Salasaca Tapestries

 

Who hasn’t heard of Otavalo’s Open Market reputation for Ecuadorian handicrafts? Yet people don’t know there are other interesting indigenous markets hidden in the Andean highlands. This is the case of the picturesque Salasaca Market, located in the Tungurahua province 13km from Ambato City.
Here, one can find a market in the main plaza, open seven days a week, full of colorful shigra bags, jet-black ponchos and most of all, the delightful Salasaca Tapestries.

Ancient Origins
Why are textiles such an important part of 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! Salasaca tapestries, though rather recent in their development, come from this long tradition of transforming fiber into art.
Once the Spanish came into the picture in the 16th century, they quickly saw the innate ability of the inhabitants and began to introduce lamb’s wool in order to establish “obrajes” (forced-labor establishments) to produce textiles for other Spanish colonies and the motherland. In fact, there are historical registers from the 19th century that record Salasaca’s prowess for weaving fine wool fabric in textile looms. They also made elaborate waist bands and fine ponchos for their own consumption, which are still produced today.

The Peace Corps: Friend or Foe?
When did tapestry-making develop? Some sources say it was in 1957 when Programa Punto IV taught three Salasacas to make tapestries based on methods for elaborating the traditional waist-bands. Later, these artisans formed a Cooperative and taught others in the village. However, most experts agree the “tapestry boom” didn’t occur until the 1960’s when Peace Corps volunteers reached Ecuador and recognized the Salasaca millenarian talent for textiles. The Peace Corps had a controversial role in the development of Ecuadorian handcrafts. Some say they intervened and influenced too much by bringing in foreign techniques and designs. Yet others say these U.S. youngsters helped indigenous communities rediscover their own talents, increase their sales, and therefore improve their lives. However, all agree that their designs and teaching changed Salasaca textiles forever. They introduced Pre-Columbian motifs from various regions of Ecuador including the Amazon region, as well as from other indigenous groups of the Americas such as Maya and Navajo Indians. They even brought patterns based on the drawings of the famous Dutch artists M.C. Escher! These became popular with tourists and sales increased.

The Otavalo-Salasaca Network

It wasn’t long until the market-savvy Otavalo Indians began to trade with the Salasacas and sell their tapestries in Otavalo and abroad as well. Later, ten Salasacas immigrated to Otavalo and taught them how to make these tapestries. Therefore, the Otavalo began to make their own innovations. For this reason, many people incorrectly believe the tapestries are from Otavalo and not from Salasaca!

Not all Tapestries are Created Equal

After interviewing several Salasaca artisans who have been making these handicrafts for over forty years, it is evident not all tapestries are of the same quality! The entire creation process requires care and quality control. First, the wool must be meticulously selected. It needs to be cleaned and combed and be 100% natural. Before, most of this wool was home-spun by women, but today this process is too laborious, so most of the wool is bought in Ambato and Cayambe. Then, the drawing is either invented by the artisan or commissioned by another artist. Once the design is established by the artisan, he (most weavers are men) will proceed to carefully weave; making sure the stitch is even, and tight. This process may take from a week to fifteen days, depending on the level of intricacy of the design. Then, the tapestry maybe delivered to other artisans who carefully add final touches such as wool chords on the edges, metal or tagua (vegetable ivory) inlays. This final process takes up to one week!

Purchasing Etiquette
Though most foreigners are told “you must haggle for prices at the markets!” , this is causing great stress on handicraft production. Artisans comment: “The tourists no longer care about quality or design; they only search for cheap prices. If this continues, it is no longer worth our time to make tapestries.” Some discouraged artisans say: “Why make a high-quality natural fiber product with original patterns, when buyers will be satisfied with synthetic pieces with little creativity? Therefore, if we wish this craft to continue existing, it may not be good etiquette to ruthlessly haggle for tapestries or handicrafts in general.

Artists and Artisans Unite
Though the general public may often not value tapestry-making, this is not the case with Ecuadorian artist. Several renowned Ecuadorian artists and graphic designers have commissioned Salasaca artisans to interpret their complex designs. They have introduced vibrant colors, abstraction, and new patterns which are skillfully represented in wool by the Salasacas. As artisans and artists unite, this could be the impulse necessary to prevent this tradition from unraveling.

Sources:
• Stone- Miller Rebecca et.al, To Weave for the Sun Thames and Hudson, Boston: 1992.

• Kyle, David. 2001, Ecuador DEBATE Nº www.dlh.lahora.com.ec May 2008.

• Salasacas http://groups.msn.com/salasaca-runakuna/artesania.msnw May 2008.
Personal Interviews:
• Artisans at Folklore Olga Fisch, May 2008.
• José Caizabamba, May 2008.
• Rudy Masaquiza; May 2008.

Zuleta: Identity on a String!

 

When the belligerent Incas reached Ecuador, they mostly found peaceful communities which were easily subdued. However, this was not the case of some ethnic groups, such as the Caranquis, found in the northern Ecuadorian Andes. As mentioned in XVI century documents, even the mighty Inca Huayna-Capac struggled to penetrate the Caranqui fortress; its remains still exist near modern day Zuleta, in the province of Imbabura. Today, Caranqui descendants continue to defend themselves from opponents that are even stronger than the Incas: poverty and the loss of identity. Their weapon, a surprising one: embroidery!

Through the preservation of the traditional art of embroidery, Zuleta women are helping entire families to raise their incomes, to become more educated and to gain national and international prestige. As a result, the Zuleta people hold their heads up high with pride.

In Andean culture, indigenous peoples have always prided themselves on their fine textile craftsmanship. The crisp mountainous air, along with the availability of cotton and of llama and alpaca wool, allowed for the weaving of elaborate textiles, rich in symbolic designs. In fact, textiles were so highly valued in Pre-Colombian times that master works were often sacrificed to Inti, the Sun God. However, embroidery is a European craft imported by the Spanish in the XVI century.

In colonial times, every self –respecting criollo young woman had to be able to embroider and sew if she hoped to ever get married! Soon, indigenous and mestizo women became attracted to the delicately embroidered designs. Little by little, the nimble fingers of indigenous women –so accustomed to spinning wool– surpassed those of their Spanish sisters. By the XIX century, indigenous women in Quito had assimilated the white embroidered blouse as a part of their traditional dress. Meanwhile, criollo women were abandoning these customary garments for the more modern Victorian and French styles. Ironically, the embroidered blouse, with its European origin, is an essential component of indigenous identity today.

 

Talent and Vision are Combined

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Zuleta embroidery took off. Rosario Pallares, wife of former president Galo Plaza, recognized the Zuleta women’s innate ability for this art. She also saw that agriculture alone would not help the people of Zuleta to fight poverty. On her trips to Europe, she observed peasant women sitting on their doorsteps sewing beautiful embroidery. Then, she put two and two together: couldn’t Zuleta women do the same? Her husband fully supported her idea and together they set up an embroidery workshop at the old hacienda.

Fine cloth was fabricated in the hacienda’s textile looms. Nuns were brought from Spain to help teach new ideas and techniques to the women and children. At school, embroidery was an important subject. Some women remember that they had to present finely woven towels or risk failing! The nuns and teachers reinforced what was learned at home from mothers and grandmothers. Over time, the quality of materials and designs was perfected, new items were crafted and production increased. As a result, Zuleta embroidery began to gain value: sales went up, giving women an alternate source of income and, therefore, a sense of self-worth.

From the 1960’s- 1980’s, various Olga Fisch store designers cleverly combined Zuleta embroidery with elegant black gowns, jackets and capes, which were modeled on fashion run-ways. In the 1980’s, the then first ladies Eugenia Cordovez and Nancy Reagan wore these capes at official events. Soon, elite Ecuadorian women followed the trend. What was once seen as ‘low class’ was now seen as ‘chic.’

Currently, president Rafael Correa himself, has shocked many by wearing shirts with Zuleta embroidered collars to formal events, instead of ties. The women of the Asociación de Bordadoras de Zuleta agree that since the president started wearing these shirts, the sales for similar shirts and embroidered articles in general have gone up. Currently, they notice more visitors at the Zuleta market, which is held fortnightly on weekends.

 

Close-knit families

Embroidery has allowed women to raise their income while at the same time staying close to their families. One Zuleta women comments: “Embroidery helped my mother educate me as an accountant but I gave up my accounting career because embroidery allowed me to stay home and raise my children. My accounting skills have proven valuable to our family business. Nowadays, I can afford to send my children to university.” There are many similar success stories, as many Zuleteños have been able to gain a higher education.

Another mother-daughter team ponders and reflects: “Embroidery has given me life. It makes me feel good!” The mother continues with glowing eyes: “How could I not be proud of my identity? It has permitted me to travel and meet interesting people at exhibits and to give my children an education; but, most of all, I was able to stay home and raise my family.” Her daughter, a lawyer by profession, also helps with computer technology and implements new design ideas. As she cuddles her 4 month old baby, she reflects that, for her, embroidery is more a hobby. After a few more months, she will go back to her law firm, but she will continue to help her mother.

Though embroiderers are predominantly women, it is not exclusively a feminine affair. Sometimes, it’s like a big party: The daughter designs and draws, the mother and grandmother embroider, a sister will wash cloth, and the men tie the knots on the edges of table cloths and towels. At a time in which the Ecuadorian family is being divided by emigration, these family ties are a privilege.

 

Party Dress

Another evidence of this pride is that Zuleta women, young and old, still wear their traditional embroidered blouses with pleated skirts. Though some have blouses made on sewing machines –no small job– for special occasions, a hand embroidered shirt is a must. For the Fiestas de San Juan in June, one must dance the night away while flaunting a new outfit. The more elaborate and pricey, the better. In fact, an elaborate hand-made shirt can cost up to 300 American dollars!

During these times of globalization, Zuleta people are still fighting to preserve their cultural identity. Though not everyone is an economic success, the women comment: “You will not see our people begging on street corners. This, in part, is due to embroidery.”

 

DON’T FALL FOR IMITATIONS:TIPS FOR BUYING AN AUTHENTIC, QUALITY ZULETA EMBROIDERED PIECE:

  • 100% cotton cloth or linen for towels, table cloths, etc. to ensure the cloth won’t loosen or bunch up.
  • High quality thread, not made in China. In this way, the colors won’t bleed.
  • Embroidery: Stitches should be tightly woven. This shows better craftsmanship. Check the work on the backside and notice if the knots and stitches are not too different from the ones on the front side.

 

Bibliography:

  • Ayala Mora, Enrique,et. At. (1988) Nueva Historia del Ecuador. Vol 1. Quito:Corporacion Editora Nacional.
  • Obando, Segundo. (1988) Tradiciones de Imbabura. Quito: Abya-Yala.

 

Personal Interviews: May 2007.

  • Rosa Alvear
  • Glenda Mora
  • Teresa Casa
  • Pastora Chachalo
  • Fundacion Galo Plaza Lasso