Starry night skies, open landscapes, pastoral views, and snowy mountain tops are embroidered on the tapestries produced by Artesania Sorata, a fair trade organization working with over two hundreds artisans throughout La Paz, Bolivia.
These textiles speak not only of one’s daily life, but they give voice to struggles on poverty, migration, and the search for greater opportunities. These textiles represent expressions, statements, visions, and dreams. Founder Diane Bellomy, who moved to Bolivia in the 1970s says, “the mission is to communicate through their textile art, not only the beauty and tranquility of a pastoral life but the reality of populations that are taken advantage of at the hands of international politics.” Diane has always been a woman ahead of her time, abiding by fair trade practices even before it was a household word. Thirty years and counting, she continues to put people and the planet at the forefront of her mission.
Artesania Sorata supports the empowerment of women and the vulnerable, focusing on those living in poverty and with disabilities. They are a firm supporter of indigenous identity and the value of living a sustainable lifestyle, close to nature, and is shown in their dedication to the use of natural dyes. Diane says “It is a beautiful process of working with the ever shifting seasons and learning how to work with the earth in a non harmful way. The experience itself of gathering the leaves, seedpods, or plants and cooking them to extract their colors is something very close to magic. Over the years, we learned which pots to use to create different tones with the same dyes and we learned which plants needed mordants to make certain colors.” The range of gorgeous, soft colors is a distinguishing factor of these Bolivian textiles, producing rich brown tones made from walnut leaves, yellow from onion skins, purple to vibrant reds from cochineal, to and shades of vibrant greens from carrot tops and eucalyptus.
Diane first began experimenting with natural dyes when she moved to Sorata, a small town outside in the Bolivian Andes in 1978. She was given a book on natural dyes, which inspired her to start experimenting with the leaves from her the walnut tree she had found in her backyard. Woolen wall hangings and rag dolls were the first products made and over time, they expanded into knitwear that incorporated the ancient Aymara symbols and designs which mirror their surroundings. Diane says, “It has been wonderful to see the development of the sense of color and style that has evolved over the past thirty years. The artisans, who originally wanted to see more contrast than we were creating, now automatically gravitate to the subtle combinations that compliment the tones created by the natural dyes.”
The process of gathering the materials is all closely intertwined within Artesania Sorata. Diane says, “There are challenges, of course, for example, in the midst of winter, such as a lack of walnut leave or carrot tops, but this is to be expected. In Sorata, the leaves fall from the walnut trees in winter, but fortunately we live in the Andes where there are so many different climates, depending on the altitude. Therefore, a winter order for walnut leaves means gathering in a lower valley, such as in the Yungas Valley. Carrot tops are also plentiful at certain times of the year… and scarce during others. We discovered the beautiful tones available from carrot tops several years ago and prefer them to the other plants that yield green, but must work with the ladies in the markets to acquire the carrot tops, especially in the seasons where they are scarce. Cochineal is much easier to use year round, as we usually purchase the bugs dry and keep indefinitely. The insecurity of the price is the only problem that we face with cochineal…. the colors that cochineal produce is awe inspiring and is certainly a wonderful asset to the other colors that we are able to acquire from nature.”
Artesania Sorata has a plethora of knowledge and experience to share. Diane says, “We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time. We do have a long way to go though, to educate about the 'ten principles of fair trade.' This is what makes “fair trade”a philosophy that can create lasting change and not just a cliché. The only way that we can have a peaceful and sustainable planet is to think each act of production and purchasing through and make educated decisions based on the ideals that give us the satisfaction that we are making responsible decisions with each act, however insignificant it may seem.” Diane would like to invite those of the artisan community who share their vision to volunteer with Artesania Sorata and help to make the change a reality for more people in Bolivia and beyond.