Peruvian sweaters highlight holiday craft sale

by Amy Kingsley

The 65 women of Artesanias Pachamama had arranged wooden chairs in a semicircle over a plain concrete floor. A naked light bulb glowed overhead, but most of the light poured into the room through box windows wrapped with flowers and vines.

The photograph captured the moment in which the workers, all of whom possess the café au lait complexion and glossy black plaits of Puno, Peru’s indigenous population, raised their hands to vote.

Robert Costello, a member of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Greensboro, snapped the picture on a mission trip to Peru. The Artesanias Pachamama is the most remote outpost of St. Pius X, a sprawling campus whose local ministries include a school, retirement community and the annual Crop Walk. And it’s the one that keeps lifetime church member Robert Costello – whose home in Pilot Mountain is also somewhat remote – connected to the parish.

Alongside pictures of the women, Costello brought with him samples of their work. First he pulled a blue cable knit sweater from the bag, followed by the alpaca specimens for which the region is famous.

“Alpaca is one of the very finest types of wool,” Costello says, “It’s right up there with cashmere.”

Costello and his wife have, over the years, purchased several sweaters from the Artesania. Those knit from alpaca feel both soft and sturdy, like dense cashmere.

The sweaters offer obvious benefits for those enduring the occasional North Carolina cold snap. And the commerce, brokered by the church during their annual sweater and craft sale, offers a lifeline to the women of Manazo, a remote village not far from Lake Titicaca.

St. Pius X’s Peru Ministry dates back to 1982, when the Rev. George Kloster traveled to Peru on vacation and met Sister Barbara, a missionary posted some 30 miles away in the village of Manazo. Kloster begged the nun to take him to the outlying areas. She agreed and the two set out on a three and a half hour journey up broken roads to the mountain village.

In Manazo Kloster encountered a community ravaged by poverty and almost completely lacking in infrastructure. When he returned to Greensboro, he told his parishioners about the people of Manazo. He also kept in touch with Sister Barbara. Together, they started collaborating on ways to help the impoverished community.

Sister Barbara encouraged the women of Manazo to start a knitting and craft cooperative in which they could parlay traditional skills into communal income. The women started producing sweaters with the understanding that Sister Barbara would find a market for them.

For about a decade, the Artesanias Pachamama marketed its wares through a church in Cincinnati. Members of St. Pius X traveled to the community during lulls in the violence perpetrated by the guerilla group Shining Path. In 1998, the Cincinnati church announced it would no longer be able to market the Artesania’s sweaters.

“We said that somebody needed to step forward with marketing,” Costello says.

St. Pius X held their first sweater sale in 1999. That year they sold more than $5,000 worth of goods for the women. Last year the church event raised more than $45,000 and moved some 375 units.

Members of the Artesanias Pachamama have set lofty goals. The women would like to improve their workshop and sell enough sweaters to earn a monthly paycheck, Costello says. This year, the church hopes to sell 500 items.

The project is about more than subsistence, Costello says. Artesanias Pachamama is a democratically run organization comprised entirely of women. It’s about empowerment, and it’s catching on. At this time next year, the cooperative hopes to have 125 voting members.

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