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.

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

• Kyle, David. 2001, Ecuador DEBATE Nº May 2008.

• Salasacas 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.”



  • 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.



  • 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

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

Cotacachi Leather: Quality Government, Quality Leather


Who would have thought that a little city, in a small province of a developing nation, would have international recognition? This is the case of Cotacachi, in the province of Imbabura, Ecuador. Cotacachi is the proud winner of the Participative Democracy, Dubai 2000 prize, which is given to a city that has: “One of the most sound environmental, social and economic practices in its local government.” This isn’t the only prize it has received. In 2002, the Unesco honored it with the City of Peace prize for its dedication to dialogue and democracy. So, why does it have so much attention? As you are on your way to Otavalo, you must visit Cotacachi because of its cultural diversity, alluring vistas, its unique democratic government and, most of all, its beautiful leather crafts.

A Focus on Diversity and Education

As you walk towards the Cultural Center, or through the main plaza, you will run into bustling Otavalo Indians; mestizos diligently working in their shops; and, occasionally, local black people selling products as well. The current mayor, Auki Tituaña, an Otavalo Indian, has realized the importance of Cotacachi’s ethnic diversity and has therefore created an assembly in which black, Indian and mestizo, as well as urban and rural people, all participate as part of the local government. Perhaps the fact that he is one of the first Indigenous mayors in Ecuadorian history has given him a unique perspective. As a result, the Cotacachi people are becoming active citizens who are learning to take responsibility for what occurs in their city and region. This work hasn’t gone unnoticed and, consequently, the prizes mentioned above.

In a country in which presidents remain in power for an average of two years, it is exceptional that Mayor Auki Tituaña has been in office for ten years (democratically reelected). His persistence and the system’s continuity have allowed him and his assembly system to obtain improvements for his people. For example, 37% of the budget goes towards environmental cleanup; 22%, towards education; and, 28%, towards social development. This is a one of kind financial plan, in a country in which the less than 6% of the budget goes towards education! These efforts have positive results, such as better public health and being the only illiteracy-free county in Ecuador, in 2005.

Protecting the environment is also a priority in Cotacachi. One leather shop worker explains that in the last decade, they have been forced to use more environmentally friendly products for leather dying and they aren’t allowed to dump toxic waste into the rivers. He comments: “This is all for the best. We need to take care of our rivers for the future generations.” Cotacachi has the impressive Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, which protects a wide range of endangered species. In a country in which environmental degradation is rampant, the fact that local governments are emphasizing environmental protection is uncommon and admirable.

Beautiful Leather Crafts

Not only are the Government and population quite exceptional, the fine leather crafts elaborated in Cotacachi are also outstanding. This is because the artisans take great care in the elaboration process, they renovate their designs, and they offer competitive prices.

Though other areas of Ecuador also specialize in leather goods, Cotacachi is unique because great skill is put in to the entire elaboration process. All Cotacachi artisans buy already tanned leather because this highly polluting process is not consistent with the mayor’s environmentally friendly philosophy. It requires a trained eye to buy good tanned leather. Once purchased, the leather must be carefully washed and softened. Drying the leather is the next step. This must be done in the open air but without direct sunlight and it takes between 24-48 hours. At this point, grease or linseed oil is evenly applied, (previously, guarango oil, which is extracted from a type of acacia, was used). This is a key aspect in order to ensure durability and flexibility in the leather. Next, the leather is dyed in an infinite myriad of colors. Today, most of these dyes are of better quality and biodegradable. A key step occurs at this point: the leather is cut in very thin slivers. It must be done with a steady hand and with special machinery in order to ensure uniformity and a thin cut. If it’s too thick, the leather will be too rough, and if it’s uneven, it will have a very sloppy look. If the leather passes quality control, it is then ready to become a jacket, suitcase, purse, saddle, belt, wallet or any other garment conjured up by the designer’s imagination. A lacquer is applied to protect and give shine, and the garment is finally ready! It will make its way to the various shops on the 10 de Agosto Street in Cotacachi.

There are some variants to the process. For example, some stretch the leather and then beat it in barrels in order to make sure it becomes very soft. However, the artisans and knowledgeable customers all agree: hand-selected and hand-cut pieces are incomparable to industrially assembled leather.

A Just Price

Because the process is mostly hand-made, as mentioned above, it is time consuming and, as a result, large volumes cannot be obtained. For example, the owner of one of the larger and fancier shops, explains that they produce an average of 100 to 150 garments a month. Therefore, their prices aren’t as cheap as industrial-made leather goods. However, some of his suede vests and jackets -which cost around $150- would easily go for $500 in Europe or the USA. Unfortunately, he explains, many tourists want to obtain high quality garments for $30. He tells us: “This is impossible because of the care and time we put into our products!” In some other areas of Ecuador, leather products can be obtained at lower prices, yet the quality may be questionable.

About fifteen years ago, most leather products in Cotacachi had little creative design. There was only one jacket style, purse style and wallet style …not so, today. The designers are constantly traveling to Quito to buy fashion magazines and surfing the Internet to see what’s in style. Another artisan explains: “The Internet has been a great help for us! Also, we test out different designs and see how consumers react. Ultimately, the costumer has the last word on our designs.” At some shops, you can have a jacket or saddle custom-made! This is a luxury that would be extravagantly priced in a developed country. “We have to evolve and renovate all the time, or we die!” says another storeowner, while proudly showing a cow-skin and leather purse, which could easily be found in pricey boutiques in New York or L.A.

How It Began

Most entrepreneurs aren’t exactly clear on how the business developed, yet all seem to agree that saddle making was the basis. One artisan who has been working with leather since he was 13 explains: “Our grandparents and parents made leather saddles and reigns because horses were used to bring in the cattle and as a means of transportation. We made our own saddles for our personal use.” Little by little, people began to see that their goods were appreciated in other parts of Ecuador and the sales began. During World War II, change purses and belts were made and, in the 1960’s, leather jackets came in style. At one point, many Colombian tourists poured into northern Ecuador and were great clients. However, after the dolarization in 1999, Ecuador became too expensive, so they stopped coming. Today, most of the products are for local tourists and for shops in Quito and, to some extent, for foreign tourists.

Legend has it that the Cotacachi Mountain was very flirtatious and, though she married the powerful Rucu (Old) Pichincha, she had an affair with the younger and more handsome Imbabura Mountain. In revenge, Rucu Pichincha stole their first-born son, Guagua Pichincha. Because of this, Cotacachi cries every day and thus produced the Cotacachi Lake from her bitter tears. It’s not surprising that Cotacachi has charmed so many lovers, for she is very attractive and so is the city beneath her. Many people become captivated by Cotacachi’s cultural richness, striking scenery, its dedication for a better government and its lovely leather crafts. Be sure to pass by on your visit through Imbabura!

Tips for buying a good leather product:

Though the quality largely depends on the raw material and the elaboration process of the leather itself, there are some telltale signs when buying. Also, remember there is a wide range of quality and prices in Cotacachi itself:

    • Leather should be soft and flexible.
    • Leather should be thin, (unless it’s vaqueta, used for saddles, some briefcases and belts, which is thick and sturdy).
    • The finish must be good. Check the buttons and zippers: are they very cheap? Are they stitched on securely?
    • For a leather jacket: check if it is assembled by several pieces, like a ‘quilt’, or is it made of only a few pieces. In this case: “Less is more.”
    • You can bargain and haggle, but not too much. Remember all the labor that goes into the product. Bargaining too much is insulting.


– Journal “Cotacachi 146 años: Multicultural, diversa, universal.” July 2007.

Personal Interviews:

– Julio Morales, August 2007.
– Pedro Caiza, August 2007

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.


San Antonio de Ibarra: Transforming wood into beautiful works of art.


Text: Carolina Matheus

Planted in the midst of green hills, quaint houses, and a panoramic view of the city of Ibarra, stands the San Antonio de Ibarra Village.  San Antonio catches one’s eye on the road towards Ibarra, not only for its peaceful vistas, but because it holds  a predominantly white and mestizos population of approximately 14,000 people, in which around 3500 people dedicate their lives to wood carving, sculpting or related crafts. Whether you are walking on a quiet side road, or the picturesque main plaza, you will run into carpentry workshops, furniture stores, or artisan workshops. Some workshops are camouflaged; outside they look like shacks, or regular homes.  Yet inside the fragrant smell of Cedar wood fills the air, as reddish shavings cover the floor next to delicately hand-crafted chairs, religious sculptures, and tables.  San Antonio has become one gigantic carpentry workshop in which many families have found a relatively lucrative source of income, while at the same time preserving a wood sculpting tradition of hundreds of years.


Though the elaboration of many arts and crafts in Ecuador is often a supplementary source of income, this is not the case of San Antonio artist and artisans.  For the majority, carving religious imagery, fine furniture or secular sculptures provides the livelihood for their families.  As one artisan explains at his workshop adjacent to his home, dedicating his life to sculpting religious imagery has allowed him to give his three kids a decent living.  They have a modest yet comfortable home, schooling, a car… comforts which are rare in most rural settings of Ecuador.  For him, it’s not just the material things which count. He truly values his flexible schedule, being close to his kids and wife, in a safe rural setting.  While other middle class Ecuadorian fathers have had to immigrate to find jobs, or spend long hours outside the home, this tradition passed down from his father has brought peace of mind to his family.

In isn’t always easy.  Like any other salesperson in the capitalist economy, there are periods of booms and busts.  In the 1960’s many tourist were visiting the Imbabura province seeking to admire the landscapes and cultural richness of the Otavalo Indians.  On their trips around this region, they began attracted to San Antonio’s wooden sculptures.  Sales also went up during the 1970’s during the “petroleum boom” when a middle class emerged with the desire and the money necessary to adorn their homes with works of art.  They became devout clients of the San Antonio craftsmen who also began to grow wealthier.  However, after Ecuador dolarized its economy sales have decreased, especially to Colombia.  Fortunately, in the last few years, as the economy has become more stable, and tourists are coming in more regularly, sales are slowly picking up.  Yet members of the Artisan Association of San Antonio recognize the need to be more united and also more organized. For this reason, Artisan Association of San Antonio is recently promoting more exhibits and participation at fairs in order to get more exposure.


Just like in colonial times, some San Antonio sculptors maintain the traditional process of making religious sculptures.  Usually a fine piece of Cedar or Andean Walnut wood is carefully chosen.  A saint, Jesus, or Mary, is selected usually based on famous XVIII century sculptures of Quito. Then, the master sculptor will carve out the general volumes. Usually an assistant will participate in several of the next steps such as painting some of the less elaborate part of the sculpture. Yet all the detailed sculpting and painting such as eyebrows, flowers, and gold painting, is done completely buy the master sculptor.  This set-up must not be very different than what could be found in Quito or Cuzco three hundred years ago.   Other San Antonio workshops are less traditional,  and have a more “assembly line” format  in which one person carves the volumes, another spreads on the plaster, another sculpts the hands, and yet another paints the details.  No matter the process, it remains certain that all the religious sculpture is hand made.
The level of skill and precision in the wood carving is undeniable.  This could be appreciated at the recent “Archangel Sculpting Contest” held in the village in June 2007. The angels found at the exhibit are true works of art, difficult for the judges to evaluate.  Balance, movement, symmetry, and harmony can be found in almost every piece, from traditional to modern. It is no wonder many renowned artists from Ecuador are originally from San Antonio!


During colonial times, throughout Spanish America, religious sculptures made by the famous “Escuela Quiteña” were coveted.  It was said that the level of skill, technique, but mostly the expressive faces and bodies of the sacred figurines inspired believers towards faith and repentance, and therefore were highly valued. It was from this famous school in Quito that San Antonio inherited its roots.  Yet it was in a very unusual manner; for disaster opened the way to opportunity.

The 1868 Earthquake of Ibarra devastated this city and all its neighboring villages.  The local clergy sought help from the capital by recruiting Escuela Quiteña artists and artisans to restore hundreds of works of art destroyed.  Javier Miranda, a painter from Quito, ended up in Ibarra and found an assistant from San Antonio, Daniel Reyes, as a handyman.  Little by little, Javier began to recognize that his assistant had an innate ability for carving and sculpting, and decided to take this young man under is his wing, now as an adept pupil.  He went back to Quito were he was taught him all the tricks of the trade of the Escuela Quiteña.  Once the apprentice reached the level of his teacher, he went back to his home town San Antonio ready to set up his workshop. The Ecuadorian government helped Daniel and his brothers set up a school/workshop which taught carving, sculpting, and painting.  The locals quickly showed their ability to replicate the exquisite Escuela Quiteña style. Workshops started to blossom throughout the village as more and more clients from Ibarra and Quito began to recognize the ability of the San Antonio artisans as the “heirs” of the Escuela Quiteña.  It wasn’t until 1944 that a formal High School, Liceo de Arte Daniel Reyes was formally founded in San Antonio.  There, the teachers started to teach artistic principals of balance, symmetry, anatomy and new tendencies from Europe. Though copying from live nude models was common place in Europe, in this conservative Andean village, it was considered a scandal.  Many of the locals protested against this irreverent new school, but despite popular outrage, it still survives today. The school allowed artisans to branch out from religious imagery towards other more secular themes.  This is how it all began and developed.
Today, more than one hundred years later, an entire village lives by transforming wood into beautiful works of art. The San Antonio wooden sculptures preserve the Escuela Quiteña legacy, and at the same time give several families a decent way of living. As a young boy helps his grandfather polish a piece of wood, one hopes the tradition will continue.

Escudero, Ximena (1992)  América y España en la Colonia: Historia de un Sincretismo.  Quito: Banco de los Andes.

Murriagui, Alfonso (June, 2007) “ San Antonio, Un Pueblo Donde se da Vida a la Madera”

Personal Interviews:  June 2007
Rómulo Garrido
Ester Yépez
Oswaldo Villalba