Many crafts in Ecuador developed in the colonial period when the Spanish set up encomiendas and obrajes (workshops) where indigenous people were forced to work at a specific craft. Examples are textiles in Otavalo, leather in Cotacachi and woodcarving in San Antonio, activities which all continue to this day.
Weaving was taking place in Ecuador before the Incas arrived but it was under them that textiles really started to be revered. The Spanish imported innovations such as the spinning wheel and treadle loom from Europe to improve the out put from the obrajes. When encomiendas aere abolished many people continued working in similar conditions and workshops on haciendas under the huasipungo system.
Otavalo had workshops through this period. Then in 1917 the owners of the Hacienda Cusin introduced weaving techniques and styles from Scotland. These new products sold well nationally, were copied by other weavers and the industry has continued growing ever since. In 1964 the huasipungo system was abolished and people were able to work at home. This continues today. Men and women weave, for themselves, and to sell locally and export. More accurately, the labour is shared. Typically, women, with help from their children, clean, card, and spin the wool. The actual weaving is usually done by men. The work is difficult and it can take hundreds of hours to produce a single piece. Finishing work, such as sewing together larger pieces, is usually done by women.
Otavalans, are particularly savvy exporters, now on a global scale and you can see many weavers at work in the surrounding villages. They now incorporate designs to sell in different markets, not just their own traditional motifs. Unlike many products such as fruit the quality of the weaving is probably highest if the product is destined for the artisan’s family or community. For example, check out the belts which the Otavalan women wear.
- Clean the wool,
- Card the fibres using a metal paddle
- Spin the fibres into yarn using a distaff and spindle
- Dye the yarn
- Weave the yarn on a loom (backstrap or treadle (foot operated)
2 Panama Hat
Actually it’s not from Panama, it’s from Ecuador. During the 19th century all goods and people moving between or Europe the east coast of the USA to the west coast or South America went through Panama and Ecuador’s straw hats were no exception. They soon became popular amongst men going to search for gold in California and later amongst workers on the Panama Canal. The name Panama hat stuck definitively.
In Spanish the straw for the hat is called paja toquilla and it comes from the Carludovica Palmata plant which grows in the low, dry hills north of Guayaquil The fronds of the plant are boiled, dried in the sun then woven in one of two weaving centres 1. the region around Montecristi in Manabi which is also where the plant grows or 2. the region around Biblían in Azuay.
Most hats are exported from Cuenca, near to Biblían. First the hat goes to a factory where the ends are trimmed, the hat is bleached , ironed into shape , rolled into a cone and wrapped in a balsa wood box. You can find many shops and a good selection of hats in Cuenca.
Alternatively visit Montecristi where the best hats are produced and nothing is done in a factory. The weaving is tighter, with thin, light straw. Therefore they take longer to produce. If a hat uses more than 30 straws per inch of weave it’s something special. The best superfinos are supposed to hold water and roll up small enough to pass through a ring. They are much cheaper in Montecristi than anywhere else on the planet but still cost a bit so if you don’t think you need a superfine, check the quality and feel of the other hats (there’s quite a range) and offer your best price. In Montecristi they will also iron it into shape to fit your head but plan accordingly because you’ll have to wear it for the following three hours.
If you want to find out more I recommend you check out one of the following sources, both of which are passionate about the hats.
Tom Miller The Panama Hat Trail