Woven bag, alpaca, Peru, 1930s, 6x6in
Molly Burki is a second year student in the School of Human Ecology studying Textiles and Fashion Design.
While exploring the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, a small woven bag, about the size of my palm, caught my interest. The design is delicate but complex, a weaving filled with neutral browns and tans in different patterned stripes. The bottom is adorned in tassels, bound by different threads. The seam around the side and opening is an eye-like design that conceals the two sides of the bag coming together.
This bag was woven in Peru in the 1930s, and is not only beautiful, but was made to hold something of significance to the people of Peru: coca leaves. Coca leaves in Peru are of large cultural significance, contributing to community identity. They can be given as a greeting, as a thanks of blessing, or as a spiritual offering. Because the coca leaf is cherished, someone took the time to weave a bag purely for carrying these precious leaves.
My grandparents were recently visiting Peru for the second time, and had the opportunity to meet and spend time with a local guide. The guide gave them both a handful of coca leaves, and then used his spiritual gift to read the leaves. He was able to unburden their hearts of a recent grief through the coca leaf. Even if one is skeptical, it is hard not to believe a man who is helping others without personal gain. He trusted in the leaves, as do many people of Peru. They trust in its constant presence, as in the decree that the leaf is an everyday necessity. How beautiful to create by hand a place for something so special and natural to be held. This is not just a simple bag, it is a home for the coca leaves. It holds guidance and thankfulness; it holds stories of the palms that have touched the coca leaves. It is holding part of the identity of Peru.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.