In the picturesque Andean city of Cuenca, in southern Ecuador, the famous chola cuencana stands out. These are women of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry who can be found selling flowers, fruits, or making and selling handicrafts in the plazas and streets of the city. A fundamental part of the chola’s mixed heritage is her traditonal costume. From head to toes, it is composed of: two heavy braids under a panama hat; large, bright earrings; an embroidered, pleated blouse; two polleras (skirts): one worn as an undergarment –called a centro (center)- whose inferior embroidered edge shows underneath the outer pollera –called a bolsicón (a baggy, pleated skirt); nylon pantyhose; and, patent leather shoes. However, the garment that tops off her costume with a magnificent touch is the colorful macana (shawl).
Macanas or paños are shawls that are made using a bound-warp-resist technique and are then dyed; this dying method is known as ikat, which means ‘to bind’. First, the wool of the warps is dyed in a pattern. Next, the shawls are skillfully hand-woven on a back-strap loom and, finally, they are finished with a knotted fringe. Like the chola cuencana, these shawls are also of mixed Spanish and Indigenous heritage: the back-strap loom is of pre-Colombian origin, while the knotted macramé-like fringe is originally European. The ikat technique can be traced to pre-Colombian sources, but it is a technique that has been practiced independently in several cultures around the world.
Sometimes, the intricate and detailed designs on the macanas are so perfect, that tourist wonder if the designs are prints! Not at all, the process of making a macana, from beginning to end, involves warping, cording, binding, designing, dyeing, drying, weaving and knotting, but no printing!
Macanas are an expression of Ecuador’s mixed heritage. They are an example of the combination of the best of both worlds. Cholas Cuencanas decorate and give identity to Ecuador’s southern landscape.