Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Additional photos Manos Angelakis
The Thrill of the Hunt… For Hand-Made
I’m looking at an alpaca shawl in lustrous blues and greens shimmering like a peacock. I bought it in Ecuador for a song… just $5. It was delightful to discover so much, lovingly handmade --- hecho a mano, as they say in Spanish. My beautiful belongings make me smile. They recall the rich experiences I had in this South American country so near the U.S., but so distinct in its culture.
Ecuador is renowned for its markets, but you don’t have to wait for market days to find a vast array of things to get your juices going. What makes the crafts so exciting is that there is a person behind each and every one. The goods are everywhere.
Cuenca, a World Heritage site for its Spanish Colonial architecture, home to four rivers and clean fresh air, is full of wooden balconies, wrought iron, and low buildings. But it’s the people and products that really give it color. Local women sport black braids…almost down to their long, full velvet skirts. They vie for your attention in this small city, so easy to walk around with gorgeous views from its many hills. It all adds up to feeling, well, equable…and that’s even before you get to the equator…which is what Ecuador is named for. Beyond the cities, deep in the Amazon jungle, native crafts are exciting, organic, and a mainstay of the population.
Let’s start with the Panama hat or paca toquilla which really is an Ecuadorian hat brought to Panama to protect workers building the Panama Canal. You know the hat. It’s all the rage on fashion pages--a straw fedora, with a black grosgrain band and a brim to block the sun. It’s practical, sporty and fetching on women and men--- all at the same time. Many places around Cuenca produce the hats. I chose Hermano Ortega Museum and factory for its extensive exhibit of all the processes in making them.
Contract piece workers in small villages hand-weave the straw hat base. They wash the straw in river beds, high in the mountains, and then weave it. After they get far enough along, these country folk come to town with big sacks full of straw hat “beginnings.” Husbands and wives arrive together in native dress. It was a thrill for me to see them smilingly toting their work to Mrs. Ortega for finishing.
At the factory, the goods are steamed and blocked on hat molds for different sizes; grosgrain ribbon completes the picture. The Ortegas have expanded into chic straw handbags and high-fashion hats that are unabashedly feminine. They supply clients like high-end couturier Hermes of Paris, as well as selling them at the factory. The merchandise is stunning at prices that seem like a steal to tourists. The original Panamas, toquillas, range from $10 to $250. Whatever the price, just get one!
Much craft work is done at individual homes, but a crafts cooperative called Centro de Bordados Cuenca, made up solely of women, is a place to see “process.” The co-op is designed to help indigenous women make a living beyond their subsistence farming. Do you like to embroider? Here straw hats are embroidered with patterns—flowers and butterflies---in soft pastels at $10. Watch the women and pick up hints for your own needlework. The others looking on are the children who accompany their moms to work. Embroidery is prominent in the culture of the Asue people who are expert with needlecrafts.
Embroidery is just one of the many traditional hand-crafts that Ecuadorians learn. How about knitting? At this women’s artisinal, you’ll find thick hand knit sweaters of alpaca and other exotic animals in the $50 range. Hand-embroidered holiday cards, that can be framed, are just $5.
Around Cuenca’s flower market at Plaza de San Francisco, the enterprising Otovalo natives sell hand-mades seven days a week. These native Ecuadorians, with their layers of slim round gold necklaces, long skirts, and strong faces are fascinating. Dealing with the people is even more of a thrill than buying the sweaters, shawls, and chilenas (big scarves) they offer.
Remarkably, one finds men knitting at craft stands, open daily, in El Ejito Park in Quito, the capital city. The government of this exquisite Spanish colonial city encourages crafts in this leafy park. It is a great place to pick up scarves, wooden boxes, jewelry, and, of course, knitted hats, scarves, socks and more--- at low prices. According to anthropologist Barbara Grunenfelder-Elliker, people from the Andes find it acceptable and normal for men to knit and for women to manage cattle. The guiding principle is to complement one another. She explained that textiles have long been part of Ecuador’s heritage. Before the Spanish came, Inca emperors kept records on woven textiles. The Canari and Otavalo people made special clothes for Inca royalty.
The location of these crafts, however, follows Spanish tradition. Neighborhoods are arranged for certain trades. In Cuenca, just a few streets contain all the bread bakers (special ovens of course.) And there is a neighborhood for ceramics.
Like most crafts people, Don Jose Encallada combines workshop with home. It’s truly cottage industry---the whole family lives and works in the area around the central courtyard, typical of Spanish architecture. His son and daughter-in-law produce pottery, creating their own personal styles. So there is something for almost everyone’s taste, many in vibrant colors and patterns sought after by local restaurants that serve on Encallada’s wares.
Some family members create the traditional rust-colored pottery used for cooking. Don Jose has perfected a unique black ceramic. He chars it in the kiln and scrapes off the burnt part, leaving a matte finish. I bought drinking cups for $2, soup containers with handles for $5, and was tempted to buy much more. So much to see, so little time!
Other ceramicists use different methods to great effect. The Quechua people in the Amazon rainforest create vessels totally natural and organic. The Cotacocha Ecolodge and the local government encourage the natives to work at crafts for a living, rather than hunting animals and selling the parts. They make pottery using corn husks as rainforest sandpaper. From volcanic rock they paint the pottery: red, coffee, or black. After it dries for two days, stones from the river polish the pottery (no firing and glazing).
A paint brush created from a child’s hair, so that it’s incredibly soft and fine, is used to paint patterns on the pottery. As opposed to the unisex attitude in Quito, here only the women are allowed to paint the patterns from nature…flowers, sun, moon…even some creatures not so pleasant. There’s a black scorpion painted inside my little orange bowl! It has a place of prominence in my home, a reminder that takes me back to Ecuador in my thoughts. I say to myself “Just take me back”---for real!
GETTING THERE: Continental, Copa, Delta, and United fly to Quito.
EASE OF ECUADOR: Its currency is the U.S. dollar and its other currency… electric… is the same as the U.S.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Crespo, Cuenca-Art deco touches. Ask for courtyard room. www.hotelcrespo.com
Hilton Hotel, Quito- Excellent location; major museums and crafts nearby. www.quito.hilton.com
Cotacocha Ecolodge-simple accommodations in Amazon rainforest.
WHERE TO SHOP: Centro de Bordados Cuenca-handmade embroidery, weaving, sweaters. Parque Industrial, lote 605, Calle P.
Ceramics-Don Jose Encallada
Hats-Homero Ortega Av. Gil Ramirez Davalo 3-86, www.homeroortega.com
Quito Artisanal Markets in El Ejido Park and at Juan Leon Mera Market-off Avenida de Amazonas
RESOURCES: www.quito.com.ec, www.Ecuador/travel, www.cuencaecuador.com.ec
© March 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.