but does the trick!
I could write on and on about the literally breathtaking views! As an avid trail runner, I enjoy them even more now on foot, having adjusted more or less to the altitude strains. Get this: I trained for my first full marathon in Cusco! And through my work with Threads of Peru, I’ve had the privilege of not only traveling to some of the most pristine valleys of the Peruvian Andes, but also being welcomed as a friend and colleague of the families who live there.
Which part of your work/day do you find to be most satisfying? Most challenging?
Dana: Inter-cultural communication, even with translators, can be challenging. It’s not so much what you say, but how we are shaped to think, feel and value things differently by our respective cultures. And particularly as an American, I was brought up to be kind of manic about time management. Well, things don’t really work like that in Peru, especially not in the Andes.
What I find to be most fulfilling and inspiring is when we connect just as people, communicating more with smiles and hand signals than words. And that whether it’s a little or a lot, that my work truly is having positive impact on lives other than mine.
Dana: My passion is to preserve world heritage by investing in the artisans that carry on traditional practices today. In making them economically viable, we better ensure that they will survive, and support the well-being of artisans and their families.
It's disheartening for those of us that work with traditional pieces, and natural fibers, that the market doesn't seem to know the difference between those high quality products and cheap synthetics.
After working hand-in- hand with the Threads artisans, I started to imagine things differently because heavy textiles are difficult. Yarn on the other hand is “simple” and globally marketable. Pichinku aspires to help fill the lack of naturally dyed fiber on the market. And just by purchasing yarn, consumers positively impact the environment and generate long-term opportunities for artisans in Peru.
What's your favorite color/dye source?
Dana: A seemingly simple question! My dearest friend, Schuyler (Pichinku means “little bird” and that is my nickname for Schuy) and I always joked that we wanted to paint the world in technicolor, meaning to say that choosing one would be near impossible!
But I’m particularly fond of the sunshine yellows - that the maker community is loving on Instagram - made by these precious little flowers named q’olle! There is another plant named chapi that is less common and produces the most incredible salmon-y pink tones.
When we’re properly online with the Pichinku website and shop, you can bank on us sharing TONS more information about all of the different plants and methods of working with them to create our naturally dyed rainbow!
You can see the magic of q'olle in action towards the end of Dana's Kickstarter intro video!
Besides the natural dyes, which I find fascinating, what sets Pichinku yarn apart from other natural fiber yarns?
Dana: We source all our yarn - highland wool, alpaca and baby alpaca - from Michell and Cia. Their production is 100% ethical, down to their fiber being hand-sorted (no machines) by micron quality and sourced from traditional alpaca herding families in the high Andes. Michell has also provided employment to hundreds of Peruvian employees for 80+ years and made genetic research advancements that will keep the alpaca industry alive in Peru.
Pichinku yarn embraces that handmade items have identity. They tell stories of families and entire civilizations that can stretch back thousands of years.
The artisans that will begin Pichinku with me - four beautiful sisters from the Andean community of Totora - have become like an adoptive family. When asked, they will be the first to share how deeply they appreciate that their mother and grandmothers patiently taught them these skills, and that they passionately feel obligated to continue practicing.
Naturally dyed and natural fibers are qualities found in yarn from around the world. Their production may even employ artisans much like we do. Pichinku is unique because it tells the story of an ancient heritage, of 100% Peruvian-made yarn and the legacy of the Quechua people.
What is the future you envision for Pichinku?
Dana: Immediately, Pichinku will provide stable work to skilled artisans, at fair wages and a comfortable schedule. But this “simple” yarn idea could grow much bigger than our humble beginnings!
For example, I daydream of incorporating other 100% natural fibers like cotton, which evades the limitations of heavy materials like alpaca and wool e.g. wool cowls don’t wear well in summer! And that while we grow and expand, Pichinku will provide more opportunities for more people, not just artisans, to have stable work, embrace their cultural heritage and learn about sustainable practices.
Do you knit or crochet?
Dana: Confession: I’m more beginner than the beginners, but I’ve knitted a couple hats and scarves that could pass as acceptable! Makes me wonder though, because I’ve never seen those people actually wear them. Maybe I should just stick with making beautiful yarn and keep “master knitter” on my bucket list!
What's your favorite handmade item you own?
Dana: Hands down, my QHAPAQ change purse from Threads of Peru! Maybe that’s personal bias, but I didn’t design any part of it! It’s the perfect stow away, and features locally sourced leather, naturally dyed yarn and back strap loom weaving. What I love about it, and what I’ve always loved about my work in Peru, is that I can tell you from A to Z how it was made, with what, and by whom!
Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
Dana: Pichinku is LIVE on Kickstarter and although we’ve reached our funding goal, the campaign will continue until Feb-28! Why pledge? Every bit extra will mean an even better beginning for our little bird business! AND making a pledge is the only opportunity to have first edition Pichinku yarn before retail sales open in October.
Don’t miss out!
Many, MANY thanks to Dana for taking time out of her day to chat - I am SO excited to see her vision for Pichinku yarn come to life! And I absolutely cannot wait to get some of this yarn in my greedy little hands so I can crochet with it!
I do hope you'll join me in supporting Dana's fledgling business. It's so fun to be able to be a part of this from the very beginning, watching excitement grow in the maker community, and getting so much awesome insight and backstory as we take this incredible journey together. I know there aren't any other yarns that I can say that about! So pledge, share, comment, follow Dana on Instagram or Facebook, send some good juju - every little bit helps when a new business is just getting started!
Oh and when you DO pledge, here's an image to share!