For Forward-Thinking Fashion, Travel Back in Time to Peru

ricardo calmet yarn photo

Image credit: John Patrick
Guest blogger John Patrick is the sustainable fashion designer behind the John Patrick ORGANIC line. A docu-drama featuring his work and his life will air on Planet Green in 2011.

I don't know exactly how many times in my life this has happened, but the first time I saw Ricardo Calmet's work displayed in a gallery in Peru, I almost lost my mind and had a nervous breakdown all at once. On display were bicycle wheels that had been converted into spinning wheels and hanks of hand-dyed skeins of cotton yarn intermingled with sweaters made of the same yarn. Thick and chunky doesn't even begin to describe the wondrous surfaces that were created in this exhibition. Even the local Lima news channels got in on the act because Ricardo's story—one of tradition, heritage, community, and sustainability—is so real and raw and poignant and necessary to the survival of so many.SLIDESHOW: Ricardo Calmet's Forward-Thinking Fashion in Traditional Peru

I feel very strongly that the creative process needs time to develop and part of that development requires "viewer participation." Ricardo, who runs Ecotintes, a specialized natural dyeing and textile company, is very much one of the creative entities that can use support and nurturing from the design community. Having worked with Ricardo Calmet several years ago and seeing him progress has been one of the great pleasures of my work recently. I first said upon meeting him that he needed a box to put all of his colors in so that he could show them to the world and also be able to charge for it. He works in extremely humble surroundings and is one of the most unaffected, direct, and honest people I have ever met. Ricardo has a vivid imagination and I hope that some of the readers who see this article this contact him and go and visit him and work with him.

He does not speak a tremendous amount of English, so a translator is helpful if you are writing to him. I proposed the questions below to him, and let him take a while to answer them. Since his native tongue is Spanish there is a slight amount of "broken" dialogue within the answers but I feel that is a very real part of the translation. Listen with your eyes and ears to feel how passionate he is about his work and his country.

John Patrick:You have now been doing Ecotintes for several years. When I first found you I had to track you down in a part of Lima that I had never been to. I think your brother was also there in that house, as were so many of your inventions. Briefly tell me a little of your beginnings with Ecotintes—how you started and who you were learning things from.

Ricardo Calmet: To be truthful I don't know when it started, perhaps I always had the incentive, that bit of adrenaline you feel when you discover something, even just for you. Walking through dark roads that only clarify and enlighten with persistence and tenacity, and a lot of curiosity and commitment. All of these have to be linked to one's story, especially your early experiences, and of course your needs. And, I cannot forget Popular Mechanics, a magazine that during the 50s and 60s was the center of technological revolution. It was truly the magazine of "do it yourself." A primitive form of a knowledge-community that now the Internet offers.

I was in the textile business a few years later in agriculture and close to a project to promote organic cotton in the CaƱete Valley, Peru. Linking all of this with concerns over the lack of well-paid jobs for hundreds of thousands of Andean women-mothers, who live in misery and yet they have a rich textile knowledge that the world is yet to discover; they spin with a spindle called Pushka. The spinning wheel which is a common good of humanity, without copyright or patent, is a step which would increase to at least double the productivity and doubling revenues. Communities could process their wool and alpaca fibers directly and not sell them at minimal prices as it is now. We need a production line as the Khadi in India.

You know better than anyone that color is the essence of fashion, that fiber is ennobled with color; it becomes diverse, broad, encompassing us all. The color is an integrative concept. No one is excluded; there are billions of choices, all different. If we had the natural thread—organic—chemical dyes could not pass as safe or clean. Although, some is known of the potential danger to the health of synthetic dyes, very little is known about the production. This is very aggressive with the environment and especially in emerging countries where regulations are very soft and little information is made to the public.

JP: Your daughter Daniella is now helping you with the Ecotintes business. She has been studying chemistry, I believe? Can you elaborate a little bit about the role she has played in expanding your business into the natural dye area?

RC: Daniella is a biologist and is responsible for developing the colors in the laboratory, this is a complicated job because at the moment, the natural dyes are not standardized and the raw materials are never exactly alike, therefore for each process is necessary to develop a specific recipe. Then the recipe must be scaled to manufactory and this is not simple arithmetic, it requires consideration of many factors, making it complex. Throughout this a base knowledge of great value is made. Science and technology have abandoned natural dyes since the nineteenth century, the current interest in natural dyes need to be updated with more information. Daniella also handles the processing of samples and tests at the request of customers. She is the Ecotintes pillar.

JP: The area of Chancay seems to be an important part of your business model. What is so magical about Chancay? I know there has been weaving and spinning there for thousands of years but what exactly do you do up there?

RC: Chancay was the cradle of a pre-Columbian culture. Here we live and have the space and proximity to agriculture to integrate business and achieve a cycle of water use that is sustainable, and this would be impossible in the city. The dyeing processes normally consume a lot of water and this water goes into sewers of cities without further treatment. The chemical dyes consume great amounts of water and are a serious source of pollution. A reactive dye for cotton can have up to 50% of the fixed pigments to the fiber that must be rinsed, staining and polluting the water. It is very difficult to remove from the effluent. In our process the effluents containing organic materials are returned to the soil without polluting since they are bio-transformed by soil microorganisms. The soil acts as a giant filter, the water returns to the water table, where water is extracted and used again. It's a cycle where 100% is reprocessed water, no more nor less than what agriculture does.

RC: You are now offering ecological cotton for sale, and people are able to buy as little as 10 kilos. What is your thought process behind this idea? I know you Ricardo and I know there is a big idea hiding in there!!

RC: The idea is the organic production chain and fair trade to deliver a quality product, and not just an appearance for quality. It requires "traceability," making "transparent" the whole production chain from the planting of cotton to the final consumer; to confirm the standards of organic production, fair trade with producers and workers, the lack of child labor, etc.; hence, what is very important for everyone, is to secure supplies. When you purchase a fabric for your design, you probably do not have a picture of the farmed cotton being used. If you had that picture, your customers may know in detail what and who is behind the shirt you are wearing. It is a way to preserve the value of the work of the producer. I guess that your shirt will be more valuable than if it were just another piece of mass production for a mass consumer. To know where the product is coming from and how it was made is an important piece that the conscious consumer demands.

JP: What do you see as your number one challenge to make your business an "international" business?

RC: That the international market opens to us the possibility of connecting to consumers who have the same concepts of sustainability that in our countries is still a small fraction. We address the Organic Fashion designers that are scattered throughout the world. We already offer our help to all those who want to develop projects. Perhaps, with your support, we can begin some international workshops, for young designers to develop projects with fiber and natural colors, in dyeing, shibori, and silkscreen print. We have also re-launched our website; we will soon launch a blog of natural dyes to share experiences and disseminate the technologies, and a shop on the Internet for marketing our yarns and knits.

JP: If you were able to come up to New York City for a bio fair and were only able to bring 1 suitcase with you, what would you pack?

RC: It would be filled with color charts and samples to spread the natural colors between designers and the media. I feel this is still in the germinal stages. You know the consequences of poor research and development focused on natural dyes for more than 100 years. Now we need that research so that the process of taking advantage of natural dyes don't go back to medieval times. We work inspired by textiles and colors of the ancient Peruvians, but we cannot simply repeat their processes; today we have plenty of resources to make natural dyes real and sustainable.

JP: Do you think that the indigenous cotton is protected enough in Peru and by the Peruvian government?

RC: It's incredible the official ignorance about the importance of Peruvian cotton. The free import of low quality cottons have seriously affected the Peruvian cotton farmers; the hope is the organic production chain that incorporates the farmer and make him earn money. For that we have to facilitate links between producers and textile designers with the organic chain. If you do a little daring calculation, pure Pima cotton Armani shirts sell for $80. For that cotton that the shirt contains, farmers in Peru receive no more than one dollar; if we could double or triple that amount, fashion and textile industries could improve the lives of those small farmers.

JP: What can we expect to see new from Ecotintes in the next year or so?

RC: We want to perfect our services and facilitate the work of designers so we could feed them with natural colors that they, with their creativity and knowledge, will use to enhance the planet and realize their expectations. It is associated with designers, especially of fashion, superficiality, and banality. I think, on the contrary, that in them, in essence people of great sensibility, there is great potential for transformation in how we are beginning to live.

JP: What is it that makes Ecotintes so unique?

JP: Actually I don't think that we have something truly unique. Ecotintes maybe, in the future, will bring something. For now we only picked up from others. We are very thankful for that and we would like to be a source of inspiration. If we work a little hard we will find that everything or almost everything is already written. We just need to look for it.

SLIDESHOW: Ricardo Calmet's Forward-Thinking Fashion in Traditional Peru
Read more about sustainable fashion:
Green Fashion: 7 Reasons Why You Should Care About Sustainable Fashion
Book review: Sustainable Fashion & Textiles - Design Journeys
The TH Interview: Kate Fletcher Author of Sustainable Fashion & Textiles

For Forward-Thinking Fashion, Travel Back in Time to Peru
I don't know exactly how many times in my

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