Beautiful Hand-Made Rugs Spread Ecuadorian Creativity and Culture

Text: Carolina Matheus
Photos: Martina Orska

To think that it was a rug which opened the way for a weaving tradition, which still continues today!  This is the case of beautiful Guano rugs which have played an important role in promoting Ecuador’s cultural richness throughout the world.  This is because the textiles patterns are based on Ecuadorian traditional design and also because the rugs are of high quality.

“One day a man asked if he could call upon us. He introduced himself as Lincoln Kirstein. ‘I am the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.’ he said…. Among the things Kirstein noticed was a small rug, lying on the estera, which I had designed and was woven in Guano. Upon learning that the rug was my doing, he asked, ‘Would you like to make one for the Museum of Modern Art’  …with that money we opened the Folklore shop.”

After Olga Fisch’s rug made it to the MOMA, Ecuadorian rugs began to travel the world.  In the 1950’s the United Nations in New York and The Metropolitan Opera House, decided to purchase one.  Former Ecuadorian president Sixto Durán –Ballén also helped send one to Washington D.C. during his time in the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) during this time.  It wasn’t just Olga Fisch who saw the potential of these carpets; other artists such as famous architect Otto Glass also had his designs interpreted in wool by the skilled Guano weavers.   In fact, in the 50’s and 60’s “anybody who was anybody” had to design or own a Guano rug.

Weaving for the Spanish Empire

How did the rug industry begin in Ecuador?

Though quality textiles have existed in the Andean Region since Pre-Columbian times, the Spanish promoted the wool textile industry in what is present- day Ecuador.  In fact, by the XVII textiles were the primary motor of the Real Audiencia de Quito’s economy. The obrajes, large textile workshops in which indigenous people worked from dusk to dawn, sprawled all over the highlands. They were more common in the cool provinces of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Pichincha and Imbabura. The fabric was highly valued and traveled thought the Spanish Empire, to the opulent capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru Lima in the South; and all the way to vibrant commercial port of Cartagena (present day Colombia) in the North.  During the XVIII and XIX centuries, many elite homes and haciendas flaunted these carpets, recognized for their warmth and delicate colonial- style floral patterns.

Elaboration process: 100% hand made:

Currently, in a small city called Guano in the Chimborazo province, and in Ambato, rug makers have passed down from generation to generation this textile industry they learned during the colonial period.  The rugs are still hand- made in looms in workshops, which fortunately no longer have the oppressive obraje system.

The process has several steps.  First, for a high quality rug, 100% sheep’s wool is purchased and cleaned, then dyed with aniline colors. Then, usually women wind the wool into a ball and separate it into one strand of yarn.  The weavers must strictly follow the design which is drawn on a large sheet of paper with squares on it. For the untrained eye, it looks like a prize-winning jigsaw puzzle, but for the weaver it is the map, the blue-print for the rug.

The warp is made by cotton and it is considered the “soul” of the rug.  The large vertical textile loom usually requires several weavers sitting next to one another (up to seven people!) and skillfully understanding the unspoken rhythm of combining warp and weft so that each knot is the same size. According to one textile shop owner in Ambato who has been making these rugs for 62 years, women are better workers because they are more meticulous and patient! Once the rug is woven after a process which can take up to three months, the women will cut the edged in order to even out the carpet.  As one owner explains “It is much like grooming a man’s beard which needs to be even so he can be handsome.”

Designs promote Ecuadorian Culture and Nature

Because most of the rugs are based on Ecuadorian archeology, colonial art and popular art, they promote Ecuadorian culture as they travel throughout the world.  For example, most of Olga Fisch’s rugs have native names such as Carchi  an ethnic group located in Northern Ecuador from 500 b.c.-1500 a.d.  However, her rugs have her own personal innovate design and interpretation.   Recently, other Ecuadorian artists are using the rug as a “canvas.”  They are making abstract designs based Ecuadorian animals, colors and scenery which are interpreted by Guano and Ambato weavers with precision.

Hopefully, in the future, this traditional craft will continue to transmit the richness of Ecuador’s diversity and culture as artist and buyers continue to value this craft.

What to look for when buying a good rug:



Interviews: Ruperto Muñoz, June 2008

Shigra Bags: A Colorful craft which carries tradition.


Text: Carolina Matheus
Photos: Martina Orska

A lonesome indigenous woman with wind-weathered cheeks glides silently across the cold Andean fields.   She is planting.  The fog rolls in, and she becomes a dark ghostly figure, against the jet -black earth.   In the midst of this bleak scenario, stands out, a colorful hand bag hanging from her shoulder, the woman’s companion is her hand-sewn shigra bag, which helps her carry plants, seeds, and food.

This is a typical Andean scene which could have occurred centuries ago, or in the 20th century. This is because handbags have been part of women’s daily life since Pre-Columbian times. Archeologists have found similar handbags that are 1000 years old! Why have the hand bags withstood the test of time? This is because designers have rediscovered the Ecuadorian shigra handbag, as a practical and stylish way of carrying one’s personal belongings.

Ancient Origins

Textiles have always been paramount to Andean culture.  The availability of llamas, alpacas, cotton and other natural fibers combined with predominantly cold weather, allowed the development of this art.  In fact, (Andean fabrics) form the longest continuous textile record in world history!Andean inhabitants were making objects out of fiber as early as 8000 B.C.Andean textiles are at least as old as 3000 B.C.  Some elaborate fabrics were considered so precious, that they were used to trade goods, and even offered as sacrifices to the sun god Inti! The shigra bag, though modest compared to other Andean textiles, is part of this tradition of creating fiber crafts.

A woman’s measuring cup?

Shigra hand bags originated as a practical article created BY women and FOR women in the Central Andean provinces of Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, and Chimborazo. Until recent years, women used these bags to carry seeds and plants.  In fact, some authors believe that the different size shigras were used as a unit of measurement.  For example, a 60 centimeter size shigra, could resemble, say, the amount of quinua seeds needed to plant one acre.  Something like today’s measuring cups!

No laziness allowed!

Laziness was severely punished during the Inca Empire. The Inca commanded that even on a walk from home to the village, or when pasturing sheep, or household chores, people should never be idle.Therefore, women always had to be sewing, weaving or spinning wool, even as they walked from one place to another. It is perhaps for this reason that as recently as twenty years ago, women could still be seen walking around with multicolored fibers, a needle, and a half -completed shigra hanging from their waistband while they were herding their flock of sheep!

The Elaboration Process: Natural Fibers

How do these women make the shigra?  It is a process with several steps:   It starts off by preparing the raw material which is a resistant natural fiber from a beautiful tree called cabuya (Agave, in English).  Then, the mature leaves are sliced into long strands which must be soaked in water for 15 days in order free the fiber of pulp residue.  A this point a sewing needle is used to begin the shigra, starting from an oval shaped base, and moving upwards in a swirling circular form.  For those who sew, the technique is very similar to the crochet technique. Although the designs are created at the whim and imagination of each woman, over the years, some motifs have evolved. For example, some favorites are the vibrant zig -zag shapes called quingo in quichua, orchauto chaqui which resembles llama feet. Originally, the shigra was adorned with human and also some animal forms, but today the women have become more lenient towards abstract design.

The dying process

Before, the women dyed the cabuya with natural colors made from achote or other plants.  However, these colors would often run, so today the colors are made from aniline in order to avoid this problem. In recent years many women sell their shigras to experts in Saquisili village.  These men will finish the dying process in order to ensure a quality product.  However, some of these techniques are zealously protected so that the business will not be copied!

The shigra reinvented: Innovation and Fashion

In the 1970’s several Ecuadorian and foreign artists began to value the beauty of Ecuadorian arts and crafts.  The attractive multihued shigras did not go unnoticed!  Several artists began to recognize the potential of this handbag.  They used their creativity to explore ideas.  New colors, sizes, designs, and materials such as silver, suede, and leather inlays were incorporated.  What once was a utilitarian bag for indigenous women only; began to make the Ecuadorian and international fashion scene.  Today, quality shigras have leather straps, no running colors, and are lined inside.

The shigra has remained an important Andean handicraft because it carries a long tradition of fabric design.  It will carry on as long as artists continue to reinterpret it and value it as a versatile, and fashionable object which has an ancient story to tell.



  • Cisneros Hernán,  Textiles y Tintes , CIDAP, FONCULTURA, 1988.  at
  • Cuvi, P. Crafts of Ecuador. Quito: Dinediciones, 1994.
  • Stone- Miller Rebecca, To Weave for the Sun Thames and Hudson, Boston: 1992.

Personal Interviews:

  • Miriam Gónzalez, Maqui, April 2008
  • Personnel Folklore Olga Fisch  April 2008.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca, pg 13.