The Magical meaning behind Mapuche Textiles

Picture by: Raota

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Like all forms of art, weaving textiles can be a practice that pictures the nature of humans. Through infinite varieties of patterns and color combinations, handmade textiles express universal messages with deep and significant meanings for entire regions of the world. What comes out of simple strings of yarn and rudimentary weaving techniques is always fascinating because simple shapes become a whole language of ideas and worldviews for the weaver and the observer.

We’ve already discussed the beautiful Oaxacan textiles in one of our previous articles. What was so captivating about them was how they remain present within the lives of many natives of the region of Mexico despite their ancient origins. In reality, handcrafted fabrics can be found in many areas of the Latin American continent. Still, each piece tells a different and very unique story to the people they belong to. 

We’ll continue giving a spotlight to other important weaving traditions, so following the stunning Mexican textiles, it is only fair to talk about the weaving talents of the Mapuche people.

The Mapuche Tribe: People of the Earth

Mapuche woman. Picture by: Raul Urzua /CC

The Mapuche are a group of indigenous inhabitants of Chile and Argentina, but their largest population is settled between Concepcion and Valdivia, two states of Chile. The people and their culture have existed since 500 BC, which means they were among the earliest populations within both countries. For this reason, the name Mapuche suits them entirely: Mapu means Earth, and “che means Person, meaning they call themselves “People of the Earth.” 

This notion rules their fundamental beliefs and ideals, considering that they have a unique relationship with the nature around them. For these people, Gods, men, and animals live in coexistence and peace, so their daily lives are filled with lots of spiritual energies, which they transfer to everything they do or make. Their gorgeous weaved textiles are clear evidence of that.

A handwoven heritage

The art of weaving has huge importance within the culture of the Mapuche. It is a source for durable clothing, fabrics for home decorations, and a way to communicate their spiritual cosmos through geometric colored shapes. Because of this, the ancient techniques of the earliest weavers are complex and meticulous, and only the truly talented with the threads can produce the best handwoven pieces. 

Learning how to weave is a very magical act by its nature: It is a labor for women only, and the knowledge is passed on from mother to daughter and from grandmother to granddaughter. However, the apprentices rarely get specific instructions from their tutors because most of the learning is based on imitation. Young weavers will quietly reproduce their seniors’ hand gestures until they get it right, and only then they’ll be able to make their own textiles by themselves.

To weave, the only instrument they depend on is a vertical loom made out of a basic wooden frame with strips of wood fixed to it. The frame keeps the strands in tension and upright, and the small strips with rolled up threads make it easier for the weaver to make knots and braids. 

Although twisting and turning yarn might seem delicate and seemingly simple in theory, this is a very complicated activity once a particular design pattern is decided. While some modern-day Mapuche textiles lack depth in meaning, many still express mystic messages with their choice of motifs and colors.

Vertical loom, picture by: Antonio Correa Flores/cc

The language of the Mapuche figures

The spiritual universe of this tribe is detailed and rich in characters and elements from nature, and the weavers illustrate them beautifully by combining or altering basic geometric shapes and producing endless new figures.

For Mapuche weavers, geometric shapes are abstract figures and fragments of what they see in real life. A triangle without its base is a cow’s hoof, but when a triangle is whole, it becomes a horse’s stirrup. A small rhombus is the eye of a cow, a big square is the back of an ostrich, and spirals are hooks, and so on. 

Additionally, a certain number of elements repeated is also relevant in meaning, such as picturing four consecutive figures in one place. The number four is especially significant because it represents important aspects of the natural world: They could suggest the four cardinal directions or the year’s four seasons.

Image by: Ministerio de la Cultura de la Nación

Another recurrent and essential motif is the tracing of connected frets all over the entire textile, creating some sort of labyrinth. The trail left within the frets’ spaces indicates the path all mortals take to reach the ancient spirits’ realm.

The choice of colors in each fabric is also an essential component in each design’s composition because they can represent either happy or sorrowful events. Most colors are associated with nature’s forces: Yellow is the color of disgrace. It symbolizes the Patagonian desert’s dryness, and red can be the clouds of dry winds passing by. 

On the other hand, blue is the color that denotes clouds of water, which means they hold life. There might be some variations from one territory to another about what each color means, but many symbolisms remain the same everywhere.

The real colors of the fabrics: Natural dyeing

In the past, all of these colors used to be natural dyes, and the source to obtain each of them was determined by what was closely available and abundant. For instance, they used the flowers of a plant called Michay to get red hues, their berries for blue or purple colorants, and its roots were also useful to provide for a yellow tint. If they wanted black, they used soot or black clay; for dark blue hues, they used the flowers of fiddle docks, and for bright crimson, they took the stems of a Chilean rhubarb they call Nalca.

Nowadays, it has become more difficult for the Mapuche weavers to find these natural sources nearby, so they often use artificial tints. However, the most devoted still hang onto their ancient traditions because the results are much more beautiful and meaningful. Besides, the natural white, grey, and black shades of the wool and cotton habitually used match better with the colors of Mother Nature.

Weaving to grow and build

While in this day and age, natural and high-quality textiles handcrafted by Mapuche weavers are minimal and scarce, there are still quite a few tight-knit communities of the tribe committed to preserving their impressive and ancient weaving knowledge. Within modern-day Chile, the beauty of their cloaks, wraps, and rugs hasn’t been overlooked by outsiders, so crafting textiles for sales has become a source of steady income for many of these women.

Several non-lucrative organizations have emerged from the necessity to improve their situation as textile merchants, such as the Chilean foundation called Chol-chol. This association gives support and assistance to a significant number of Mapuche weavers by promoting their work and providing a fair trade environment to sell their products, and just recently, they managed to work alongside another collaborative program called Tejido de Fraternidad (Fraternal Weave) with the intent to create a network of weavers all over the Chilean territory to sponsor their textiles. 

They successfully connected more than 300 Mapuche women into a safe trading web. Out of this project, a significant amount of money was given as a donation to the most affected communities.

Learning and appreciating foreign arts is always refreshing, and it’ll always remind us that every corner of the world has a significant history to tell. We know that the patterns and figures in the Mapuche textiles are not exclusive to the tribe. Still, each shape and color’s symbolic weight is what transforms a simple piece of cloth into something mystic and distinctive from any other fabric. It is a joy to know for sure that the history and heritage of these communities will prevail as long as there’s a pair of skillful hands to tell their story.

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