Studying the Characteristics of Tarabuco’s Weaving Techniques in Bolivia

A Tarabuco Dress worn on special occasions (©photocoen)

A Tarabuco Dress worn on special occasions (©photocoen)

Tarabuco is an ethnic group that lives southeast of Sucre, in central Bolivia, and represents one of the country’s prominent traditional cultures. For the past twenty years or so, Tarabuco has become more known to foreign visitors and today travelers flock to the region in large numbers to check it out. I was one of them.

One of the most commonly seen male dresses in Tarabuco (©photocoen)

One of the most commonly seen male dresses in Tarabuco (©photocoen)

Typical Dress of Tarabuqeños

It’s easy to spot a Tarabuqeño. Most conspicuous and intriguing are the monteras, or morriones. These leather hats are patterned after the helmets worn by the Spanish colonizers.

Tarabuco men are recognizable by their k’uychis, ponchos woven with rainbow-patterned stripes – the tones of these stripes indicate the place of origin of a poncho. Women traditionally wear an aqsu, two pieces of cloth, one worn as a cloak and the other draped over the shoulder – its edges embellished with colorful weaving designs.

Although I liked the designs the first time I saw them, it wasn’t until I visited the Museo Textil-Etnográfico de Arte Indígena in Sucre that I became fascinated by the art and its history.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The weaving patterns are centuries old and continue to be used today.
  • The colonial town of Sucre and its surroundings form a beautiful geographical part of Bolivia as well as represent a strong sense of history and traditions.
  • Good for anybody interested in textiles, weaving and unique designs.
Typical Tarabuco weaving (©photocoen)

Typical Tarabuco weaving (©photocoen)

Weaving Patterns

Whereas men weave according to personal imagination and male vision, the weaving patterns of women visualize symbolic figures or are a representation of real life. The latter is expressed in, for example, marriage rituals, the production of chicha (corn beer), and farming scenes such as harvesting, sowing, and livestock. Another recurring pattern is that of religious celebrations, such as Pujllay (carnival), and Todos Santos (All Saints’ Day).

Having said that, since the revival of the traditional weaving techniques in the 1990s – when ASUR started a revival project of disappearing weaving techniques with the main goal to create a new form of income – many new patterns and color schemes have been developed, leading to a much wider choice of fabrics than in the old days.

Tarabucos weave with the wool of sheep and cotton dyed in bright colors, creating intricate patterns in various color gradations. An important difference between the weaving techniques of men and women is the fact that women choose the colors of the warp whereas men change the colors of the weft.

Historic Weaving Techniques

A Tarabuqeño in a traditional poncho playing the charango (©photocoen)

A Tarabuqeño in a traditional poncho playing the charango (©photocoen)

Part of the museum is focused on designs, but no less interesting is the history of this tradition. I was under the assumption that weaving had always been a woman’s job but I here learned that at least in the case of the Tarabuqeños this is not the case.

The design of women’s looms dates from Pre-Columbian times, which allows for the typical design called pallay (with the strong sense of symmetry, use of color, and representation of real life). In the Bolivian Andes, men traditionally weave on pedal-looms which is a technique inherited from the Spanish. The latter doesn’t allow for the typical type of design of the Tarabucos and with ASUR’s revival of the weaving tradition, male Tarabuqeños started working on recovering the ancient tapestry techniques from 2000 years ago. Their focus is on weaving modern designs inspired by Pre-Columbian examples.

To me the visit to this museum couldn’t have come at a better moment. My partner and I were about to start a project for an NGO in the region, which included visiting a number of communities where many residents still wear these dresses on a daily basis. Instead of looking at them with a mere thought like ‘Oh, what beautiful,’ I now appreciated more what they were wearing, why, and where their dress originated. It gave a deeper sense of understanding of the place I was visiting.

Buying Tarabuco Weavings

The montera no doubt is one of the Tarabuco's distinct features (©photocoen)

The montera no doubt is one of the Tarabuco’s distinct features (©photocoen)

You can buy textiles in Sucre but on Sunday Tarabuqeños sell their wares on the market in the rural town of Tarabuco, which is popular with foreign and local travelers who often visit on a daytrip from Sucre. Tarabuco’s woven textiles are used to make clothing, blankets, and bags among which ch’uspas – bags especially made for coca leaves. Unfortunately, prices have gone up considerably, so another option is to visit weaving villages in the area, for example Candelaria, Ravelo or Potolo.

Practicalities

  • To learn more about Tarabuco weaving techniques and patterns, visit the extraordinary Museo Textil-Etnográfico de Arte Indígena in Sucre – arguably one of the best museums in Bolivia. An interesting feature is that local women sit on the balcony demonstrating their weaving techniques. The museum has a shop where fabrics are sold.
  • Address: Calle San Alberto 413, Sucre
  • Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8:30am-noon & 2:30-6pm.
  • To visit the Tarabuco Sunday Market, take a bus from Sucre, which ply constantly, or if you like to go organized you can easily find a travel agency in Sucre that organizes these trips.
  • Note that photographing people in Bolivia is a sensitive issue, especially in tourist areas like Tarabuco. To prevent problems, always ask permission first.
  • Here you can find more information on Tarabuco and the products they make.

Photos by Coen Wubbels.

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