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Three Peruvian women in traditional dress, walking across pasture with small dwellings and snow capped Peruvian Andes in the distance.

TRAVELLING SOLO
THE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME TRIP BEHIND OUR LATEST COLLECTION

Johnstons of Elgin's Senior Designer Jenny Smith decided to challenge herself, by making a solo trip to a culture very different from her own. Led by her love of textiles and an interest in the unique patterns and weaving techniques of South America, she took a break from work and set off on a six-month adventure, discovering as much as she could about how people live in the home of our fine Vicuña fibres, and a little about herself along the way. On her return, this season’s ‘Origins’ collection was born.

Our Autumn Winter 2020 collection takes its inspiration from the homes of our fine fibres as well as our own rich Scottish heritage. Stunning South American skylines and ice-capped Mongolian Mountains are among the natural landscapes reflected in our clothing and accessories, featuring neutral, earthy tones with pops of China blue. It was photographic material from Jenny’s trip to South America, including the colours and sights of the Andes, that inspired many of the designs.

‘I wanted to go somewhere that was quite culturally different from what I was used to and somewhere that would be a challenge. I knew there were amazing textiles in South America, so I visited Bolivia, Colombia and Peru,' said Jenny.

Travelling alone for the majority of her trip, Jenny stayed with families in the high Andes in Peru, home of Vicuña, the small camelids from which we source our rare, fine Vicuña fibres. Here, Jenny spent time observing the traditional weaving and knitting techniques of the local communities; craftsmanship with a history spanning around 5000 years. She enjoyed their friendly hospitality, albeit in freezing temperatures, and spent some time learning about dying and weaving from a Peruvian Master Weaver.

‘I spent a lot of time at high altitude and saw a lot of the traditional practices of weaving techniques that have been passed down through generations. I was flabbergasted by the level of skill and the technical ability they have in terms of weave structures and combining colours. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

‘They still use a lot of natural dyes and natural fibres; they use all kind of different wools and animal hairs like Alpaca. They scour the landscape to look for particular plants, bark and sometimes insects to make the colours they need.’

Two Peruvian women deftly spinning yarn by hand from wool fleece whilst taking a rest from walking. Snow capped Peruvian Andes in the distance.
Peruvian woman weaving a complex fabric pattern by hand from memory.

Jenny spent some of her time foraging for plants and making natural dyes. She explained that the weavers make their yarn into hanks and plunge them into boiling water with the materials they have collected for the dye.

‘They are very proud of the pieces they make and put a huge amount of effort into hand making and hand weaving things for day to day wear as well as for parties and carnivals,’ she said.

Dying hanks of yarn by hand using locally found plants and insects.
Two Peruvian women designing and making a warp in preparation for weaving.
A colourful example of traditional weaving from Southern Peru. Each of the colours and motifs within the design have their own meaning in local folklore.

Life is hard for people living in the Peruvian mountains, not least because of the harsh environment. Jenny was stunned to see women wearing sandals in the cold weather, while she felt incredibly cold in her socks and walking boots. On her return to Scotland, she shared pictures of the scenery with our design team.

‘Some of this season’s pieces were inspired by the sunsets I saw, the blue skies, mountains, stone structures and landscapes. We also looked at traditional Scottish patterning like Glen Checks and tartans, as that's our true heritage. There is also a Mongolian aspect to the collection,' said Jenny.

Landscape of mountains and flat grassy plains of the ‘Altiplano’ (high plain) of Southern Bolivia at twilight with soft shades of pink, blue and ochre blending together.
Painted buildings in Colombia combining dark burgundy, bright turquoise, dark green and soft grey/blue.

Before her trip, Jenny was nervous about travelling alone, especially off the beaten track. But once she got to South America found she took it all in her stride.

Asked what she learned about herself on her travels, Jenny explained, ‘My trip taught me that I am braver than I thought I was. It taught me greater independence through facing challenges completely by myself, and it taught me how incredibly powerful a smile can be.’

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