By Hannah Watson, Women’s Artisanal Cooperatives Program Volunteer

Beetles, flowers, leaves, and…fermented urine? The Women’s Artisanal Cooperatives Program volunteers recently learned what these materials had in common; they all create the brilliant hues in Awamaki’s knit goods. Yes, even human urine!

We set off early one Friday morning, heading to the town of Urubamba, about a half hour combi ride through the foggy Sacred Valley.  Mercedes, our community coordinator and native of Urubamba, hosted us in her lovely, large backyard garden, where her black mastiff dog, Waiqi (meaning ‘brother’ in Quechua) roamed the yard and adjacent wood-shop. We rode from Ollanta with our spinning wheel aboard the roof of the combi and ten kilos of white wool, prepared to soak in the ancient craft of dyeing with various tree leaves, seeds, insects, and minerals. A botanist from Portland, Oregon accompanied us for her own ethnographic research in her grad school program.

The workshop commenced with an introduction to the expert dyer, Andreas, who spent his childhood helping his mother dye wool in her community of weavers in Calca. He and Mercedes directed our attention to a tree standing unassumingly in the back of her yard at the edge of the Urubamba River, the molle tree. We were asked to pick 2 kilos of leaves from the molle tree for dyeing. Once our hands were sticky with residue from the tree, the dyeing began! Meanwhile, Mercedes and Andreas had three fires going all around the backyard and huge caldrons filled with water and bamboo mixing sticks to accompany them. One of the fires kept the guinea pigs at bay inside of the hut that serves as the home for the little creatures with gloomy fates. Mercedes informs me that she doesn’t actually like this delicacy so famous in Peru – they are only for the pleasure of her sons and brothers.

Beautiful colors of chartreuse, coral, navy blue, and raspberry started to emerge from the pots, a result of Andreas’ careful calculations. Throughout the process, he referred to the color card that Ivy, our new head of Women’s Artisanal Cooperatives Program, made using color inspiration from a hike we did a month ago. The colors from the Incan ruins of Moray to the salt mines near Urubamba surfaced from the boiling pots, and Andreas is on point with each of the colors Ivy carefully selected. After each steaming pile of wool was pulled from the pots and laid on a tarp, the other volunteers and I shook them out to relieve them of their crushed plant scraps. We washed them under cold water and hung them up to dry, creating a rainbow of color on the clothing lines in Mercedes’ backyard. Waiqi patrolled the process, making sure that everything is going to plan. The guinea pigs hid behind their piles of grass.

One particular color, the dark gray created from torn-up eucalyptus leaves, needed a special overnight treatment. Mercedes brought out two water bottles full of a dark yellow substance from her kitchen; fermented urine. Her sons were given the glorious duty of filling the bottles so that their urine could be used to turn the gray from eucalyptus leaves into a richer, darker gray. We watch with awe, disgust, and humor as Mercedes opened the bottle, took a whiff just to make sure it was indeed the urine she ordered, and poured with a crinkled nose into the bag of steaming gray wool. They wrapped it up tight and sent it sleep.

All in all, we dyed 10 kilos of wool and ended up with 8 different colors. A very successful day for the Awamaki Women’s Artisanal Cooperatives Program team along the banks of the sacred Urubamba River.