Arts and crafts

Ecuador is a shopper's paradise. Everywhere you turn there's some particularly seductive piece of
artesanía
being offered. This word loosely translates as handicrafts, but that doesn't really do them justice. The indigenous peoples make no distinction between fine arts and crafts, so
artesanía
is valued as much for its practical use as its beauty.

Panama hats

Most people don't even know that the Panama hat, Ecuador's most famous export, comes from Ecuador. The confusion over the origin of this natty piece of headwear dates back over 100 years.

Until the 20th century, the Isthmus of Panama was the quickest and safest seafaring route to Europe and North America and the major trading post for South American goods, including the straw hats from Ecuador. In the mid-19th century, at the height of the California gold rush, would-be prospectors heading west to seek their fortune picked up the straw hats. Half a century later, when work on the Panama Canal was in full swing, labourers found the hats provided ideal protection against the fierce tropical sun and, like the gold-diggers before them, named them after the place they were sold rather than where they originated. The name stuck and, to Ecuador's eternal chagrin, the name of the Panama hat was born.

The plant from which these stylish titfers is made -
Carludovica palmata
- grows best in the low hills of the province of Manabí. The hats are woven from the very fine fronds of the plant, which are boiled, then dried in the sun before being taken to the various weaving centres - Montecristi and Jipijapa in Manabí and Azogues, Biblián and Sigsig in Azuay. Montecristi, though, enjoys the reputation of producing the best
superfinos
. These are Panama hats of the highest quality, requiring many months' work. They are tightly woven, using the thinnest, lightest straw. When turned upside down they should hold water as surely as a glass, and when rolled up, should be able to pass through a wedding ring like silk.

From the weaver, the hat passes to a middleman, who then sells it on to the factory. The loose ends are trimmed, the hat is bleached and the brim ironed into shape and then softened with a mallet. The hat is then rolled into a cone and wrapped in paper in a balsawood box ready for exporting. The main export centre, and site of most of the factories, is Cuenca, where countless shops also sell the
sombreros de paja toquilla
, as they are known locally, direct to tourists.

Weavers of Otavalo

During Inca times, textiles held pride of place, and things are no different today. Throughout the highlands, beautiful woven textiles are still produced, often using techniques unchanged for centuries. One of the main weaving centres is Otavalo, which is a nucleus of trade for more than 75 scattered Otavaleño communities, and home of the famous handicrafts market which attracts tourists in their thousands.

The history of weaving in Otavalo goes back to the time of conquest when the Spanish exploited the country's human resources through the feudal system of
encomiendas
. A textile workshop (
obraje
) was soon established in Otavalo using forced indigenous labour.
Obrajes
were also set up elsewhere in the region, for example in Peguche and Cotacachi, using technology exported from Europe: the spinning wheel and treadle loom. These are still in use today.

Though the
encomiendas
were eventually abolished, they were replaced by the equally infamous
huasipungo
system, which rendered the indigenous people virtual serfs on the large haciendas that were created. Many of these estates continued to operate weaving workshops, producing cloth in large quantities.

The Otavalo textile industry as it is known today was started in 1917 when weaving techniques and styles from Scotland were introduced to the native workers on Hacienda Cusín. These proved successful in the national market and soon spread to other families and villages in the surrounding area. The development of the industry received a further boost with the ending of the
huasipungo
system in 1964. The
indígenas
were granted title to their plots of land, allowing them to weave at home.

Today, weaving in Otavalo is almost exclusively for the tourist and export trades by which it is quite naturally influenced. Alongside traditional local motifs, are found many designs from as far afield as Argentina and Guatemala. The Otavaleños are not only renowned for their skilled weaving, but also for their considerable success as traders. They travel extensively, to Colombia, Venezuela, North America and as far afield as Europe, in search of new markets for their products. As these begin to saturate, Otavaleños are now peddling their wares in Asia.

Woodcarving

During the colonial era, uses of woodcarving were extended to provide the church with carved pieces to adorn the interiors of its many fine edifices. Wealthy families also commissioned work such as benches and chairs, mirrors and huge
barqueños
(chests) to decorate their salons.

In the 16th and 17th centuries woodcarvers from Spain settled north of Quito, where San Antonio de Ibarra has become the largest and most important woodcarving centre in South America. Initially the
mudéjar
, or Spanish-Moorish styles, were imported to the New World, but as the workshops of San Antonio spread north to Colombia and south to Chile and Argentina, they evolved their own styles. Today, everyone in San Antonio is involved with woodcarving and almost every shop sells carved wooden figures, or will make items to order.

Bags

Plant fibre is used not only for weaving but is also sewn into fabric for bags and other articles. In Cotopaxi province,
shigras
, bags made from sisal, were originally used to store dry foodstuffs around the home. It is said that very finely woven ones were even used to carry water from the wells, the fibres swelling when wet to make the bags impermeable. These bags almost died out with the arrival of plastic containers, until tourist demand ensured that the art survived.
Shigras
can be found at the market in Salcedo (early in the morning) and are also re-sold at tourist shops throughout the country.

Like the small backstrap looms and drop spindles of the Andes, the bags are portable and can be sewn while women are herding animals in the fields. Today, women's production is often organized by suppliers who provide dyed fibres for sewing and later buy the bags to resell. A large, blunt needle is used to sew the strong fibres and the finished article is likely to last a lot longer than the user.

Bread figures

The inhabitants of the town of Calderón, northeast of Quito, know how to make dough. The main street is lined with shops selling the vibrantly coloured figures made of flour and water which have become hugely popular in recent years.

The origins of this practice are traced back to the small dolls made of bread for the annual celebrations of
Día de los Difuntos
 (Day of the Dead, 2 November). The original edible figures, made in wooden moulds in the village bakery, were decorated with a simple cross over the chest in red, green and black, and were placed in cemeteries as offerings to the hungry souls of the dead. Gradually, different types of figures appeared and people started giving them as gifts for children and friends.

Primitivist paintings

In the province of Cotopaxi, near Zumbahua and the Quilotoa crater, a regional craft has developed specifically in response to tourist demand. It is the production of 'primitivist' paintings on leather, now carried out by many of the area's residents, depicting typical rural or village scenes and even current events. Following the volcanic eruptions of Tungurahua, these began to figure prominently in the Tigua paintings - named after the town where the work originated. The paintings vary in price and quality and are now also widely available in Quito, Otavalo and other tourist destinations.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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