Weaving Memories

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I remember sunlight streaming through the windows.

Bright beams of light punctuated the rippling threads under my mother’s hands as she shoved a wooden shuttle through her loom. Her feet frantically pumped pedals below, trying to keep up. Her face always was a study in concentration, her bright blue eyes twinkling as she blissfully focused on the design growing out of her imagination.

She wasn’t a professional weaver. My mother was a hobbyist who fell in love with table machines and handmade looms of twisted driftwood or circular quilting frames. She graduated quickly to bigger projects and invested in a complicated floor loom. The joy that consumed her when she discovered weaving is something I will never forget. It was handmade art. It was escapism. It was creativity. It was imagination gone wild, as she wove in bones, shells, wooden fragments and even a horseshoe.

This creative period didn’t last long. But it lasted long enough to gift each of her older children with a Christmas treasure and to create a few pieces for her walls. Then the huge floor loom stood empty, gathering dust for many years until it finally was sold.

For a moment, I again saw my mom’s twinkling eyes as I entered La Casa de la Makana about 30 minutes from Cuenca, Ecuador. Ana Maria Ulloa greeted us with a warm smile and gleaming brown eyes. She drew us inside her home and workshop, housed in a large adobe building that is a highlight on most artisan tours from Cuenca to Chordeleg and Gualaceo.

DSC_0643DSC_0683Ana Maria shares the home with her husband, José Jiménez, and various family members. All  contribute to the family’s fame as the Royal Ikat weavers, rivaling  any of those in Asia.

It is hard to know where to look first. The two-story rustic building is a museum – giving voice to hundreds of iron artifacts, wooden objects, pictures and memorabilia hanging on the walls. There is evidence of weaving – looms, bound threads, vats of dye – in every corner.

Before starting the tour, I am drawn toward the ratcheting sound of what I know to be a floor loom. I peek around a dusty corner to see a young man slinging a shuttle back and forth. In my mind’s eye, I imagine my mother sitting there, her excitement palpable as the beautifully designed material cascades into her lap.

DSC_0652I am called back to the present, where the ever-charming Ana Maria shows us the process of weaving the sheep’s wool into threads. A young woman nearby has been transported elsewhere,  rhythmically winding threads around a loom, oblivious to any visitors.  Ana  guides us across the dirt floor to the dye station, where large clay pots hide a surprising variety of color. The family uses natural ingredients, she says, ranging from insects and worms to walnuts, a wide variety of plants and even rocks to create their  radiant palette.

With weathered, practiced hands, Ana Maria expertly crushes cochineals between her fingers. The dried insects are the source of her deepest red dye. With the addition of lime juice, the dye turns brown.  She reaches behind a pot to pinch a bit of baking soda and sprinkles it into the brown dye. The liquid abruptly changes into a  vivid purple. Her eyes twinkle at our amazement. The corners of her mouth turn up slightly in the satisfaction of having performed magic.

She waves her hand toward a nearby wooden staircase, inviting us to the witness the next stage of the weaving process.

Upstairs,  José  takes over. He uses a smaller version of the floor loom, called a back loom. Nimbly dropping onto a worn cushion, he  straps on a belt attached to the threads of the loom. He leans back, adjusts the belt around his lower back, and wiggles back and forth until he finds the right position. He begins. Throwing the large shuttle in and out of the design, he simultaneously pulls individual threads up and slams them tightly down to create a seamless Ikat pattern.

DSC_0659Ikat refers to an Indonesian style of woven material that is tie-dyed before weaving. The technique was brought to Europe by Dutch traders in Southeast Asia and to South America by Spanish explorers. Ikat patterns can be precise or, more commonly, hazy or blurred looking, depending on how the weaver uses the threads in the loom.

Jose’s family has practiced this traditional weaving for generations, he says, and he himself learned from his grandmother. One seemingly ancient piece holds a place of honor on the wall. It is over 150 years old and was woven by his great-grandmother. It features the seal of Ecuador and intricate hummingbirds. Sadly, there are few families who still weave as his does, he tells us, entirely by hand.

We watch in silent admiration as he works. After a time, he points to Ana Maria, who has taken up a position at a table where she is knotting the fringe. The elderly woman’s nimble hands work so quickly we cannot see the threads slip into knots until she has moved on. She grins. She is comfortable with her skills.

We finish our visit in the small retail shop. Brilliantly hued shawls and ponchos hang on both sides of the room. Vivid scarves and multi-colored purses are neatly stacked on wooden tables. Ana Maria hurries to dress each of us in one of her creations, smiling with satisfaction. She knows at least one of us cannot resist taking home some of her beautiful work.

We don’t disappoint her. We make our selections and head for the door with our treasures. Again, Ecuador has charmed me with the talents, skills and uniqueness of her people.

As we leave La Casa de la Makana, I turn back to see Ana Maria, already at work on her loom.

Her eyes are twinkling.

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Worth its Weight

42399199_10217288540435649_4388915926028779520_nSilver has always been my metal of choice. Simple. Elegant. Affordable.

Filigree silver jewelry, in my mind, was an Art Deco style that was popular in the early 1900s. I never gave the light, airy, lacy look much thought. It seemed dated. Old.

In Ecuador, filigree jewelry, both silver and gold, IS old. And my mind has been forever changed.

Known as filigrana in Spanish, filigree is a metal work formed of gold or silver threads, united and soldered with delicate perfection. Interestingly, filigrana also refers to a transparent mark or mark made on paper, like a watermark.

In Chordeleg, a mountain village just 30 miles from my home in Cuenca, craftspeople have certainly made their mark, although a more permanent one, with filigree jewelry.

On a recent trip with Polylepsis Tours, my friends and I spent time visiting the silver shops of Chordeleg. There we met Flavio Jara, whose family has crafted precious metals into intricate wearable designs for several generations. He began learning the trade at age 12, 50 years ago.

With a flourish of his hand, Flavio invited us into his workshop. It is a neatly organized, quiet, but busy place behind his shop, El Puerta Del Sol. He is ready for his guests, having fashioned a sort of mini tour by way of a sectioned wooden box. Each box displays silver in its various forms, from raw cylinders to finely crafted finished pieces.

He stands, motioning us to a rustic steel machine where all filigree is birthed, he says. When his father began creating jewelry 80 years ago, Flavio explains, he used a small iron plate in which various holes had been drilled. The jeweler pulled the soft silver – or gold – wire through the holes at random, guessing at the diminishing sizes until the strand was as fine as he could get it. Now Flavio uses a steel draw plate with carefully calibrated holes, each marked in tiny measurements. The difference – and speed – in which a piece can be created is… well it can’t be compared, he says, throwing his hands in the air and laughing.

While the calibrated holes make for more precise measurements, the silver – or gold – still is perfected the old fashioned way. Flavio gives us an opportunity to pull threads through the plates, with a pair of pliers. It is harder than it looks!

In his demonstration box, Flavio shows us the frame he will use for the threads of silver he has just created. Thicker pieces of silver or gold are bent until the desired shape is achieved. The jeweler then curls, twists or tightly winds silver into shapes that are gently placed inside the framework and flash soldered into place.

Some pieces require a zig zag. Flavio proudly cradles the palm-size machine invented by his father 30 years ago. Until then, the zig zag pattern required painstaking measurements and careful handmade bends in the wire. Now, he runs the wire through his father’s invention and “Mira!” he says, gleefully pointing out the bent thread emerging from the tiny machine. The zig zag is created in moments.

I watch his large fingers expertly twist a tiny circle and drop it into its frame. I am amazed he does not fumble. Deftly moving tiny pieces of silver from one piece to the next, he proudly demonstrates what will be a finished piece. He points to a flower – which will become a brooch. He beams, delighted at our astonishment when he explains it will be made of 220 pieces of handcrafted silver filigree.

DSC_0567The demonstration over, Flavio answers a few questions, then invites us into his sparkling store. Half museum, half retail operation, the artwork and jewelry are mesmerizing. There is an intricately built evening bag graced with a tiny hummingbird. In the window is a collection of vehicles – a plane, a motorcycle, and an ancient buggy. Now armed with the knowledge of creating filigree, we can’t take our eyes off of the complex works.

We linger over the showcase of candonga earrings – the traditional chandelier-type earrings popular in this culture. Even the light poles in this charming town boast oversize candongas! We make our selections from the hundreds of earrings and rings, all weighed for the price, and none costing us more than $18.

We emerge into the sunlight with treasure more precious for the experience of watching gifted hands create, than for its physical beauty. We will never look at filigree the same.

Exploring Nabon: The Last Great Stone Mill and “Chinita” in Wonderland

DSC_0373Laurie Paternoster and Mike Churchman in Nabon, Ecuador.

Nabon, Ecuador, is a quiet village just 70 kilometers from Cuenca, where history and fantasy meet.

High in the Andes Mountains, in a bowl surrounded by 9,000 foot peaks, Nabon offers a quiet, simple life.  A small canton of about 16,000 people, it is known as a “matriarchal village,” as most of its male inhabitants historically have left to find jobs in bigger cities, returning home after weeks or months away.

Like most Ecuadorian towns, the square is the central meeting spot fronted by a historical church. On a recent trip organized by local businesswoman Sole Riquetti de Gould, we met colorful residents, explored a historical mill and had lunch at a secluded mountaintop home that challenged the imagination.

So how historical can a grist mill get? Try 400 years! The old mill house is known for producing sweet flour that is used to make some of the best-tasting tortillas around. And it’s run by a pair of 80-somethings.

1. Las Hermanas Maldonado. 2. Power source for mill. 3. The 400-year-old millhouse.

Known as Las Hermanas Maldonado, the sisters are the last of the family that has run the mill since 1618. Like their ancestors before them, the sisters ground grains carried in from the nearby road into flour. With no direct descendants to run the mill, they worry about its future. It is the last watermill-powered stone mill in Ecuador.

For now, a lone young woman traipses the 700 meters from the main highway with loads of grain. She opens the gate from the nearby fast-running stream and urges the lumbering mill into action. Millstones come in pairs. The base stone is stationary. Above the base stone is the turning runner stone that actually does the grinding. Grain is fed by gravity from above down between the stones where it is ground. The flour exits the stones from the sides where it is gathered up and bagged.

Once again I am entranced with this country’s age. Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in the early United States. But the first recorded North American gristmill wasn’t built until 1621, in Jamestown, Virginia. There are still operating grist mills in at least 30 states.

The sisters walk gingerly around the old millhouse, showing us where the water flows from the stream directly under the mill. They apologize for not opening the gates to show us the aging millstones at work. The sisters say they are too old now, afraid of falling or getting hurt. They take us to their nearby hacienda where we sit and visit. Soon, it is time to leave the idyllic setting and move on to our next adventure.

 

1. Mike examines the grain shoot. 2. Water turns the wheel under the millhouse. 3. An ancient wheel.

That adventure is lunch in Fantasyland. In fact, it is known as Laura’s Casa y Arte, but it might as well be known as “Chinita in Wonderland.”

The owner of Laura’s Casa, Chinita Vintimilla, is a bundle of energy.DSC_0406

Chinita Vintimilla

Five years ago, Chinita and her husband decided to leave the noise, bustle and vehicle-polluted streets of Cuenca for the peace and quiet of the Andes Mountains. There they found seven acres of green, fertile land ready to receive her vision.

That vision is a playful approach to life. Their home, shop and assorted out buildings are decorated with found objects and others lovingly handmade. Every tree boasts a secret surprise, from heavily planted wooden planters to tinkling mobiles singing in the breeze. And they are no ordinary planters and mobiles. Look closely to find miniature figures tucked among the greenery. The mobiles might be made of utensils, shock absorbers or even keys, depending on the artists’ whim.

Laura’s Casa y Arte, with two of the whimsical touches on the grounds.

And whimsical she is. Strong and seemingly serious, Chinita’s weathered face creases into smiles when visitors compliment her handiwork. “It keeps me busy” she says brightly.

Visitors are welcome in her fairyland daily from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. For $1, you can stroll throughout the property to your heart’s content. Then, there is a possibility of a delicious meal – in our case an incredibly hearty chicken soup with a variety of homemade sauces. To top it off, we enjoy luscious ice cream, with an apple fritter and chocolate sauce.

We walk through the garden, past the massive wall of nesting pigeons and under the low-hanging, flowering arch to a sitting area overlooking the mountains. From that point, we see the Chasqui tambo, or meeting point, in the distance. We hear about the Nabon area’s importance as a communications crossroads for Peruvian runners hundreds of years ago. These runners, called “chasquis,” were the messengers of the Inca Empire. Agile, highly trained and physically fit, they were in charge of carrying the quipus, messages and gifts up to 240 kilometers per day through the chasquis relay system. Quipus were devices carried by the runners and consisted of a main cord, with attached varicolored, knotted cords. They were used by the ancient Peruvians for calculating and relaying stories or information. DSC_0374.JPG

The tambo is the bump in the mountain, center of photo.

The tambo we can see in the distance is a high mountain featuring a large concave rock peak. The relay station was one of many along the South American route used for the chasquis to stop at and transfer messages to the next chasqui. There were different sizes and levels of tambos and each one was assigned a different use. The use of the tambo – such as meeting place or shelter – depended on what route it was on and who was allowed to use it, but the majority of them were just to pass the messages along.

We leave the sitting area to explore the grounds. Just beyond the lookout point is a tot-sized table set for imaginary tea time. The trees are filled with whimsical bird feeders and plant holders. Nearby, there is a door ajar, leading into a round hut. It beckons the visitor to explore. Inside are hundreds of dolls – all types, materials, colors and sizes – whose clothing, and sometimes bodies, all are handmade by Chinita. There is still more to see.

Above and below, features found at Laura’s Casa y Arte.

Outside there are rock-paved pathways, plants of every description, handmade critters tucked among the shadows and hand-carved benches strategically placed at viewpoints. Even the fencing appears artistically arranged, using rough cut wood poles at odd angles.

Finding our way back to the main house, we are struck by the assortment of iron implements tacked to the walls. Inside the randomly attached buildings, every corner is filled. Antiques are stacked high on shelves and in corners, hand-crafted keepsakes strewn across tables and inside cupboards. Old, musty books fill shelves above and racks of toys crowd shelves below. Everything is for sale.

There is a small chapel, too, its doors flung open to visitors. Inside, with space enough for a few, there is an altar and a place to pray. There are dogs and ducks and chickens and roosters vying for attention and mingling underfoot. Chinita’s home is charming. Her world is enticing. The experience is one that should not be missed.

When our eyes have taken in as much as our stomachs, it is time to go. It seems fitting that, as Chinita waves goodbye, there is a giant rainbow spreading across the sky. We found the pot of gold.

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