Originally published on Localvore Today's Daily Beet in the sponsorship of Rock + Pillar on December 22, 2015.
Alma Hartman and Parvez Pothiawala roved the Andean landscape in 2013; Alma was working in Cusco, Peru for an NGO consulting position, and Parvez visited during her extended stay. Alma had become enchanted by the traditional weavings of the Quechuan women, a celebrated tradition of Andean communities. Once the adventuring companions were on Peruvian ground together, it became their mission to seek out these skilled artisans.
Finding the communities of weavers was no small feat. From the city of Cusco, a three-hour combi ride (think old school, minivan taxi) through the Andes Mountains brought Alma and Parvez to Lares, the closest city to the villages they were searching out. Four separate weaving communities spoke off from Lares, the first being another three-hour journey into the Peruvian interior, where the topography makes an abrupt change from alpine to cloud rainforest.
“We wanted to go to each community and get a perspective of a day in the life of a rural, Quechuan Indian,” Alma explains of their intentions of embarking on such a trek. Within each village, the couple camped out, ate meals with the local families, assisted with chores, and came to more thoroughly understand the women’s relationship with weaving.
“[The textiles] are woven in the most traditional manner, via back strap loom, the most primitive form of weaving. It’s essentially a strap around your back with a stake that they put into the ground [in front of their bodies] to create tension. They do the weavings completely from memory, and every community has their own specific, geometric patterns or iconography,” Parvez tells of the process. The mobile weaving unit allows women to weave whenever they have a free moment, and the skills are passed down orally from mother to daughter.
“[Weavings were] everything for the Incan Empire,” Alma states. “They were used to differentiate class, as warriors’ armor, and they’re still used as belts, pouches for carrying coca leaves, carrying babies, shawls for women… it’s never ending. These are more traditional uses for textiles, but tourism really keeps it going. But tourism is really touch and go.” Parvez adds, “Textiles are part of Andean life blood. And when we talked to these ladies, resoundingly they would tell us they wanted to make and sell more textiles to make it a bigger part of their livelihood.”
And so the wheels began to turn. Alma and Parvez’s Peruvian connections were kindling an intention to keep these relationships alive and work toward a sustainable business that could create a livelihood for everyone involved. For the first year, the couple tried importing goods into the US to showcase the work of these Andean women and create a market for their textiles. It didn’t prove to be the right fit; without understanding the story behind the weavings, the uniqueness of the products weren’t translating to an American audience. As Alma puts it, “Not everyone gets the privilege of this experience.”
Starting the business was “really humbling,” Alma admits. “I think most people have the mind frame that when you start a business, you strike gold, and it’s an overnight thing. Spending time in Cusco made me realize everything is living. Everything is organic from idea, to some sort of prototyping phase, and then to implementing it. It will want to take its own form, and you have to be humble, ready, and willing to listen to where that’s going to go.”
The form evolved one day on a whim. “We had literally walked by [the cobbler shop] fifty times and kept saying, we should go in there,” Parvez recalls. “We went in and saw the work that he was doing – it was love at first sight.” Alma adds, “Our curiosity started there. The work was gorgeous, and a little more functional for an American audience.” The impromptu meeting of Cusco’s town cobbler led to an informal apprenticeship, during which the pair learned the basics of boot construction and design.
By marrying the textiles woven by the Quechuan women with the impeccable construction of their newfound cobbler, Parvez and Alma had formed the strong foundation of the business they had been internally envisioning – boots. Footwear hadn’t been the plan from the beginning, but it had taken on that form through Alma’s and Parvez’s openness to all possibilities: “All different walks of life exist, in all different colors. You can take that, put your own creative spin on it, and come up with something entirely new and unique,” Alma synthesizes.
Rock + Pillar was born. Parvez and Alma design and carefully manage the sourcing and construction process, which still takes place in Peru. Now back in Vermont, they are focused on spreading the word of the company’s products and mission. Through Rock + Pillar sales, Alma and Parvez hope to one day create weaving and cobbling schools in the rural communities they work with to give those women a platform for passing on their traditions and building a village-centered economy. Alma explains, “Whoever we work with, everyone needs to benefit in their own way; to benefit in a way that allows them to live the way they want to live.”
It can be difficult to find something special, that you hold dear, and then to find a way to share it with the world. Alma and Parvez have done just that. “There’s something magical that happens when you build a relationship with a place that is not your own,” Alma says. “We go back time and time again, and we’re starting to create another home. Every time we go back we see a new layer of Cusco, we have a more intimate and deep connection.” That connection is translated directly into the wares of Rock + Pillar.
Paulina, Weaver | Photo by Rock + Pillar