Wonder and Dread (6): Chasing alpaca(s)

The next step in my research for new work inspired by Salt's beautiful alpaca fabrics was to look into Salt's alpaca supply chain. Salt obviously wasn't buying alpaca fleeces directly from Peruvian alpaca herders - he was using a chain of middlemen: at a minimum: a local buyer who bought the fleeces from the indigenous farmers, a British agent in Peru, a shipper, and a buying broker in Liverpool. Then the alpaca fibre would be processed in Salts Mill to make the famous lustre fabrics - an expensive, high-value product. Just as today, the farmer's pay would have only been a minuscule portion of the finished product's retail price.

Today, there is increasing awareness of the potential for exploitation at farm level (or indeed anywhere in the supply chain) - which is why schemes such as the fair trade label exist, and why fashion retailers have been targeted by campaigners for, e.g., using cotton produced with forced and child labour. (see my post "talking about cotton" of 29 Jan 15 ). Back in Titus Salt's day, all this was generally not on people's radar. The alpaca herders were simply a non-topic - unlike the alpacas themselves, which were frequently pictured (see bust of Titus Salt below with a sheep and an alpaca).

Trade reports from British consuls in Peru at the time do mention the exploitation of the indigenous population but do not suggest that this should in any way bother British trade interests. It was more an attitude of "well, in this uncivilised country, what do you expect?"

Given my interest in the workers involved at every stage of textile production I decided to put the Peruvian alpaca farmers centre stage in my artwork - the unsung heroes, so to speak. I wanted to do this by including a portrait of an alpaca farmer living in Peru's highlands today, because sadly, not much has changed for these people since 1853. Today, 85 % of Peruvian alpaca is produced by smallholders, The majority have less than 50 alpacas, and many have no more than 10. Life in the highlands is hard, and most people scarcely make a living. In order for families to survive, many men migrate to the big cities for work, leaving the women in charge of the farms. So clearly, my portrait had to be of a woman.

I found my "model", Cristina, through Allpa, a Peruvian NGO that works with indigenous weavers, jewellers and other craftspeople to produce high-end textiles and fashion accessories. Like many people in the highland communities, Cristina grows potatoes and quinoa, has a few alpacas, llamas and sheep, and weaves scarves and other goods for sale in the local markets. Working as a weaver for Allpa provides Cristina with a much-needed source of fairly-paid income.

Images courtesy of Luis Heller, Allpa.

I was excited and honoured to paint her. The question was: on what kind of canvas would I paint her? The concept of "Wonder and Dread" is to incorporate, in each work, a fabric that relates to the story being told in that work. So alpaca fabric was called for. I had a look at fabrics produced by Peruvian indigenous communities but that somehow didn't feel right - I wanted the fabric to be from the other end of the supply chain, i.e. from Britain. For I had discovered that Britain has its own - boutique! - alpaca industry today.

Not long afterwards I found myself at the British Alpaca Society's (BAS) 2017 National Show! 90% of that involved beauty contests for the best alpaca fibre in various categories. The 4-legged beauties themselves were waiting (more or less) patiently in a big hangar for their turn in front of the judges. It was quite a spectacle. I just can't help laughing when I see alpacas - they look like someone designed a really cute cuddly toy and then enlarged and animated it.

The bit of the show I had come for was the display of alpaca yarns and textiles. I wondered if anyone was making fabrics that were at all comparable to the Victorian fabrics from Salts Mill. There were really quite beautiful shawls, blankets, tweeds and similar costume fabrics, and some of the tailoring was amazing - but the fabrics couldn't have been more different from Titus Salts' fine, elegant dress fabrics.

Alpaca tweeds by Teesdale Alpacas

However, on the train back, I leafed through the BAS yearbook (as one does) and found an article about a company called the British Alpaca Fashion Company that was producing, among other things, alpaca/silk fabrics. The company, run by Anila and David Preston, has a herd of some 85 alpacas in Somerset and has the ambition to produce high fashion fabrics, working with yarn spinners, weavers and designers in the UK and abroad.

When I told them about my project Anila, who had seen the Salts sample book that inspired me, suggested she could try and recreate one of Titus Salt's alpaca/silk designs. So, in a nutshell, that's what we did, using Salt's ivy pattern. It was a time-consuming and complicated process, because we depended on the goodwill and capacity of Gainsborough (the weaving company Anila was working with) to make a small length of fabric for us at the end of another job, using the silk warp they had already installed for that job. This meant we had no choice in the warp colour. I would have loved to recreate the hot pink, deep purple, or cyan fabrics Salts made combining black alpaca wefts with extremely brightly coloured silk warps, but alas, that was not on offer! In the end the silk warp we could use was white, which we combined with a black alpaca weft - actually an "authentic" combination Salt used for a grey/silver ivy pattern. Our fabric is thicker and loser than the Salts fabrics, but it does have a similar gorgeous silver lustre and lovely, changeable gradations of shades depending on the light.

Left: Alpaca/silk fabric from the 1853 Salts sample book at Bradford Industrial Museum. Right: Alpaca/ slik fabric from the British Alpaca Fashion company, made specially for the Wonder & Dread exhibition.

This silver fabric was obviously unsuitable as a canvas to paint on so instead I made it the second protagonist in my painting, alongside my Peruvian alpaca farmer. As canvas, I used a simple cream/black cotton stripe which is an example of the kind of fabric the British exported to Peru in the 19th century. On one side, I continued the ivy pattern in embroidery onto the cotton fabric - invasive ivy as a symbol of the British trade interests invading Peru.

I also incorporated strips of traditional Peruvian fabrics which I sourced from the lovely Sandra and Peter, a Peruvian/British couple I'd met at the BAS show and who import Peruvian clothes and handicrafts for sale in their shop United Ideas in Greenwich.

So....a lot of strands to bring together in one piece! Here's a non-professional and rather badly lit snap of the end result I took in the studio. To get a better view, do visit the exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum!

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