Sustainable Quechua Couture

Awamaki’s Love for Peru

Awamaki brings traditional Quechua techniques to the fashion scene in the US. On a recent trip to Perú, HAND/EYE visited Awamaki’s shop and office in Ollantaytambo and talked to designers Krissa Henderson, Courtney Cedarholm and Andria Crescioni.

HAND/EYE: Why did you choose to work with indigenous communities in Perú?

KRISSA HENDERSON: Honestly, it was a bit of research and a lot of luck! I had been working as a knitwear designer in New York City and ready for a change. I always wanted to work in sustainable fashion and also to work with the people producing the product to ensure proper treatment, but also to learn about new cultures. It was really my love of natural fibers and desire to live in a Spanish speaking community that drew me to Peru. The rich culture and amazing people were an unexpected bonus.

ANDRIA CRESCIONI: After studying at Parsons in a very traditional design setting, I realized that my passions lie in promoting traditional crafts and using fashion design as a way to act as a liaison between artisans and consumers. I prefer to work in a very pared-down environment on projects that focus on artisanal techniques and deal with small run production and I have always been interested in traveling and getting to know a region’s art and craft specialties.

COURTNEY CEDARHOLM: I wanted to be apart of a system that created garments that at each step on the production to customer process there was something positive for everyone involved. Going to Peru and working with the women down there seemed the perfect first step to learning about how to make these idyllic plans a reality.

HE: What do you think indigenous design has to offer to today's fashion world?

KH: I think that designers can learn a lot from the processes that indigenous cultures use to create their product as well as their inspiration. In Peru it is said that weavers get their inspiration from their environment and that is why designs vary between regions. I think that indigenous design and design inspired by indigenous designs is being seen more and more in the fashion world and that it new and unexpected pattern and color combinations.

AC: I think that fashion is quickly changing and there are new ways to approach the design, sourcing and production process. Also, consumers are really responding to items that tell a story and are coming from a thoughtful place, while also being aesthetically covetable. This is where the opportunity to work with indigenous communities really works, artisans get the opportunity to showcase their work in a new market and consumers get the opportunity to buy specialty items that they might not otherwise get a hold of. 

KH: It is connecting to something truly authentic.  Fashion is about reinterpreting something old in a modern way and striving for authenticity along the way, but it always seems to lose a little something if it is only about that one final moment of beauty.  What is amazing about these textiles is how they are created. The most fascinating part for me was spending time with the weavers and watching how they work and it is just what they do, an integral part of living in a different way than we look at work in the first world.  It is not a separate entity from family life, the children are right there the entire time, weaving fits into the day as much as cooking, tending to the animals etc. It is just another element of daily life and everything feels more balanced than our live to work/ work to live lifestyles here. It just seems to be living and that is where the true authenticity and beauty lies.

HE:  What has Awamaki offered you as designers?  For design? For production?

KH: Working for Awamaki is like working for an emerging fashion brand, but much more hands-on. As a designer, you have a lot of control over the product as well as unparalleled opportunity to work directly with and learn from those creating the product.

AC: Awamaki has provided me with the opportunity to continue designing and creating while simultaneously having a unique experience living in the majestic town of Ollantaytambo, Peru.  To be able to design and sew alongside our women’s co-ops as well as easily visit the Patacancha Valley, where our hand-woven textiles are being made, has given me an entirely new perspective on fashion.  This close knit experience has made me realize the value of having a personal relationship with as many people as possible in the design and production process which is something I feel the need to carry out in my work going forward. 

CC: “It has given us a platform to design to our own personal aesthetic but at the same time shown us it is possible to create garments in a new production format outside the factory setting and this has started me on a journey at the very beginning of my career that makes me want to keep learning and constantly be improving and changing these ideals to find that ultimate production cycle that can be equally about beauty as well as making sure there is beauty in the make”.

HE:. Can you please talk about the challenges?

KH: The main challenges are technology and communication. We do not have fast Internet and there are a lot of everyday things like knitting needles and yarns that we travel a ways to buy. It can also be difficult to explain new concepts or designs in Spanish.

AC: There are many challenges when it comes to working in Peru, but I have to say that each challenge we faced was rewarding in some way. We all are intermediate in Spanish, which made interacting with the co-ops difficult at times, but due to the visual nature of design we were all able to stay on the same page for the most part.  Also, there is less of a variety of fabrics and trims to work with in Peru, which made the materials at hand play a large role in the design process.

CC: The challenges were definitely first adjusting from designing in a school setting in New York City. In design school you are there to push and find your aesthetic and that is the ultimate important element, and being in New York City you have access to absolutely everything and anything to get to that moment in finding that aesthetic that you can then build off of and bring to the industry.  In Peru we had a limited range of resources to work with, cant complain about only having alpaca though, and had to make sure we were designing to the skill sets of the women but then at the same time we knew we were bringing these garments to the New York fashion market and they had to stand on their own as well. That was a lot of elements to uphold in a design, but those all help lead to somewhere you would never get to other wise.

HE: Can you please talk about sustainability (social, cultural and environmental) in your work as designers and in work with Awamaki.

KH: Environmental sustainability has always been a huge focus for me. When I leaned about poor working conditions in Nike and GAP factories as a child, I boycotted their brands. I got into fashion dreaming of working with factory workers to provide safe, healthy, and fair conditions while making environmentally friendly clothing.

Cultural preservation became a concern of mine more recently and I think that out of the three, it is the trickiest. With cultural preservation you walk a fine line and I think it can be easy to error on the side of holding people back. Awamaki does a great job of assisting indigenous artisans by giving them access to important information but leaving the major decision making in their hands”.

AC: Awamaki Lab is working on creating a sustainable production system for the Peruvians involved in terms of creating jobs that they can count on for the long run.  A form of income that will lift them up out of poverty levels and at the same time make sure they get keep their lifestyles that they are accustomed to, taking care of the children first and foremost. This goes for the weavers, knitters and sewers.  We didn't dictate any design qualities to the weavers for the textile to insure the culture of weaving stays strong within the community by keeping them working with ancestral iconography and practices.”

CC: My aim is to act as a liaison between artisans and consumers- I am interested in using contemporary design to prevent the extinction of craftsmanship and am adamant in being involved in a more conscientious approach to fashion. I want to help consumers become more connected to their clothing, whether it is through similar ethical standards, through a connection with the materials or techniques used, or whatever else makes the relationship the customer has with their clothes more substantial than simply another addition to their wardrobe, which can also defer disposal.

Organizations like Awamaki allow for amazing opportunity for economic success in developing communities like Ollantaytambo. Having raw materials, skilled craftspeople, and facilities to produce goods all in one place is an ideal way to reduce mileage in the production process and stimulate the local economy.   For me, one of the most rewarding parts of the Awamaki Lab project is the direct relationship that we get to have with the weavers in Patacancha, as well. This hands-on experience really gave us the opportunity to design pieces that compliment the way they work and live, rather than hinder it.  It’s a very collaborative relationship that has deeply inspired me and I know this is the beginning of a long journey of experiencing new ways of living and creating”

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