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.
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!
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.
• 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.
• Artisans at Folklore Olga Fisch, May 2008.
• José Caizabamba, May 2008.
• Rudy Masaquiza; May 2008.