It’s more than a piece of clothing: it reflects a way of being and standing in the face of nature, and with the history of the hands that weave them.
The poncho is ancestral and current clothing at the same time, across geographical and time borders. The Nazcas and the Incas used it for warmth and as a precious object in their burial ceremonies, the Indians that Sebastian Gaboto saw as he rode up the Paraná river in 1529 wore it; it was woven by women for their loved ones to protect them during the wars of independence, it is inseparable from the figure of the Argentine gaucho, and its morphology reached the catwalks of brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Burberry.
An Argentine artisanal product
In 2018, the Ibero-American Year of Arts and Crafts, we celebrated that the poncho is the main artisan product of our country: handmade, with processes and techniques handed down from generation to generation, with local and natural raw materials.
The artisan spends between one and four months in making garment, entwined in a process that began a lot earlier, with collecting the fiber of the llama, the alpaca, the sheep, the guanaco or the vicuña. For camelids, a poncho requires a kilo and a half of wool, and each animal yields approximately 100 grams, with back, chest and stomach fibers being the best.
In the northwest region of Argentina, for example, llamas are sheared between November and December through the “señalada”, a ceremony in which the animals are honored with colored ribbons and mother earth is thanked for the wool that is obtained.
The wool alchemy
The process of making threads from wool is a completely artisanal task. The fibers that were obtained are cleaned, sun dried, stretched into a fleece, and readied to be hand spun, with the help of a spindle or distaff made of wood similar to a top that helps in the process. Some have also used industrial spindles in spinning natural fibers.
The landscape is essential for the design, since the colors of the threads are often obtained with natural dyes. From the ceibos (erythrina crista-galli) they obtain red color, blue from mulberries, green from the molle (schinus molle), yellow from the mikuma, and golden from rhubarb. Also walnut shells, yerba mate, onions, carob tree, creosote bush or beetroot offer a varied range of colors.
Some artisans use the same patient dying and sun drying process for their skeins, although they use industrial dyes.
The weaving techniques that are used represent their communities. The inhabitants of the different regions relate to them and know that the ponchos from those regions link them to the territory.
Roxana Amarilla, who directs the National Market of Traditional Argentine Arts and Crafts, characterizes some of them according to their designs and weaving techniques.
The mapuche poncho: it is made in the provinces of the Patagonia and other regions where the mapuches have influence. It is made in a single panel, with a vertical loom, usually out of sheep’s wool artisanally spun. The borders can be labored or with a dying and weaving technique (ikat), the colors they use may be cocolle, ñire or calafate. Some mapuche artisans work with a delicate finish with whole, even fringes.
The guarda pampa poncho: it is made by artisans of the province of La Pampa, descendants of the communities of ranqueles that have been displaced; they make ponchos with a tied border, with the ikat technique that combines weaving and dying of a single panel in sheep’s wool.
The coya poncho: made by men and women artisans of the Red Puna, they are of llama wool, finely spun in pushka or puska, the Andean spindle. They are light and end in edging or mesh.
The atamisqueño poncho: characteristic of Atamisqui in the province of Santiago del Estero, made with very finely spun wool and dyed with natural colors of trees of the Santiagueño hills, like quebracho (schinopsis balansae) and carob tree, or else artificial dyes. The borders are decorated with the ikat technique but they are also edged with pallado or pallay. It’s made on a criollo loom and has two panels joined with a fine decorative or hidden seam.
The Salteño poncho (of the province of Salta): it’s made on a criollo loom; it has two panels usually joined with a zigzag seam called quenqo or with a seam in the shape of the wing of a fly. It is very representative of this province and refers to the Güemes epic.
The art of weaving
The traditional weavers learned their techniques by observing their elders, helping with finishes or collecting fruit for the dying process with elements of nature. In many communities the entire family group gets involved in the task.
Roxana Amarilla describes this as follows: “The immaterial heritage is handed down from generation to generation, but exclusively in this way. For example, in Valcheta, Rio Negro, it is handed down among women, from mothers to daughters and granddaughters, because it is a community of great weavers who were able to set up a workshop where they train themselves and improve their art. In other cases, like the Salvatierra family in the province of Catamarca, it is taught in the home, handed down purely from parents to their children”.
At the national level, in the art of weaving it is mostly women, but in the provinces of the Patagonia, weavers are exclusively women because in the mapuche culture the art of weaving on the witral (vertical loom) is an ancestral grace characteristic of women where the genesis of this practice lives on.
The loom is where the desires, secrets, joys and sorrows of the weavers are stitched together. It is a place of the encounter of the earthly and the divine, of a dialogue with oneself and with the current and past stories of the peoples that are told while the warp is put together. The woof of the ponchos, ties together life cycles, inheritances, feelings, memories and thousands of tales which come to life again every time we wear it.