A diversity of dialects spoken by passing tourists turn into muffled murmurs as we step from Cusco’s active Plazoleta of San Blas into HJK, the craft-based alpaca knitwear shop of designer Hannah Jenkinson. A conservative number of handknit sweaters and tops in prismatic hues hang along the white adobe walls, catching our eyes only briefly before Hannah emerges. Her warm welcome, wrapped in an English accent, ushers us beneath an arched doorway that leads to a tiny space used for storage and creative sessions.
Spread out on a long table, surrounded by spools of yarn, is a sweater that’s been hand embroidered upon vintage lace. The style is unlike the other garments hanging in the shop as it’s a design of Hannah’s from when she was a student at Parsons School of Design in New York. Above the table is an inspiration board, overflowing with hand knit and crocheted swatches in varied textures, numerous design sketches, magazine cut-outs and images. Just below the multi-media collage is a photo of Mili and Mary, sisters and members of the HJK team responsible for hand-knits.
Taught to knit by her grandmothers, Hannah was able to use the time-honored skill to maneuver cultural and even language barriers when the pandemic extended what was supposed to be a three-month trip to Cusco. “This universal language of knitting has allowed me to get my ideas across even when the words weren’t there,” says Hannah, who continues to use a pair of needles that once belonged to her grandmother.
“I would say HJK began a decade ago, and it’s gone through quite an evolution,” begins Hannah, who, while simultaneously working for large knitwear companies in Los Angeles, would spend months knitting singular high-fashion statement pieces. Now based in Cusco, HJK is home to practical yet luxurious closet staples; a style shift that can be seen as a marker of Hannah’s own spiritual journey.
After having worked for so many years for other companies, the entrepreneur has finally been able to put in place the values that she’s always dreamed of: empowering women, utilizing earth-friendly materials and safe-guarding a traditional creative expression.
As we chat, we can’t help but stroke an incredibly soft basic crew neck sweater, neighbored by a reversible cardigan and a jewel-toned alpaca sweater for men. The name of the knitter responsible for each piece is placed on the hangtags or, as in the case of newer pieces, on the garment’s inside tag. The first tag we spot is signed by Milli, who we’re told is able to stay home to help her daughter with her homework thanks to a flexible work schedule.
“Most of the women I work with have families for whom they cook for multiple times a day and often from scratch, not to mention countless other household duties,” explains Hannah, when we ask her to detail how HJK directly supports local knitters. “For them to go and get a job outside of the home is pretty much impossible. To provide them with steady handwork, fair wages and flexible hours means they can balance family life with earning an income.”
She currently works beside four women from Cusco to create HJK’s handknit and hand crocheted pieces (typically using chunkier alpaca yarns) as well as the made-to-order pieces. Custom pieces can be made using plant-dyed fibers, a project that Hannah executed in collaboration with high-altitude communities in the Sacred Valley. Meanwhile, all ready-to-sell knits found in the store have been brought to life with dyes that are OEKO TEX Certified (meaning they are free of environmentally harmful substances). Not to mention, alpaca (and baby alpaca, in some cases) yarn is 100% biodegradable, hypoallergenic, and sourced from responsible mills in Peru.
Our discussion of sustainable materials is brought to a pause as a pair of tourists walk in and admire the freshly knit cardigan that Hannah is wearing. She takes it off her back and offers it to one of the women to try on and within minutes they are coordinating for a custom version of the cardigan to be made.
“Before I felt so much pressure on designing collections that could sell in mass numbers, to people that I would have no contact with,” tells Hannah, after the ladies walk out. “Now I get to know my customers and often get to design or alter something especially for them.”
It’s clear that Hannah has found a mindful approach to her company— and we get a sense it feeds into her lifestyle too, as her energy exudes a laid back confidence of someone who has found their path. And in many ways, that path led her back to where it all began: using her hands for creative expression.
“We are all intrigued by someone making something with their hands, perhaps more now than ever as we continue to distance ourselves from handcrafted expressions, be it knitting, farming or cooking,” says Hannah, who has seen first hand how this connection has become lost and devalued in the fast fashion industry. “And that’s what this brand is about, it’s about connections: with other women, with a heritage artisan tradition and, ultimately, connecting with Peru as everything is made right here.”
Follow Agnes Rivera at Valley Vibes, for more on artists and creators in the Sacred Valley, Peru.
All photos taken by Noma photo agency.