This collection has patterns acquired by the Aymara people in the nitrate saltpetre production centres (like Humberstone) at the beginning of the 20th century. This period was very important for Chile as the country began to open its borders to European settler immigrants receiving a strong infusion of European culture.
The colours of the collection have a special significance with black and white representing the contrast between both cultures and the greys the mingling of the two. The use of colour embodies the perfect combination of the traditional English patterns combined with the alpaca fibres’ softness.
This collection was first shown in Milan, Italy and then in London (sponsored by Latin Trends and Prochile) during the London Fashion Week 2015.
The Golden Age of the potash saltpetre mines was between 1880 and 1930 – known as “White Gold” – with a huge demand from the industrialising countries of Europe, who needed fertilizers to help grow food for their rapidly expanding populations.
For a while in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, almost all the world’s supply came from the Atacama Desert in Chile. Humberstone was one of dozens of saltpetre towns, all of which were stuck out in the vast and inhospitable Atacama. Founded in 1872, it was originally known as La Palma and in its heyday was home to around 3,500 people.
Humberstone was a former mining town, named after James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who emigrated to South America in 1875 to make his fortune from saltpetre. Chile’s “saltpetre” accounted for between 60% and 80% of all Chilean exports and between 40% and 60% of the national fiscal revenue.
The cause of war
The War of the Pacific lasted four years and claimed thousands of lives. Humberstone was in Peruvian territory in the early 1870’s and many of the other saltpetre towns belonged to Bolivia, although most of the companies that operated in the area were Chilean with British investment backers. In 1878, Bolivia increased the taxes charged and paid by one important Anglo-Chilean nitrate exporting company. Saltpetre was so important to the Chileans that they were prepared to go to war over it, and troops were dispatched to the north enabling them to win the war and to annex a large swathe of nitrate-rich Bolivian and Peruvian territory.
A generation later, another war sounded the death knell of the saltpetre industry. When World War One broke out, the British blockaded exports of saltpetre to Germany. This prompted the Germans to look for alternatives leading to the invention of synthetic nitrate substitutes that could be used to make fertilizer.
Suddenly, no-one needed Chilean nitrate and the industry collapsed.
Today, Humberstone is a ghost town. No-one has lived or worked here for over half a century. But in the dry desert air it has been well preserved. You can still see the old company store where the workers bought their food and provisions. In the central square, there is a bandstand and cinema that provided the workers with their entertainment. Nearby are the remains of a hotel and swimming pool. British-made heavy machinery is littered across the site. Humberstone is now a United Nations World Heritage Site with UNESCO working to restore it for future visitors to this arid, mineral-rich and history-rich corner of South America.