Sapán-Banana Crafts: Weaving from Waste

The banana tree, originally named Musa Paradisica in 1753, is the most widely consumed fruit in the world. Perhaps this is due to its delicious taste, or its nutritional value, since it is rich in potassium vitamin A and C. It originally comes from South East Asia, but it has made its way to almost the entire world. It was not until the XVI century that the Portuguese brought it to the Americas.  Though India is the largest producer, mostly for its’ vast internal market, Ecuador is the leading exporter. Many people relate Ecuador to banana production. It is even stereotyped as a “banana republic.”  Yet, most people don’t realize the banana tree has a wide range of uses, far beyond eating its tasty and wholesome fruit.  For example, in Uganda, the leaves are wrapped for steaming a traditional dish made from goat meat, in Guatemala the same is done with pork. Throughout the Americas, a wide variety of dishes require steaming with the banana leaf.  Expert chefs say it produces an exquisite flavor.

Besides its uses in the kitchen; in the Guayas Province, Ecuadorian artisans are skillfully turning banana tree “waste” into beautifully woven crafts, known as Sapán- Banana crafts.  These crafts are innovative because from the elaboration process, to the marketing process, it’s incorporating a new approach in which priority is given to the environment and to the artisan’s well being.

How are Sapan crafts made?
It takes vision to see trash as a possible raw material for arts and crafts. This is exactly what artisans are doing with Sapán- Banana Products.  First, large banana plantations donate the banana ‘waste’.  Then, the fiber is removed from the plant’s stalk which must be carefully dried.  At this point, the artisan must remove the fiber, and begin the meticulous process of weaving the sapán.   Because the fibers are delicate, one must be very familiar with the procedure in order to make a high quality product.  Sapán is often intertwined with Toquilla straw (the straw used to make Panama Hats) because it gives more firmness and makes the fiber more malleable. The combination of the two fibers produce a myriad of brown, beige, and dark green tones which are the basis for making a variety of  attractive objects. These range from dainty bread baskets, to modern place mats, coasters, and a variety of decorative pieces. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but who would have thought to use the stalk of the banana tree to make beautifully woven objects?!
Obviously, Sapán products are environmental friendly because they are 100% natural, hand-made, and use parts of the banana tree which would otherwise be considered waste.  In this way, no new trees need to be cut down. Sapán crafts allow locals to put less pressure on the environment, and also to give locals an alternative to environmental degradation.

The People Come First
Not only are Sapán-banana crafts original in that they are environmentally friendly, under the leadership of Pro-pueblo, they are also giving priority to the well-being of local Ecuadorian artisans.  Pro-pueblo is a non-profit organization which has  boosted the local economy by teaching coastal villagers how to work several crafts using  natural materials such as vegetable ivory, recycled paper, ceramics and also Sapan Banana products.  Propueblo fosters the well-being of artisans in several ways.  For example, it promotes artisans to work from their own homes and villages. In this way, they no longer have to immigrate to the cities to look for jobs. At a time in which many Ecuadorians parents have to immigrate to the city or abroad in order to support their families, these artisans have the advantage that they can work from home, and keep the nuclear family united.  One can witness then at the San Antonio village, Guayas Province, where one can visit the shops and artisans.

Another novel approach to the sale of Sapán crafts is that it strives to give artisans a more just price for their labor-intensive work.  This is a new approach based on the precepts of “Fair Trade” in which an initial cost is previously established in mutual agreement by the artisan and Pro-Pueblo.  In this way, the artisan is ensured a just price. Through the sales of Sapán crafts, the local artisan is able to make at decent living. Before, many villagers were either unemployed or underemployed.

Novel Designs
It’s not easy to compete in today’s globalized economy.  Even artisans have to face the competition, especially from Asia.  Just like industrialized products, Asian crafts are also extremely cheap.  One Pro-Pueblo representative explains, “Because for us the artisan comes first, 90% of our costs are manual labor.  In Asia, a person is paid one dollar a day, while here in Ecuador we pay six dollars a day. Since we can’t compete with Asia in prices, we try to compete in quality of materials and design.”  This is why the Sapán artisans are constantly renewing and reinventing their objects and designs.

In a world in which mass consumption has destroyed our natural habitat, it is encouraging to see alternatives to exploitation and environmental degradation.  It is only through seeing our natural and human resources with new eyes, that we can salvage our planet for future generations.

Written by: Carolina Matheus

The Panama Hat History: An Icon of Style and Elegance throughout history

“I cannot conceive of a hat- made of straw- woven by the hand of a man, more beautiful than this one. I hold it in my hands still in awe of its maker.  Before the ribbon and leather sweatband were added, it weighed less than a letter on my stationary.  I feel the brim between thumb and forefinger. I’ve turned book pages that are thicker than this.”

Brent Black. Journalist-writer and Panama Hat specialist.

Light- weight, delicate, flexible, yet strong and resistant.  No wonder the Panama Hat, is one of Ecuador’s most world acclaimed handicrafts!  This is because it is a display of exquisite craftsmanship which has become a symbol of masculine elegance for over a century around the world.  Besides, it has a tight relationship with events in Ecuador’s history.

Ancient origins

Since Pre-Colombian times, the Panama hat fiberhas been interwoven with Ecuador’s history.  As early as 500-1500 a.d., coastal ethnic groups such as ManteñoHuancavilca, and Manta were already familiar with weaving the fine fiber extracted from the Paja Toquilla palm.  There is some archeological evidence in ancient ceramic and stone figures found in Guayas and Manabi Provinces, in which masculine figurines wear a primitive “head protection” on their heads. Though this theory needs further study, the fact that the home of the best Panama Hatweavers is precisely in this region, gives more support to this hypothesis.

A fiber with a royal name

In the 17th century creole weavers (Spaniards born in the Americas) began to learn from the coastal natives. They saw them using this palm with long leaves shooting out from the ground; for roofing, basket weaving, and making fans. Thus, the creoles developed a simple hat which they called ‘toque’ hence the name Paja Toquillawhich is the common name of the palm.   However, in the 18th century, Spanish scientists baptized the palm with a more elegant scientific name, Carludovica palmata, in honor of King Charles the IV of Spain and his wife Luisa.

Montecristi hats begin to travel abroad

By the 19th century the Paja Toquilla hat, (known as montecristis or jipijapas) had become a must for Ecuadorians in the coast. Plantation owners and plantation workers a like, saw this light-weight, and supple hat as essential protection from the scorching equatorial sun.

When did the montecristis begin to travel abroad? It was a shrewd Spanish merchant, living in Montecristi, Ecuador, named Manuel Alfaro who realized the hat’s potential. He began to export them for the use of California Gold Rush workers and became very wealthy! In fact, his son Eloy Alfaro also continued to expand the family fortune through hat exports. He was later to become president of Ecuador and it is said he financed much of his liberal revolution through these sales.  Yet it was in 1855 in the Paris World Fair that the hat was launched to world-wide prestige. “The hat did not even mention Ecuador as a participating country…. The French man Philippe Raimondi, arriving from Panama, where he lived, presented the toquilla hat in France for the first time….The fineness of the texture did not cease to impress Parisians, despite their reputation as demanding costumers, and the catalog of the World Fair mentioned a hat in ‘straw cloth’!  From then on the montecristi began to be known as the Panama Hat.  Its fame grabbed a hold of Europe and never left the high fashion scene.

The Panama Canal

It was 1904 in the hot, damp and mosquito-infested construction sight of one of the world’s most amazing engineering projects: the construction of the Panama Canal.  The United States continued, where the French left off.  The entire world had its eyes on the building of the Canal, and photos of workers wearing the airy and comfortable montecristi hat were shown in the world press.  It was images of President Theodore Roosevelt inspecting the Panama Canal which truly brought the hat to the limelight, and firmly established the montecristi as the Panama Hat forever.

A laborious creation process

To create a great Panama Hat is no easy task!  There are several complicated steps, and each one is equally important if the final product is to be of high quality.

First, in the villages near Montecristi, there are specialists in cultivating, buying and preparing the fiber. Sheaths of immature leaves or cogollos are gathered in bundles. Then, they must be skillfully separated into thin strands which must be cut and submerged under water for around 6-7 hours in order to make the fiber flexible.  There are several other steps which the palm must undergo, in order to ensure the quality of that which will become a fine hat.  When it reaches the hands of expert hat makers in villages such as Pilé, the plant needs to remain wet in order to be malleable between the artisan’s nimble fingers.  Many expert hat makers only work at dawn or in the evening so that the hot sun will not dry up this precious raw material.

According to Panama Hat expert Martine Buchet: “Though each montecristi is unique, the successive stages remain the same. At the start, (the artisan) creates the rosette, the center of the crown; this is made with eight fibers in a tight lattice. As the weaving proceeds, new straws are added to enlarge the circle and bring the crop up to the desired size.  This part can be done in a seated position… when the end of the crown is completed; the piece must be placed on a form which is itself set on a tripod stand, after which the work is carried out on an upright weaving position.”  This is a long, uncomfortable and painstaking process. Then, the artisan has to have a good eye to make a fine brim for his hat. It usually takes about a month to make one Panama Hat!  Although some finos and superfinos can take up to six months!   Once the basic hat is complete, it usually goes to Montecristi where another artisan will give the hat its “final touches.” If the result is to be an exquisite hat, the process requires skill, patience and in the last stages, creativity.  For this reason the Panama hat has become a coveted item around the world.

An Icon of Masculine Elegance

In the 1940’s Panama Hats had become a symbol of masculine elegance around the world. Therefore, it became one of Ecuador’s main exports during this time! Political figures such as Winston Churchill, Gustavus V King of Sweden, Krushev, and President of Ecuador Galo Plaza often wore one during international events.  Film stars also helped glorify the Panama Hat.  For example, Visconti’s famous movie “Death in Venice” showed scenes in which the main characters wear the hat.  Paul Newman also flaunted it. Today, Brazilians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians often wear the hat for classy occasions.

From Pre-Columbian times, to the Ecuadorian Liberal Revolution, to the making of the Panama Canal, themontecristi has witnessed important historical events. It is valued because it must undergo an arduous elaboration process, and is considered refined, yet comfortable and practical. For this reason, even though it is misnamed as the Panama hat, it remains an elegant ambassador of Ecuador to the rest of the world.

A few tips to finding a quality Panama hat:

  • The quality of the hat is measured by the fineness of its weave and the rows in its crown
  • Though Cuenca also makes beautiful hats, the montecristi should not be confused with straw hats made in Cuenca.
  • The texture should be thin and smooth
  • Look at the weave through a magnifying glass

Sources:

Buchet, Martine. Panama: A Legendary Hat. Paris:Editions Assouline.

Tamariz  de Aguilar, María Leonor. Tejiendo la Vida “Las artesanías de Paja Toquilla en el Ecuador”, CIDAP.

http://www.sica.gov.ec March 2008

www.edufuturo.com March 2008

Personal Interview: Miriam Gonzalez, Maqui Crafts, Quito, March 2008.

Buchet, Martine. Panama: A Legendary Hat.  Paris:Editions Assouline.

Tamariz  de Aguilar, María Leonor. Tejiendo la Vida “Las artesanías de Paja Toquilla en el Ecuador” ,  CIDAP.

Buchet, Martine

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Spondylus Shell Jewelry: A Symbol of Fertility and Power

Several Pre-Hispanic societies would sail rough waters to the Gulf of Guayaquil in search of the Spondylus shell.   Though some species exist in the Californian Coast, because of Ecuador ´s warm waters, two species of this beautiful red spiny shell thrive under the seas of the Gulf of Guayaquil, Esmeraldas and Isla de la Plata and Salango area. Why would people be willing to sail miles throughout the Pacific Ocean in search of these shells?   This is because these apparently simple shells, are charged with symbolic powers since Pre-Columbian times.

Feminine Powers
Spondylus has also been associated with femeninity.  This is because of its shape like the female vulva, and therefore they it was considered a powerful fertility symbol which needed to be present in religious ceremonies.  In Peru the Pre-Incan Mochica culture made ceramic objects representing the shell.  In Ecuador, the sophisticatedpre-Incan Valdivia culture, (3000 BC) which boasts the oldest ceramics in the Americas, made wonderfully elaborate necklaces, nose rings, and other objects out of Spondylus. Many archeologists believe the Valdivia Culture was a matriarchic society, so it would make sense that feminine symbols would be considered so powerful. At any rate, only members of the elite and high priest could wear Spondylus objects.  The Incas also shared this obsession for the spondylus, and some historians even think this is what led them to conquer what is present day Ecuador.

An Ancient Trade Route
Because of its importance, this shell made its way not only throughout the coast, but also from the jungle, to the Andes, and even to Central America.  Some archeologist believe it was used as a form of monetary exchange or ancient “coin.”

An Omen of Rain
In Peru the Spondylus only appeared when the water became warmer during the time of the El Niño Current in December, right before the rainy season.  For this reason, the indigenous people of Peru saw them as bringing forth the rain.   In hostile and dry areas such as the Peruvian Coast, it is no wonder these “omens of rain” were considered valuable.  When there was drought, and no Spondylus around, it only seemed logical to travel to the Gulf of Guayaquil in order to find these shells which would help bring the rain.

Spondylus Today
Unfortunately, Spondylus is threatened by Ocean pollution, harsh fishing methods, and overexploitation for it fleshy inside, which is also considered a delicacy by locals.  As far as consumption for jewelry, because it difficult to carve its spiky surface, there aren’t a lot of people who shape spondylus.  For this reason, local spondylus artisans aren’t really considered a threat for this shell.

Today, one can admire samples of these beautiful ancient handicrafts in many Quito museums and Ecuador Museums such as the Salango Museum, Banco Central Museums, and in the Olga Fisch  Museum.  Artisans from the Coast are still being inspired by the beauty and symbolism of the Spondylus and continue to create necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry.  This is because spondylus has a shimmering effect with hues ranging from bright crimson, delicate pink, to a tangerine orange.  When one wears this fine jewelry, one can still feel the sense of mystery and sensuality it held in for the ancient dwellers of the Northern Coast of South America.