by Kathleen M. Klumpp

Spinning cotton with a hand-held spindle and weaving the yarn into articles using a vertical loom is a millenarian coastal Ecuadorian artisan tradition that has been transmitted by peasant women from one generation to the next for at least four thousand years (Marcos 1973; 1979).

The roots of the knowledge and techniques used by today’s few remaining artisans in Manabí Province are to be found in the Ecuadorian cultures of the coastal region that existed before the Spanish conquest in 1534, specifically in the weaving technology of the Manteño,the last advanced, complex state that occupied the territory of present-day Manabí Province at the time of the conquest.

The initial contact of the Spanish with the Manteño occurred in 1526, some eight years before the actual conquest, when on the high seas off the coast of present-day Esmeraldas province, a Spanish sailing vessel captured an indigenous balsa sail craft full of luxury trade goods. The first Spanish eye-witnesses to Manteño textile technology marveled at their fine textiles, noting that the exquisite cloth and garments were woven with cotton and “wool” [camelid fibers, most likely alpaca], in many colors with designs of birds, animals, fish, and trees created in a wide variety of handiwork [weaving] techniques (Sámano-Xerez 1967:63-68).

Within some twenty years after the Spanish conquest in 1534, the indigenous social and political structure of the Manteño State had been dismantled. As a result of diseases introduced to the indigenous population by the Spanish as well as the inhumane conditions of forced labor, there ensued a catastrophic population collapse. The most precise calculations estimate the population loss to have been 97.5% in the Manabí region alone (Newson 1995: 247-261).

And within fifty years after the conquest, the indigenous languages spoken in the coastal regions embracing present day Manabí, Santa Elena and Guayas provinces had disappeared, leaving only remnants of place names,family names, the names of flora and fauna, and a few names of specialized tools used in the manufacture of woven cotton items.

While we know little of languages spoken by the coastal Ecuadorian peoples at the time of the conquest, we do know that they were not related to the language of the Incas—known as Kichwa in Ecuador and Kechwa in Perú and Bolivia. The Incas only had a few excursions into coastal Ecuador and never established a socio-political presence there. All of the coastal cultures are therefore non-Incan.

The many large and densely populated towns on the coast as described by an early chronicler of the Conquest (Benzoni 1857) were abandoned with some of the indigenous inhabitants having fled into the less accessible mountainous areas of the interior– a predictable survival strategy still recounted in the 20th century oral traditions of the coastal indigenous peoples of the Peninsula of Santa Elena (Álvarez 2002:203).

With the notable exception of a reference to cotton cloth being demanded as a form of tribute payment by the early 17th century overlords (encomenderos) in the district of Puerto Viejo (Anónimo 1907), there is absolutely no written indication that spinning and weaving of cotton continued into Colonial times after the cataclysmic Spanish invasion and conquest.

However, the pre-Hispanic technical knowledge of spinning, the use of vegetable dyes, and weaving did prevail in the Manabí countryside. After the imposition of Colonial rule, indigenous rural women, relegated largely to the home, needed to spin and weave the cotton articles needed for daily life in the countryside. They became a repository of knowledge of this fiber art and were successful in keeping it alive in the bosom of home and community.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, this craft flourished in the Rocafuerte valley region of central Manabí where I carried out my fieldwork beginning in 1976. Then, in almost every settlement and small village situated between the city of Portoviejo, the capital of the Province and the city of Rocafuerte, rural women spent hours hand-spinning cotton fiber and weaving the saddlebags (alforjas), hammocks, and little bags called chu’pas intended for their own use as well as for that of other peasant families in the area. Not only did the knowledge of how to weave simple plain cloth survive, but a patterning technique as well.  Known as simple alternating float weave, the designs are created by selecting certain warp threads and allowing them to “float” over a plain weave ground.  This method of patterning is very ancient—it appears on the oldest pre-Hispanic textiles in coastal Peru where a dry climate has favored their survival (Rowe 1977, Fig. 59, p. 76).

Thus, on the Ecuadorian coast, it is the countrywomen who spin locally grown cotton and weave on a vertical loom. These women are the direct cultural heirs of the Manteño textile tradition,but yet they are monolingual Spanish speakers and of mixed racial makeup, in effect, mestizos who are the descendants of coastal indigenous people, the Spanish colonizers, and afro-Ecuadorians (Jurado Noboa 2010a). While many have the facial features such as the famed aquiline nose of the Manteño, and bear coastal indigenous surnames such as “Catagua” that speak of their indigenous past, today’s peasant population has no ‘historical memory” of the societies that existed before the Spanish conquest.

In contrast to the indigenous population of the Ecuadorian highlands or Sierra who recognize that many of their weaving techniques are pre-Hispanic in origin and represent an inheritance of the Incas or of the original pre-Incan populations that existed before the arrival of the Incas into the Ecuadorian highlands in the late 15th century, the spinners and weavers of Manabí have no idea that their knowledge of weaving and their fiber technology existed in the coastal region long before the arrival of the Spanish.

In the video, “Hanging by a Thread”:the Ancient cotton Fiber Art of Manabí Province”, you will see that the methods of the present day artisans clearly hark back to the pre-Columbian coastal cultures. Coastal women spin with the hand-held spindle held horizontally and invariably spin in an “S” direction of torsion. They weave on a vertical loom.

In contrast, throughout most of the Ecuadorian highlands, men are usually the weavers and the traditional non-Spanish method is to weave using a backstrap loom (Rowe 1998, 2007, 2011). The large long-draw “walking” spinning wheel and the upright treadle loom seen today were implements introduced into the highlands by the Spanish to be used in the Colonial sweatshops that were established by the Crown (Meisch 1987).

The coastal artisans were never impacted by these new technologies as no weaving sweatshops were established in this region. While the Spanish did however, demand that the coastal indigenous women spin and weave in order to help meet the tribute payments owed to their Spanish overlords, the women continued to use their pre-Conquest native coastal technology to fulfill these obligations.

I cannot emphasize enough that the Manabí textile tradition that has survived into modern times owes practically nothing to the Spanish nor to the Incas. It does not belong to any Kichwa speaking ethnic or language group either. Please note that the Incas never established a foothold in the coastal region and that the indigenous languages spoken on the coast and that were supplanted by the Spanish language soon after the conquest in 1534 were not of Kichwa linguistic origin.

Today, this millenarian fiber art of Manabí has been and continues to be invisible to the larger society and until very recently, go totally unrecognized. In part, because of its insular nature, confined to the countryside with its primary products, hammocks and saddlebags, made by farmers (campesinos) for farmers, this fiber art, unlike the weaving of “Panama” hats out of the toquilla fiber, never entered a national or international mercantile sphere.

However, other factors, I believe contribute to this oversight—notably a strong city-country divide leading to an historical devaluation of farmers (campesinos) by Ecuadorian town and city dwellers, as well as a gender based discrimination leading to a dismissal of spinning and weaving as simply the work of poor countrywomen, differing little from the ordinary tasks of cooking, working the fields and raising the children.

Thus, those few urban dwellers of Rocafuerte and Portoviejo who were even aware of this artisan activity taking place throughout the countryside, in their own “backyard” considered it at best a handicraft of poor peasant women, barely worthy of mention, and certainly not qualifying as a highly technical millenarian fiber art.

The urban sector certainly has no idea of the years of training and skill that go into producing a tightly woven cotton hammock or a saddlebag, especially one patterned with complex geometric designs meant to be carried as a male dress accessory rather than being used on the back of a horse or mule.

Equally as well, this technologically sophisticated utilitarian craft has been invisible to Ecuadorian social scientists, even those that have focused on “popular culture” and “popular arts” of Manabí as an important vehicle through which a rural Manabí cultural identity is expressed (Naranjo Villavicencio 2002; Vasquez B.1992).

This report aims to remedy this deficit through a comprehensive and detailed video presentation on this fiber art. I examine the textile techniques used to prepare and spin cotton, and weave it into alforjas and hammocks, and discuss how this cottage industry has changed over time through the lens of a typical family of weavers beginning with the author’s initial contact with them in 1976, and continuing into 2015.

I establish exactly what techniques were inherited from the pre-Columbian past and provide sufficient visual detail so that both an informed viewer or textile specialist can compare this fiber art with other neighboring spinning and weaving traditions based on cotton fiber, such as in Santa Elena and Esmeraldas Provinces, and in northern coastal Perú.

While in its broad outline, the textile art of Manabí may appear similar to other coastal cotton textile traditions of Ecuador, it is unique in several aspects: the weavers in Manabí have continued up until today to use hand spun cotton yarn; the patterning method used to create the traditional designs on fancy saddlebags (alforjas labradas) is also unique to Manabí, and the dyeing method that the great grandmothers used to achieve a navy blue color by using the leaves of an indigo plant (el tinto) to achieve a navy blue and “green” color has not been reported elsewhere.

An unusual method of extracting the color from a species of Indigofera plant is very likely a legacy from their pre-Hispanic past—indigenous knowledge that had been transmitted from generation to generation up until the early 20th century when in the 1930’s this method of using fresh indigo leaves was supplanted by the use of synthetic dye stuffs.  My reconstruction of the methods that the great-great grandmothers, based on Old Wives Tales that were told to me in the 197o’s stands in stark contrast to the indigo technology introduced into Ecuador by the Spanish colonizers.

It is especially urgent that the techniques of this millenarian fiber art of Manabí be brought to light now and every attempt made to safeguard them since this traditional craft is on the verge of disappearing altogether.

During much of the 20th century, the spinning and weaving of saddlebags and hammocks were part of a female peasant identity and part of their cultural heritage. However, since the publication in 1983 of my original study (Klumpp 1983) of this family of weavers from the settlement of Zapote, at least two generations of women have grown up not learning how to spin or to weave. There is one remaining weaver of hammocks in the town of Rio Chico, but she does not possess the knowledge of how to warp or set up the loom in order to weave a saddlebag (alforja).  Her mother, who taught her now to weave, also did not know how to weave a saddlebag.  Unfortunately, that  knowledge of how to weave both hammocks and saddlebags went to the grave with this weaver’s grandmother.

Today, doña Trinidad from a settlement outside of Rio Chico, Portoviejo is the last practicing weaver in the entire Province who knows how to weave the entire inventory of articles— plain weave saddlebags as well as with geometric designs; hammocks, chu’pas, and a wide variety of other types of bags. She also knows how to make wall-hangings and table runners with individual place setting—non-traditional articles that I am responsible for introducing to her in order to increase her market potential.

In the face of an increasing globalization, the economic and social value of transmitting these skills and knowledge to the next generation has collapsed. Today’s cell phone carrying young ladies want nothing do to with this textile fiber art as it is considered “antiquated” and not suited for “modern times”. They would be embarrassed to be seen spinning or weaving—such is the stigma attached to this former female peasant identity—an identity now tenuously held onto only by their “old fashioned” grandmothers. In 2010, one young lady told Trinidad, as she was trying to recruit her as an apprentice, that she “rather starve” than to earn a living from this artisan activity.

This report, however, is much more than just a study of the techniques and skill of the last practitioners of a millenarian craft. I also discuss the steps that I have taken, beginning in 2006, to safeguard it from oblivion. While I have no control over the macroeconomic and cultural circumstances impacting the local demand for alforjas and hammocks, perhaps the knowledge and skills involved in producing these articles can be re-directed to producing other items that would appeal to a “niche” market of consumers, both local and international who appreciate handcrafted items. This is what I have tried to do— establish an infrastructure for its continuation as well as insuring that the technical skills and know-how carried by Doña Luz be transferred in their entirety to her daughter most interested in learning them, so that the link with a pre-Columbian past not be broken.

The traditional craftsmanship involved in the making of alforjas and hammocks falls within the conceptual category of Intangible Cultural Heritage as defined by UNESCO in the 2003 Convention. Intangible Cultural Heritage includes:

“ traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants,such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts…The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next….” (See UNESCO web page at: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00003).

It is important to note that while saddlebags and hammocks are the end products, it is not so much the end products that I am concerned with conserving: rather it is the knowledge and skill that goes into producing them. For example, while the saddlebag is an item introduced by the Spanish, the same skill set went into producing small pre-Hispanic bags using an identical patterning method that were used by their Manteño forebearers. On the other hand, the traditional hammock, woven out of handspun cotton on the vertical loom is of pre-Hispanic origin. Its importance again is not so much in preserving it as a end product, since it has already been replaced by more economical factory-made ones, but rather lies in protecting and safeguarding the ancient knowledge required to warp and weave it correctly.

My field methodology, participant-observation, the cornerstone of research in cultural anthropology, emerged out of my two principle concerns: to fully document and understand an ancient textile tradition, and to take immediate measures to help insure its continuity. This meant that in order to fully understand the ancestral technology used to manufacture alforjas and hammocks, knowledge carried only in the minds of the artisans, it was necessary for me to be as close to them and their work as possible.

Since I had already had a warm relationship of mutual caring, admiration and respect with Doña Luz and her family, established some 30 years earlier, it was natural for me to stay with them and participate in their daily life each year that I returned, staying for at least a month’s visit from 2006 onwards. This warm family again opened their doors and hearts as they had previously done in 1976, when I had carried out a brief study of their textile art.
I was with them day and night, sharing not only the delicious typical cuisine of the Manabí campesino, but also the warmth and laughter that permeated this household.

I was with them when their daily tasks began, even if this meant getting up in the early hours of the morning to the braying of the burros, and the crowing of the roosters. Thus it was that I was given the privilege of observing this artisan activity with a bird’s eye view where I could calmly observe each and every step of the process—in its social and economic context of peasant life—and to formulate meaningful questions about the activities.

But that was not enough. By virtue of the fact that in traditional cultures, the acquisition, mastery and transmission of technical knowledge occurs primarily through practice, and not through verbal explanations of the logic behind each step, I realized that by simply observing the activities of the artisans, I was not necessarily capturing the cognitive structures behind their actions. Therefore, I had to participate even more directly and try to learn the activity first hand. Thus, I learned how to configure the warp threads for a designed alforja as well as for a hammock. By acquiring practical experience, this training served to deepen my own understanding of the task at hand, but more importantly, it allowed me access to the cognitive process that stands behind every action of the weaver.

In the following video, I narrate this story—a story that is both unique, addressing the particular circumstances of this family of weavers, but also representative of an ancient textile tradition and way of life that this Manabí peasant family embodies.


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