Mapuche: Interlacing Culture & Weaving

The handmade and craft are at the center of sustainable slow fashion. However, we must first define craft to ensure the appropriate use of the word and its place within the design process. Traditional craft practiced by indigenous communities in their local environment produced with local materials, with techniques that have been passed on from generation to generation with their own stories and rituals are very different to craft practiced by a non -indigenous person who has learnt the technique. It’s important to state this difference because traditional craft practiced by indigenous communities in their own local environment will respond to time, to cycles, to seasons, to rituals and to cultural beliefs. The process of making becomes the process of living, of breathing, of thinking. It becomes the process of knowing and being in the world. My experience learning Mapuche weaving in my home country Argentina, has opened my eyes to what craft can really mean.

In 1997 at the UNESCO/CCI Symposium “Crafts and the International Market: Trade and Customs Codification”, craft was defined as handicrafts which are produced by artisans and explicitly states, “Handicrafts are made without restriction in terms of quantity and using raw materials from sustainable resources. The special nature of artisanal products derives from their distinctive features, which can be utilitarian, aesthetic, artistic, creative, culturally significant, decorative, functional, traditional, religiously and socially symbolic and significant.”

This definition came alive when I learned Mapuche weaving. Understanding the sacred quality of these textiles meant that I needed to weave my way through the process of weaving, feeling the threads in my hands, touching and discriminating a warp end from another. The way the warp ends alternate creates a rhythm, a cycle in the weaving process. There is an order, a hierarchy to be respected. An ancient knowledge and tradition that comes through by the understanding of the technique and which brought tears to my eyes by the simple act of weaving my understanding through the wool yarns.

Yarn samples with natural dyes from New Zealand where Victoria lives
Mapuche weaving is influenced by ancient knowledge

A very simple loom is used (witral) which is a big rectangle made by two vertical sticks (wuicha wuichawe) and two horizontal (quilwos). These sticks are the ones holding the warp. Smaller round sticks are also used in the process of warping and the upper one (raninelhue) will remain throughout the weaving process to separate different layers in the warp.

Betty Taranto and Jorge Mari are two wonderful teachers who have devoted their careers to learning and teaching Mapuche weaving techniques. They have been passionate enough to recover long lost techniques by studying old textiles, and they have been playing an important social role in promoting Mapuche knowledge, appreciation and understanding. They are currently working with Artesanias Neuquen in a series of workshops which aims to help Mapuche weavers to recover traditional techniques which haven’t been passed on from older to younger generations.

by truly understanding the ways of craft I have been introduced to a different level of understanding

I spent three six hour days with Betty Taranto and Jorge Mari in a wonderful warm environment in which I was able to discover not only the techniques I was craving to learn but also I was able to discuss some aspects of the Mapuche weavers daily lives.

I learnt three techniques: Urdido circular suplementaria, Nimin laboreo forzado con base de peinecilla and tubular doble tela. 

Betty and Jorge are aiming to preserve the ancient craft

As a weaver myself I was able to judge the level of difficulty of these techniques. Mapuche weaving knowledge is engrained in its own culture, its own way of being and living. It became apparent when I sat in front of a witral that time needed to slow down, that my intuition needed to be engaged and that my mind/body coordination needed to be in the present moment. As part of the tubular doble tela I was challenged with the many cruzes needed for a weft pass as well as struggling with the warp ends to discriminate which ones needed to be in front to be able to draw. When I was able to break down the technique into understandable meaningful steps I was half way through the faja. I found that this weaving knowledge could only be acquired by observation of the process and by the actual process itself. It confirmed that Mapuche weaving is a language in itself, with its linguistic characteristics that need to be understood within the context of the process…

Victoria brought her knowledge of Mapuche to New Zealand

This learning journey opened my eyes to what is yet to come. As designers and as fashion academics we have the challenge to produce fashion which collaborates, engages and sustains traditional craft knowledge in order respect the distinctive features of traditional techniques, its utilitarian, aesthetic, artistic, cultural, religious and socially symbolic and significant qualities.

It also opened many exciting doors within my practice by adopting a mindset of working with and within my physical environment. By working with materials produced in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where I am now based, using dyes from my own garden and upcycling meaningful pieces of old cloth with cultural and personal significance has altered the way I have been approaching my own practice.  Considered slow stitching and naturally processed materials are driving the methodology of my current creative process. I feel that by truly understanding the ways of craft I have been introduced to a different level of process understanding.

Written and photographed by Victoria Martinez Azaro