A Close Knit Alpaca Company
28 Aug, 2016 | Maria Mayböck
Photo: Maria Mayböck
Looking Abroad to Preserve a Tradition
As soon as Simon Huanca sits down at a knitting machine, it is clear just how familiar he is with what has been his livelihood for decades. His hands move with intimate certainty over the machine. They investigate and count the rows of a pattern sheet. They pick up the pieces of a sweater and show how they can be united to form a finished garment. His clothes, though plain; his body language, though subtle; and his inconspicuous car indicate he is the manager, the man in charge. When it comes to knitting garments, however, it is apparent he was once a craftsman like the forty artisans who work for him today.
Art Sol is a company of genuine alpaca clothing that primarily targets lucrative European markets. Huanca started the business after working for one of La Paz’s big alpaca clothing companies and learning from a German designer. ‘They trained us in design and how to relate to the clients,’ he explains. ‘We then started producing and exporting.’
Stepping off the buzzing street of Linares, Huanca’s store is a refuge from the exuberance on Calle Sagarnaga. Garments are elegantly laid out, the colours are more natural, and the designs and patterns are visibly harmonized to the international fashion market.
No llamas adorn the sweaters here. Instead, simple, timeless designs and patterns prevail. European customers prefer ‘simple designs, whatever is in fashion at the moment,’ Huanca says. He laughs at the thought of selling sweaters with little alpacas and llamas on them. ‘No, that? Abroad? No,’ he says with a grin on his face.
His Bolivian and international customers look for quality and design, something that is lacking in the selection of synthetic sweaters and other garments advertised and sold as ‘authentic alpaca’ all over Bolivia. Sol Art’s designs are inspired by the latest styles crossing the runways of world fashion capitals. ‘I live for this,’ exclaims Huanca. ‘I see, I think.’
"Art Sol combines the old with the new, while maintaining an ancient knitting tradition."
‘There will always be alpaca,’ he says, and its price will fluctuate with the demand of alpaca products. His is an environmentally friendly and sustainable business, as it works with live, domesticated animals that are shorn without being killed. Breeding alpacas for their wool is an ancient tradition in Andean countries like Bolivia and Peru, where the high altitude gives the wool its characteristic softness.
Huanca’s business not only supports local alpaca cultivation, but it also provides opportunities for small artisans. ‘We only have enough workers to meet the demand,’ he says, but he goes out of his way to provide them with skills that can earn them a living. All of his craftsmen have small workshops in their homes. Art Sol provides the necessary equipment to those who do not own a proper knitting machine, which the workers pay back in interest-free instalments.
Ediberto Acero, who is a long-time employee and dear friend of Huanca’s, owns a workshop facing the runway fields of the airport in El Alto. It is a simple room adjacent to his house with three knitting machines; balls of colourful yarn; boxes of sleeves, collars and chest parts; and a pile of finished sweaters ready to be showcased in stores or in European catalogues.
With trained and confident movements, Ediberto slides the carriage across the machine with one hand and feeds the yarn with the other. The carriage clicks rhythmically as a myriad of fast-moving needles knit a new row and the yarn winds off the reel, turning into a garment. Within five minutes, Ediberto holds an incomplete part of a sweater. A simple and beautiful pattern, one of Huanca’s latest creations, adorns the collar.
‘He is one of our fastest workers,’ Huanca says, while Ediberto looks up proudly with a shy smile on his face. As the finished product lies on a table, one could easily imagine it in a Zara collection.
Huanca’s company combines the old with the new in his modern designs, while maintaining the ancient tradition of alpaca knitting. With his products, he makes Bolivia known beyond its borders, while supporting the masters of this traditional craft.