Carretera Austral (Chile)
Two traditional handicraft techniques are the predominant in Los Lagos region and specifically in the commune of Puerto Montt: Basket Making and Loom Weaving, both with pre-Hispanic origins.
In basket making stand out the works in Junquillo (Juncus procerus) of families from the localities of Ilque and Huelmo, and in loom weaving the crafts made by artisans of the coastal localities in Carretera Austral. In both cases the forefathers of the families or weaving women would come from the archipelagos of Chiloé and Calbuco.
Both production centers are in the territory of the Regional Museum of Ancud (National Service of Cultural Patrimony - Ministry of the Cultures, Arts and Patrimony) called Historic Chiloé, a territory with a common cultural substrate held together -in this case- from native cultures techniques which were adapted by Spaniards and teach to its descendants.
In this territory there’s a weaving universe developed for over 150 years and thanks to women a high level of specialization has been accomplished, such as practi technical, symbolical and aesthetic elements that compose form part of the material and immaterial Chilean patrimony, worthy of register, diffusion and wonder.
Even though, there’s no certainty of the method or date when the tradition arrives the territory, it is believed when families arrived and settled in these coasts in XIX century they brought textile knowledge from their places of birth, mainly Chiloé and Calbuco. The processes of adaptation, specialization and innovation from this original knowledge pass to conform what we now identify as the rich and unique textile tradition of the Reloncaví Sound.
In the Reloncaví territory in which textile were developed it was very hard for those who settled in mid XIX century. There the forest and sea meet face to face; rain is abundant, and agriculture is limited by geography and weather. The main source of their feeding was fishing, seashells gathering and livestock herding.
The principal economic activity in the zone was wood exploitation, mainly the Alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides) used to fabricate wooden tiles -basic raw material in the construction of houses-. Nevertheless, income was very low, so women started to use their textile knowledge not only to dress and warm their families but to sell or exchange their works for basic supplies such flour, sugar, mate, tea, salt, among others. That’s how in the core of families, women took a leading role in generating income, which formed economic-productive structure of the zone. This fact meant the textile trade wasn’t an option it was an obligation for women since young until their last’s days.
The knowledge of the trade always has been given through observation and imitation, transmitted from grandmothers and mothers to daughters, where little girls copy and imitated the women of the family, first spinning the wool or fiber and then weaving.
Given the patrilocality tradition present in the zone. Women learn to weave with their mother at young age, until they leave home to marry and move to the husband’s home. Once there, like in every family the mother-in-law leads the textile trade and teach everything to her daughter-in-law taking her as assistant. Only when they had daughters at age for weaving, the artisans acquired their own loom or inherited their mother-in-law’s loom in order to continue weaving with their daughters.
Isolation was a permanent reality only interfered by sail boats and after by engine boats to connect with the settlements and just in 1980 roads construction began. And due to this isolation and lack of connectivity maintained the textile trade untouched during the XX century and thanks to this it become an identity element for the women and families of the zone.
Historically, the place to sell crafts has been Caleta Angelmó (cove) in Puerto Montt. There barges and sail boats arrived and after boats with engines, men and women sell their goods and with earned money bought the needed supplies and returned home with their families.
In the 80’s the sale of textiles lowered, and “Mother’s Centers” emerged. In some localities such as Chaica, Caleta Gutiérrez and La Arena existed the intermediaries which were neighbors with more capital than the weavers that bought in other localities wool at lower prices and then they ask for weaving works to them at a lower price discounting the price of the wool or even offering goods in exchange for their job.
In this scenario, many women didn't manage to sell their textiles, so they began working in other areas such as the picking and sale of seafood, salmon cultivating centers, house keepers, among others, many time forfeiting the textile trade.
With democracy’s comeback a new support process began, from NGOs, the Municipality of Puerto Montt to the Cultural Corporation of Puerto Montt who promoted the creation of artisanal workshops, training courses were organized, exhibits and the artisans were invited to participate in fairs. Funds were given to acquire looms in order to encourage them retake the trade.
In 2004 Artesanías de Chile Foundation contacted artisans from the area and started buying textiles. Gradually supporting them integrally promoting the value and rescue of their trade, improving their technique, strengthening their organizations, supporting their participation in fairs, as well as in the acquisition of raw materials through a Wool Bank located in Lenca to provide the best available fleece. In the last 10 years a rebirth of the textile trade is seen as well as a higher valuation from the artisans of their own work and a general interest of citizenship to acquire traditional textiles.
Commercially speaking, most of the craftsmen sale their products outside the Carretera Austral, to clients such as Artesanías de Chile Foundation, institution that buys on a monthly basis, Cordillerana Foundation, Santiago, Puerto Montt a Puerto Varas shops. Additionally, they also work upon request of clients who contacted them through social media. Many of them also lack a place to commercialize their products, so they do it in their homes where they attend tourists, mainly during summer.
It is important to mention that weavers have the support of INDAP (Institute for Agricultural and Livestock Development) where they have improved their workshops, go to national fairs and resources to buy wool and other supplies. As well as the support of the municipality, institution that have offer them places to sale and exhibit their products and promotion through their tourism platforms.
The weavers of the Carretera Austral perform all the transformation process of the sheep’s wool, from the shear to the weave. However, few of them have sheep. So, the quality and quantity are less than they require to cover its raw material necessity, so it’s common for them to buy uncleaned fleece and then perform the productive processes which starts with the selection and classification of the fleece to begin the next steps:
Wash and dry of the fleece: The wash is made in different stages and linked to streams of water such as rivers which are abundant in the area. The first is to rinse without detergent, some artisans do it directly in the river and others rinse the fleece in deep trays or buckets with warm water for a few days.
For those who spin the fleece without washing, the washing is done once the hank is ready. In this case, the hanks are left soaking for a few days (two or three) in cold water and then rinse in the river. After that, the hanks are wash again a few times but with detergent.
Once the wools or the hanks are washed, the most common practice is to leave them in the open to dry, assuming the weather is good. In the case of fleeces, is accustomed to dry them above zinc roofs, while hanks on top of wooden fences or clotheslines.
Untangling and spinning: Once the fleece is washed or the cleaner selected, the artisans begin the process of transforming the fleece into yarn with help of the spindle. This tool give shape to yarn when the wool is wind, and the thickness of the fleece is reduced and giving the desired yarn size.
Reloncaví artisans have specialized in 1 ply size yarn since is the type needed for their weaving. They have three types for their weaving according to its quality and use:
1.- Warp: Yarn used vertically on a loom. It is made with wool of higher quality since it must be thin and strong to hold the tension of the weaving.
2.- Weft: Yarn that goes horizontally between each warp in the loom. It has lower quality wool, thicker, uneven and does not require to be strong as the warp.
3.- Pile: Yarn used to make the knots that form the pile rugs. This weaving must be cut in small pieces and knotted to the warp. They are thicker and firmer than the warp and a higher quality of wool is needed as well.
Aspado (Cross-shaped tool): Once artisans have filled their spindles, the yarn is passed to an apparatus called aspa, which help form the hank or skein.
Dyeing: In the Reloncaví area there is dyeing tradition that has been teach from generation to generation and is based on the extraction of dyes from natural products found in the area where the weavers live. These natural products are the larch, Magellan’s beech, Lenga beech, Tineo, Mañio (Podocarpus nubigenus), Winter’s bark, Chilean Wineberry or Maqui and the Chilean Hazelnut, all these available for the artisans to experiment and obtain solid colors for their weavings.
The result a characteristic color palette where browns, greens, gray tones, yellows and black distinguish and are obtained from boiling one or more dyeing products.
The artisans also know the aniline dye technique, however, is only used when the design or client demands it. They prefer to dye with roots, leaves, fruits, lichens, flowers or mud, because those elements are without a cost and the result is far better.
Loom weaving: The weaving is done in a vertical loom. The artisans of the zone don’t have a particular name for it, they just called it los palos (the sticks on English). Even though, it’s like the mapuche loom, they don’t remember its name on Mapudungun (as it happens in Chiloé Island). Certain cultural elements are left behind and not prioritized by these groups. Likewise, the weaving in this loom is not like the traditional mapuche weaving, is closer to the weaving done in the kelgwo (horizontal chilote loom). So, is a mixture of those two loom traditions forming a new experience.
Main products made in the loom: With this loom the artisans make several products that require different techniques.
Sheet: The artisans of old used the warping simple technique to make sheets, which were used to sleep, and it had to be thin and soft. In the 80’s the sheets were use as cloth to make clothes, but this fashion disappeared and currently the artisans don’t make sheets because there is no interest in buying it and lost its commercial function.
Plain and checkered blankets: Using the simple warping technique but with thicker yarn the artisans made blankets. The main function was to give warmth, so its weaving is more tight and stronger. They can be of natural color (natural or dyed with natural products, mainly white, brown, green, gray or black) or checkered (checkered design like the checkerboard, black and white, or on a white base with darker colors like dark green, brown, ocher, etc.) The squares can be small or large and with or without alternate thin lines. These are part of the typical products of the zone.
Checkered blankets with brocade embroidery: Other of the techniques used to date is the brocade embroidery, even though it is not an embroidery with all its letters since it is made during the weaving of the textile and not after by adding a supplementary weft. This technique is used to embellish the weaving through the incorporation of brocade in the white squares between weft and weft until achieving the desired design.
Carpets, entrance and corridor rugs: The carpets and entrance rugs are a fundamental part of the textile tradition in the zone. The knots or pile technique is used to make them, the design of the carpets is usually tinged with a geometrical shape elaborated by putting different color knots in the warp.
Products made with knitting needles: We cannot fail to mention that most of them weave with knitting needles. In addition to the loom knowledge, they also learnt knitting at young age mainly to do things for their families like socks, hats, flipflops and sweaters, and some groups specialize in this like the Workshop Arte Azul and the Workshop Artesanas del Reloncaví de Lenca.
Currently there are 9 associations of artisan weavers in the following localities along the Carretera Austral: Piedra Azul, Metri, Lenca, Chaica and Caleta Gutiérrez, besides all the artisans that continue this trade individually going up to 70 cultivators. It’s a living trade that continues to contribute an identity, a lifestyle and a mean to survive.