Traceable alpaca yarn – all the way to Peru and back

Suzanna James of the eponymous Suzanna James Knitwear has a thing about traceability – and it is a good thing.

What is its origin? Whose hands did it pass through, and what is their story?

An interest in the origin of her raw materials has meant Suzanna visited farms to meet those who had a literal hand in the journey from sheep to workshop. It even involved a trip from Cardiff to Peru to a village 4,000m up in the Andes. Shearing, spinning and community pride Peruvian style.

Natural dyeing using the cochineal bug and native plants completes the picture. We had to reschedule a recording date for this episode of the Alpaca Tribe Podcast because she was cooking up some natural dye in her kitchen. Nettle, I believe.

Her studies were in Fashion Design at Westminster and then specialising in Knitwear at Winchester School of Art.

The project in Peru is the Antauta Knitters and Suzanna did some work with the organisation Awamaki

Suzanna James Knitwear

On her beautiful website at Suzanna James Knitwear, you can find examples of her work and the stories behind it. There is also this video, which I mentioned in the podcast introduction. 

You can find Suzanna on instagram here @suzannajames

Natural Dyes

The cochineal bugs are already dead when made into dye by the Peruvian ladies!! Suzanna is working with the dye because it is a new textiles piece documenting the project, with the natural dye being such a huge part of her learning, it became important to honour that wealth of knowledge and tradition within their community, when finding a natural dye that was fitting for their influence in the new piece, there was no other choice! Cochineal is part of their community and textiles identity so it had to be included! 

We should also mention natural dyer Rebecca Desnos whose method Suzanna follows for the nettle dyeing. She is an amazing British natural dyer.

Regarding the other Peruvian dyes, there is Q’uolle Tika which the Antauta Knitters use for natural dye and a natural remedy. They also use the flower shape commonly as a motif in their designs. As mentioned in the podcast episode, they don’t have as many plants available to them because of the altitude. Then the Awamaki cooperatives use ‘culpa’ as a natural mordant, it is a naturally occurring rock in the area, and they use this to mordant fibres for use with the other dye plants which include Ch’illca – green, Ahuaypili – purple, and Q’olle – yellow. They also use Q’olle with the Cochineal to create a brighter orange-red, and use salt, lemon juice and vinegar to change the pH of the Cochineal dye, which creates the 20 shades of Cochineal. Cochineal is the only dye that is readily available outside of Peru as the other plants are foraged for in smaller quantities. The alpaca yarn is dyed straight after being mordanted with the Culpa, except for Ahuaypili, which doesn’t need a mordant. 

Suzanna will be doing a series of blog posts soon about the dyeing processes, so do sign up for the community newsletter on her website if you are interested in finding out more.

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