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! 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.
How are Shigra’s Made?
First, the raw material, a resistant natural fiber from the cabuya tree (Agave) is prepared. Then, the mature leaves are sliced into long strands which must be soaked in water for 15 days in order to 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, or “chauto 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.
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 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.