Woven Woman Wednesday with Sonya & Steph from Aula Artesana
Introducing the ladies of Aula Artesana, a company with the mission to establish more of a connection between consumers and artisans of Peru as well as creating workshops to teach natural dye techniques and weaving with travelers. The artisans they work with are both from the highlands and the jungles of Peru, indigenous and carrying traditions that have been passed down through multiple generations. As masters of their craft, they teach people of all different backgrounds to weave, work with natural dyes from the local plants and infuse a deeper knowledge of the Peruvian textile tradition through their handmade goods sold in the Aula Artesana store. Sonya and I had the pleasure of connecting by phone and I was delighted to come to learn more about this wonderful organization. All the way around me, Peruvian textiles have ensconced my life with their beauty, their story-telling and notable precision in design. I’ve being wanting to travel to Peru for years, not only to explore the legendary Machu-Picchu, but to sit and weave with the weavers there. Whenever I peruse images of Peru, it’s vast Andean range speaks to me as do the fluffy alpaca’s, the rainbow colored garments, the smiles I’ve noted in the eyes of the people there. Many in my community have traveled there so it’s been wonderful to learn more about an organization that is aligning itself with strong moral and intention to work with the community, to share their talented traditions and provide the curious with an opportunity to learn the backstrap loom. In a world with business ethnics of all sorts, I am much more inclined to not only purchase from a company that directly supports its artisans in fair trade practice, but one that also provides an opportunity to learn it right there, on site. As a weaving facilitator myself and artist, the ethos resonate deeply. I’m thrilled to share I will be joining in and participating for their December workshop so I’d say, if you feel the call, that’s a fantastic time to join me! Have a read below.
What are your names and your astrological signs?
Stephanie (Steph) Guthridge, Sagittarius
Sonya Radetsky, stubborn Capricorn :)
Please tell me what makes your organization special and was there any significant moment
between both of you, and individually, that inspired you to start the organization?
Steph: Aula has been a collaborative project from the very beginning by deciding that we would co-found the business. It is important to us that we work as a partnership and combine our different experience and skill sets to achieve our goals. Collaboration, then, is at the core of all of our artisan partnerships and also how we work with employees and clients.
Our artisan partners. We partner with communities and individuals who are looking for opportunities to sell their artisan goods and teach people about the process, and Aula offers one avenue for our partners to do that.
Aula is a values-based business, so when making decisions, we will always check in with those values to ensure that they align. The business element is key for sustainability. If everyone involved is benefitting and able to sustain themselves, Aula can continue to thrive and grow.
Sonya: I could talk your ear off about what makes Aula special, but there’s one that comes to mind above the others. One of my biggest challenges as a traveler and as a foreigner living in such a culturally rich country is how many layers and obstacles there are between visitors to a place and the place itself. Time, language, cultural divides, history - the list is endless. And on the other side, I think it’s really tough for locals to show who they are and share their culture and their art, for many of the same reason - language, time constraints, access. So as basic as it sounds, Aula’s role as the go-between is one of the things that makes it the most special because all of a sudden both sides of the interaction can actually have an experience that feels open and authentic and intimate.
Steph: No single, significant moment, rather a build up of small ones: when I was doing a lot of visioning for Aula in the beginning stages and getting so inspired that I forgot to eat, realizing that it was a way to bring together my experience, skills, and some ideas that I had been mulling around for a while in a way that benefits everyone involved: working alongside Indigenous communities, bringing people of different backgrounds together, providing creative learning spaces, alternative business models. The more we delved into it, the more I realized that I wanted to be a part of it. Even the first time Sonya mentioned working together to me, it was casually dropped into conversation… a conversation that we picked up again a few days later. The decision to work with Sonya was easy - I knew that we could do it together; share the celebratory moments as well as have those tricky conversations. We had great timing, too.
Sonya: Before starting Aula, I had been rolling ideas around and around in my head, losing sleep because I couldn’t quite land on the idea that felt right. But when the opportunity arose to take over our store space, all of a sudden it all clicked into place, I quit my job the next day. I’ve always loved handmade goods and the symbolism and importance they hold in so many cultures (you should see my house - embarrassing!). But as a consumer, you can only go so far when it comes to learning about what you’re buying. So why not take people to the source, where they can learn first-hand about the incredible artisan traditions here in Peru, and where the artisans can fully explore what it means to share their culture and teach what they know. In the end, Aula’s retreats are actually my dream trips, and I know I’m not the only one. When it came to working with Steph, that was as easy a decision as deciding to start the business itself. Our passions and values are in line, and our strengths complement one another. She’s one of the most honorable people I’ve ever known. And when we first talked about it, she whipped out a pen and a napkin and we started brainstorming right there. So if that’s not a great sign, I don’t know what is.
Where are you both from, your background and what inspired you to relocate to Peru to
start to work with indigenous communities?
Steph: I am from the UK - a town in Sussex, in the South-East of the country. An amalgamation of different things drew me towards working with Indigenous communities: learning more about the details and effects of colonization (something that is not taught or discussed widely in the UK) when studying at university, studying with people from all over the world and experiencing how much it enhanced my education - I thrived off of listening to different viewpoints, whilst also finding university to be too far removed from reality at times, as well as a whole load of idealism and eagerness to learn. I had become interested in social movements in Latin America through my studies and had always wanted to learn Spanish, so it all came together and I decided to move here. Since then, I’ve lived in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru and worked with several nonprofits and businesses in a range of areas - it hasn’t been the most linear of paths!
Sonya: I’m from the US and grew up in New Mexico, another haven for Indigenous art and handmade goods. Although I’m not an artist myself, growing up around those traditions and knowing how deep that knowledge runs, it’s always been part of my worldview. I went to college and grad school at NYU in New York City and lived there for several years after, where I worked in market research. But I had always wanted to live abroad, always saw myself that way, and I happened to have a dear friend from high school who had been living and working in Cusco for a few years. When she jokingly offered me a short-term position in her NGO working with a fair trade textiles program, I laughed it off at first and then quit my job the following week (seems to be a theme for me). That experience in the textile program was my first time working with Indigenous communities, and it was very clear that after my six months with the organization, I hadn’t even scratched the surface when it came to living and working here in Cusco. So six months turned into a year, turned into two years, and now here we are. After a couple of years working in sustainable tourism, I was really happy to have a way to combine that passion for travel with the artisan partnerships that I was missing.
What is one of the more valuable lessons you’ve learned from living outside of your home country? UK and US?
What is one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from working with indigenous
Steph: This was one of the hardest questions for me to answer; trying to remember some of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learnt over the last few years because once you learn them and adapt, they don’t stand out to you as much - another reminder that I should keep a journal! One that’s been important for everyday life is the difference in rules around time-keeping between here and the UK; British culture having a strict set of time-keeping rules, in contrast to Peruvian culture, where time is much more fluid. Whilst it’s something that I have grown to love, I still struggle with it when I want to have an overly efficient day. Then, from working with Indigenous communities: there’s so much to be learnt in the process. For example, in a community meeting where everyone has the right to speak for as long as they want, there’s a lot to learn, not just about the specific issue that is being discussed, but how that relates to other issues within the community and the person who is talking, giving you a more well-rounded understanding. Taking time over the process, therefore, is so important for building trust, getting to know each other, as well as discussing specific topics.
Sonya: For me, living outside of my home country is an ever-unfolding tightrope walk. On the one hand, it’s so important to set aside my biases about how things should be and open myself up to other ways of living and thinking. In a way, being a good guest in my host country. But on the other hand, I live here full time, and I can’t set aside who I am and what my values are because they sometimes clash with the place that I’m in. So it’s a constant back and forth, when to voice what I think, when am I justified in feeling offended or frustrated, and when do I need to set aside my ego. It’s a total grey area, and most times there’s not an obvious right answer. I can really only speak to working with Indigenous communities here in Peru. For me, the word “communities” says it all in terms of what I’ve learned. The US is a notoriously individualistic society, and I’m a notoriously individualistic person. But many of the communities we work with organize themselves based on what’s best for the group or the association or the community as a whole. Weavers work in cooperatives and associations, and when we meet with our partners, we’re often meeting with a group of 10 or 20 or more. And group consensus and agreement is so important to the well-being of the community. That’s something I’ve never experienced before, and there’s so much that I’ve been able to take from that model and apply to my own life and the business as a whole.
What is an observation you make as an American and Brit that could better help those traveling
learn to respect the local culture, traditions, and way of life?
Steph: As a Brit, I would advocate for educating yourself on the UK’s impact on the world both historically and today, colonization, as well as researching the country you are visiting. It will provide very useful context for when you are adapting to a new place.
Sonya: As travel becomes more accessible to more people, I’ve found that there’s a lot of openness from travelers to ask questions and be respectful in the places they’re visiting. But there’s always the risk of slipping into the “tourist mentality,” where you think of everyone and everything as being there for your experience. Going to the market, for example, you see the gorgeous fruits piled high and it’s incredibly photogenic. But those fruit stands are actually peoples livelihood - they sell that fruit to make a living. So before you take a photo of a person or something that belongs to someone, make sure to ask. Find out their name. Humanize the experience so that it can be satisfying for both sides. I’m the first to say that I’ve been guilty of this, but it’s something I’m always trying to be more aware of.
Is there a particular food you absolutely love that travelers must try when visiting Peru?
Anything specific to Cusco?
Steph: I am a vegetarian which limits how many dishes I can try as Peruvian cuisine is heavy on the meat. A couple that I love are locro de zapallo - a pumpkin-based stew usually served with rice, and quinoto - quinoa-based risotto. There are so many delicious vegetarian dishes you can make with the produce grown in Peru: 100s of varieties of potatoes, quinoa, grains, sweet potato or camote, corn, yuca, beans, large variety of vegetables and fruit… the list goes on. I would also recommend trying chicha morada - a sweet, non-alcoholic drink made from fermented purple corn - maiz morado.
Sonya: Ceviche ceviche ceviche! When it’s good, it’s reeeally good. While Lima and coastal cities generally have better access to fresh fish, there are a couple of places in Cusco where you can get seriously delicious ceviche. Besides ceviche, one of my favorite traditions that’s specific to Cusco and other parts of the Andean highlands is the Pachamanca, which translated from Quechua literally means “earth oven.” In a subterranean oven dug out of the ground, you heat up stones until they’re really, really hot and then place all your food inside. Cover it with herbs, cloth, and earth on top to keep in the heat, and in 20-ish minutes your food is fully cooked and so tasty. Obviously we had to work that into our Tintes; Textiles itinerary with our weaving partners - it really is not to be missed.
Within your organization, you both work closely with the weavers. What part of the
mythology of weaving has changed your life or how do you feel the process of
weaving/offering weaving workshops has changed your life/shifted your perception in the
tradition of textile making?
Steph: There’s so much meaning and purpose behind weaving and textiles that has evolved over time. As Sonya mentions, traditionally they have been a form of communication, but they are also made to be worn and sold at markets. Through workshops, textiles provide another way for communities to share elements of their culture and knowledge with people who are keen to learn.
Sonya: There’s so, so much to say about the tradition of weaving in Peru that I won’t really be able to do it justice here. But one of the things that I’ve always been fascinated by is how textiles here were traditionally used as communication devices. Quechua, the local Indigenous language, was never a written language. So the symbology of the textiles functioned as a “written” form of communication, representing the community and its history, or the weaver and her experience. It’s a totally different conception of non-verbal communication, one that’s also so beautiful and intricate.
In relation to Peru, what is the one aspect of the culture you’d like for people to understand
a bit more, and, or which area of Peru has taken your breath away from the most?
Steph: Generally, the Andes themselves - the mountains will always fill me with awe. Wakra Pukara, a rocky ruin site in the shape of horns in the Acomayo Province of the Cusco region, is a breath-taking site that stands in the middle of some very dramatic mountains.
Sonya: I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but the thing I would most like for visitors to have a really quality interaction with here in Peru are Peruvians themselves. It’s so easy to move through Peru as a tourist without having the chance to really talk to and get to know locals, because of all the reasons I mentioned before - time, language, culture divide. So if Aula can be helpful in facilitating that, for me that would be one of best things we can give to visitors and Peruvians alike, as it’s one of the biggest and most inaccessible parts of visiting Peru. As for an area of Peru that has taken my breath away, there are sooo many awe-inspiring places that it’s hard to choose! I agree with Steph, the Andes mountains are just mind-bogglingly huge and majestic. In Andean spirituality, the biggest mountains are the “Apus,” their sacred gods. And when you look at these peaks, it makes perfect sense that the people who live here would look to them for guidance.
As the world begins to shift with more of a focus on sustainable textiles, what is your hope
for the local communities producing many of these? Is there something specific you’d feel
comfortable directly sharing with global consumers to be more mindful of when
consuming/purchasing during travels?
Steph: Mainly, I hope that through this shift, local communities are able to achieve some of their specific goals and wishes. I also hope that the sustainable textile movement recognizes the need for communities to have agency over if and how they participate, and take steps to ensure that there is true consultation and collaboration. Global consumers: as there still isn’t much information readily available, if you do want to buy sustainably-made goods and are looking to support local initiatives and/or communities, you will most likely have to do your own research beforehand about where to buy them.
Sonya: There’s so much focus and conversation around handmaid and sustainable art on “our” side, the consumer side, which is awesome. I hope that conversation and those values continue to grow and spread, so that the artisans and communities who make those goods realize how valuable their work and art is. As more people become genuinely interested in looking for handmade, sustainably created goods that tell the story of the place and the person who made them, I hope more artisans feel proud to create their art and preserve their culture and heritage and knowledge.
How can we, the readers, be of support to your mission and organization?
Spread the word about Aula, our artisan partners and how we work
Shop our store and/or join us on a workshop in Peru
Reach out to us if you have any ideas to share, or for collaboration
Sonya: Come join us for a workshop! :) We do our very best to tell the stories and show the people behind the products, but truly the most rewarding part of our whole mission is when we get to bring people together for a true exchange of knowledge and culture. If you can’t come to Peru just yet, we would still love to have you as part of our community - drop us a note, leave us a comment, ask questions, tell us what you think. The more conversation, the better for us and our partners.
If you are interested in learning more about the upcoming workshops in Peru with Aula Artesana, please have a visit https://www.aulaartesana.com/. You may also find them on IG: aulaartesana