Weaving My Way into the Fabric and Looms of Argentina’s Rural Women
Graciela Carrasco lives in the parched, red-soil regions of Argentina’s northwest. Like other women from Belen, in the province of Catamarca, she spins and weaves… weaving ponchos and dreams. With patience and with pride.
The women in her village weave with llama and sheep’s wool just as their grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers have done for more than 200 years. Finding the thread, dyeing it to reflect the colors of the leaves and flowers of the countryside, and sitting in front of their looms weaving demands time and knowledge… and patience! This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation in this small town, which is the birthplace of the Argentinian poncho. As Graciela says, “It’s what we do every day, from Monday to Monday.”
She is filled with a sense of satisfaction and pride at having woven the poncho that the President of Argentina presented as a gift to Pope Francis, when visiting him in Rome. That was a red letter day for the entire village. Graciela had a dream –as she explains in her YouTube video- that Argentinian ponchos would one day reach the entire world.
The women in her village weave with llama and sheep’s wool just as their grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers have done for more than 200 years.
And, now my fashion brand, Veroalfie, is trying to work with Graciela and her community to make this dream come true.
One day I visited the village where Graciela lives with her husband Ramon, armed with lots of creative and even presumptuous ideas: I wanted to interest the women of the community in adding value to their traditional ponchos by enhancing them with design and fashion elements. Frankly, I realized that it would be extremely difficult, but I explained the project to them and they replied, with characteristic enthusiasm, “We’ll have a sample ready for you tomorrow!” It was the beginning of a win-win partnership.
We have already been working together for four seasons!
I enjoy working with the women of Belen, a village 2,750 meters above sea level, where time seems to have come to a halt. When we go there to prepare a collection, we drink mate (herbal tea) together and eat the empanadas that the women make. It is a real experience: the food, the smells, the flavors, the place itself and the way in which they weave…
It is important to mention that each region of Argentina has a different way of weaving. In Tucumán, another province in the country’s northwest region, the looms are circular, while in Catamarca they are square in shape. And the looms in villages in countries further north, such as Bolivia or Peru, are even more distinct and ancient.
Creating value, understanding consumers
For entrepreneurs of any sector, adding value is becoming more and more crucial to their business. They must create and promote new trends of all kinds, which, as is the case in our example, transcend fashion. It’s a question of cultural trends. Of innovation. And it is happening because new consumers, who are increasingly knowledgeable and who demand quality, are gradually imposing their tastes. Rather than merely acquiring objects, these consumers want to purchase environmentally-friendly experiences and they demand to know how the goods and services they buy were produced. International markets are increasingly demanding products that reflect the identity of the country in which they are made. Understanding this idea opens up markets but above all, generates employment and income for groups that have been forgotten or ignored, simply because they live in remote areas, far removed from the centers of power in the cities.
In the most sophisticated fashion markets, such as New York, Milan, London or Paris, customers are clamoring for items that are inspired by and embrace age-old techniques. This trend is rooted in customs that have been replicated and handed down from generation to generation, for hundreds of years.
I am sure that you must have noticed that every season Navajo prints and Aztec designs, Greek tunics, blouses with gypsy embroidery, Colombian bags, embroidered jeans or ethnic jewelry with a tribal flavor are all the rage. The formula is to differentiate ourselves, but also to get back to the basics, to our roots: who we are and where we come from.
If I don’t work with the rural women in my country, showing their way of life and their landscapes, I’m not selling anything. Studio photos are irrelevant.
Of course, I did not invent this concept. In the United States, for example, a fantastic store called Anthropologie, with a vision similar to the one I described, opened its first boutique in 1992 and today it has 200 stores worldwide. The prestigious clothing firm describes its customer as “a creative-minded woman, who wants to look like herself, rather than follow the crowd. She is also adventurous about what she wears, and although fashion is important to her, she is too busy enjoying life to be a slave to the latest trends.”
So, today I sell my products in Anthropologie. When I offered them my products they said, “We buy the essence of each country”.
How can we depict the essence of a country, if our fashion photos are the same as in any city? If I am an Argentine designer, where should I show my new collection? The answer is very simple: in Catamarca, in Jujuy or wherever I found the inspiration or the materials to create my pieces. That is why I have succeeded. If I don’t work with the rural women in my country, showing their way of life and their landscapes, I’m not selling anything. Studio photos are irrelevant.
The landscapes shown in the photographs of our latest collection –the dry earth, the bare mountains, the unpaved, red dirt roads, the cactus and the red brick houses – are simply a part of what we sell, or should I say, what we promote. The materials used are also native to Argentina and the Andes region, such as the llama, vicuña and guanaco wool that is so typical of our highland region. Our unique and distinctive ponchos and shawls reveal our essence to the world, showing what we are made of, where we come from.
In summary, I believe that we need to return to our roots, that is, to work with rural communities. Modern, authentic designers in each Latin American country can and are already doing it. This will define fashion for many years to come, as it continues to be a reflection of different places in the world.
Our countries have already had positive experiences, for example, the Panama hats – now a symbol of excellence - crafted out of toquilla straw by skillful Ecuadorean hands. Production of these hats has multiplied, with a wide range of colors and designs now available, but they are still distinctive, mainly due to the quality and flexibility of the fibers.
Each region is unique and the challenge is to ensure that the designs reflect this - and that is where we come in, as designers. With our support, we hope that this will spawn the transformation of other craft ventures into high fashion. We are merely the people who connect the craftswomen to a world that is perhaps alien to them – the undoubtedly competitive world of fashion.
We understand that fashion today needs to show how these rural women live, what lies behind a collection, what lies behind a brand. In reality, the work teams and partnerships with the craftswomen bring our designs to life. The name of the person who made the piece is also printed on the labels and published on our web site. They sell us their shawls or ponchos and we place these products on the international markets, but they still have their own shops and sell at craft fairs.
At present, with government support, rural weavers are organizing themselves and developing a program to create a country brand. I will assist them, as will others. I will offer design support to help them to make their own collections.
Twenty years working together
I have always loved hand-made items: embroidery, ceramics and candles. I also like fine, high-quality materials, like alpaca or llama wool. I’m attracted to indigenous things, although I also enjoy launching projects and creating brands. I pay attention to the market and listen to consumers.
My experience with these groups of rural women began 20 years ago. I worked first in Peru and then in Argentina, especially in the northwest, in Catamarca and Jujuy.
The techniques used to make our products are invaluable; they are authentic and the more natural they are, the better they sell.
I like to work with them in their own environment, rather than bringing them all the way to Buenos Aires. We want to know their histories, see their children, build a relationship, get a sense of how they feel, see them become empowered. It’s incredible. My approach is not to tell them that they should do this or that, but rather to work with them to develop a collection and support them in selling their products outside of their communities.
The techniques used to make our products are invaluable; they are authentic and the more natural they are, the better they sell. I must be very clear: this is no longer craftwork – it is fashion. We try to lift the craft to another level to transform it into fashion, into fashion for the world.
Just as I embraced success by working with indigenous people, many other designers can make a worthwhile contribution by recognizing that these craftswomen and craftsmen are the best capital that our countries have to offer. I work with six or seven groups in different regions of the country, not all women; there are men too. They all deserve to be heard. They should be heard.