Backstrap Challenge

Miguel Andrango foresees a rocky future for backstrap weaving in Ecuador

On the surface, the remarkable success of Otavalo’s craftsmen and musicians is a blueprint for indigenous people everywhere.  Ecuadorean Otavaleños have become the wealthiest and most commercially successful indigenas in the Andes.  Land Rovers, overseas clients, brand new houses and Otavaleño expats living in New York, Milan, Barcelona and Tokyo are visible manifestations of that wealth. Miguel Andrango has seen much of it happen during the 33 years his Tahuatinsuyo Workshop has been supporting traditional weaving.  But just like Miguel’s intricate two-sided backstrap weavings, there is a story underneath.
 
At the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop, in the small hamlet of Agato which overlooks nearby Otavalo, Miguel sits on a woven reed mat and eases into his backstrap loom.  Miguel is a master at creating double-faced weavings using complementary-warp pick-up and multiple heddle techniques.  “To be a backstrap weaver you need a lot of patience,” Miguel says, as he places the shuttle over and under alternating warps to create the waves in a lake motif.  He is working on a traditional Inca manta with a central geometric design, flanked by ojos de dios (“eyes of god”) and wave designs, which symbolize the tranquility of the nearby Andean lakes.  Just to run the shuttle through each of the warps, it takes him about three minutes.  “For example, a well done, hand-made poncho takes about a month to produce,” says Miguel.  He and others in his workshop are part of an ever-decreasing number of backstrap weavers in Otavalo who still make woven goods by hand using natural dyes and fibers.  Most of the commercially-successful Otavaleños now use mechanized looms and export most of their product to clients in North America and Europe.  These businesses can crank out two or three lesser-quality ponchos per day at prices of less than half of what a high-quality, hand-made poncho will bring.  As the economics of this proposition suggest, the future is uncertain for traditional weavers.
 
While Miguel works at the loom, his daughter Luz Maria and his brother Manuel explain and demonstrate how the sheep wool is cleaned, spun, carded and dyed.  Luz Maria handles a leaf of penco cactus and explains how it is chopped and pulped to make the mild soap that cleans the sheep wool.  Manuel demonstrates the carding of the wool using flat, wood card-combs with metal teeth.  He then holds up a much older one with twelve dried thistle heads framed to form a two-sided comb, a reminder that this process has been around a very long time.  Luz Maria then sits down and carefully spins and pulls thread onto a spindle from a lump of cleaned and carded cotton.  Miguel walks over and displays a basket full of natural dyes -- walnuts for brown, lichen for yellow, cochineal insects for various shades of red – and then holds up a small wooden basin for dyeing that has been in his family for several generations.
 
For hundreds of years Otavalo, a two hour drive north of Quito, has been the site of one of the most well-known markets in South America, and in the past 20-30 years it has changed markedly. Two decades ago, most of products in the Plaza de Los Ponchos market were hand-made and young men proudly walked around in their traditional costumes: fedoras, blue wool ponchos, white pants and sandals.  Today over 90% of the textiles at the market are machine-loomed using synthetic dyes and materials and the young men are wearing Hollister hoodies and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts.  “The changes have been good and bad,” says Miguel.  “A little more bad than good,” interjects his brother Manuel.  Miguel continues, “The young ones don’t wear the traditional clothes and they don’t want to eat traditional foods.  Instead of taking the time to prepare the flour and corn and make tortillas (savory or sweet corn pan cakes) they want fast food, like hamburgers and hot dogs.  They are too impatient.”
 
While in many ways Otavalo is a success story for indigenous artisans, not everyone has tasted success.  “Many weavers can’t afford a permit to sell at the market and it is very difficult to get a visa to go overseas to the U.S. or Europe to sell,” says Miguel.  Perhaps larger than these impediments, the international market is telling Otavalo that they prefer the cheaper, machine-loomed goods.  “I’d like to start a museum and textile center here in Otavalo to educate the public, but it is difficult to get the money.”  Other Andean weaving communities, notably Nilda Callañaupa’s Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco in Peru, have had success supporting weavers to get fair prices, getting young people involved and getting buyers to appreciate and pay more for hand-woven textiles.  The question remains whether the commercial success of the Otavaleños has dampened the desire to start such a center here.  Facing a mountain of mass produced, machine-loomed products, Miguel Andrango and his Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop continue to weave beautiful handmade textiles one piece at a time.
 
Miguel Andrango’s products can be purchased at the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop on the main street in Agato and from the store at the nearby Hacienda Cusin hotel.

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