The presence of a significant crafts tradition in Trinidad –in the central and southern province of Sancti Spíritus– is indissolubly linked to its history and condition as the third city founded on the island by Spanish conquistadors in 1514.
The first news we have of handicrafts appears in a document from 1520, stating that a local merchant was paid 4,700 maravedis for velvet imported from Seville. Later, in 1587, there is an advertisement that reads “a man who lives in town named Cristóbal Martel is selling items used for working linens, silk laces, buttons, ribbons, threads and needles”.
It was through this body of water that coffee, sugarcane, and even the venerated image of the crucified Christ would reach Trinidad. These items would have an addressee, but no sender. The needlework and the corresponding know-how would arrive in the same fashion.Manaca-Iznaga sugar mill and Church of the Popa, patchwok Hoping to become self-sufficient in their isolation, they would acquire trades and skills to meet their most urgent needs. That is how they lived until the first half of the 18th century, when sugarcane began to be grown and processed. This initial development would continue until the first half of the 19th century, when the Holy Township of Trinidad became a prosperous city, whose history and architectural legacy would enable it to be declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.
Yet between that initial opulence and the condition granted by UNESCO, Trinidad would have to face a century of desolation and economic hardships due to its overexploited soil, the lack of an adequate port for its commerce; the competition introduced by the recently founded city of Cienfuegos, with its rich soil and matchless port, and some world crisis or other. In the interim it would return to its original geographic isolation. The 20th century found it with a railroad and some steamships that provided the locals with the bare essentials of communication.
Many of its men and women would earn their living learning a trade, and handicrafts would become their spiritual refuge, their sole exercise of beauty, offsetting their sterile existence. Needlework managed to survive intact, preserved inside the home, and handed down from generation to generation. It would always be a part of a woman's daily life.
In the city's museums, beautiful samples of linens from that epoch may be seen. Lace trimming may very well be the queen of needlework, but is not all that is done in Trinidad. There is a rich variety of embroidery and knitting that is still part of everyday life and constitutes a considerable source of income for the local population, both in rural and urban areas. After tourism was developed in Trinidad in the 1990s, many men have also taken up embroidery. Some began by helping their wives, mothers or sisters in the openwork, where good eyesight is required. Later they learned the whole process of embroidery on openwork, the so-called lace trimming. Most of these men combine their life as artisans with a wide range of professions, from medicine to military life.
The needlework done by these artisans has, as is generally the case with handmade goods, either a practical or an ornamental purpose, and in most cases both. These works cannot be separated from either their natural functional use or their cultural and aesthetic values. The embroidered and knitted items made in Trinidad bear the history of its authentic traditions, which include both its traditional use in everyday life, as well as the formal and qualitative values that the skills and expertise of its people have conferred upon them.
One of the difficulties artisans of the needle have had to cope with for over fifty years has been the lack of materials ideally suited for their embroidery and knitting, for example, the fabrics used (especially linen, indispensible for openwork) and the different threads needed to guarantee the quality and perfection of tatting and bobbin lace. The creative, innovative talent of these women and men has enabled them to do openwork with fabrics that would not normally be used for the purpose, and to use a variety of threads, completely different from the ideal product ̶ skills they have developed during all the years the commercial, economic and financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba has made it impossible for them to lead a normal life on the island.
Text by Cristina González Béquer