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August 8, 2013

BARK, CLAY, COTTON, WOOL: The elements of Shipibo textiles


Eliza Squibb : Shipibo-Konibo textiles

My days in Pucallpa quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. Waking up early in the calm, white rectangle of my mosquito net, eating breakfast in San José, and then heading to Yarinacocha to wait for a car to San Francisco. I got into the habit of calling Teresa from town to ask what groceries she might need for the day: maybe a fish, a new kitchen knife, a papaya or pinapple. I did my best to help out, although I was liable to mess up her requests and once brought bananas, thinking they were plantains. Almost every day, Teresa and her sister Adelia (both great-grandmothers!) brought their textile projects to the porch of their mother Anastasia’s house, because her health has been deteriorating lately.Image

Teresa sits on a piece of foam while painting a textile with bark dye, and Adelia faces away while painting with clay slip. Anastasia relaxes in a rocking chair. I would usually sit and work pitifully slowly on a small piece of embroidery. There was a constant flow of conversation in Shipibo, with many relatives stopping by to sit and chat, children, grandchildren, teenagers arriving and departing and needing attention, and traditional healers coming to help Anastasia. I loved being able to observe all this action while being mostly ignored, although almost everyone would check on my embroidery from time to time and pass judgement on how well I was advancing.ImageWe sat under the palm from roof, held up with a structure lashed together with wire, and full of mysterious rustles and chirps of bats or birds.Image

In a house across the yard, Ebelina, a cousin or in-law, would usually work on her embroidery in a hammock while her toddlers played nearby.ImageAnd now for the technical information! Or actually, some vague information on what remains an incredibly mysterious process: Shipibo natural dyeing techniques. I started out full of questions, not understanding the actions that I was observing. How was the dyed fixed? Why didn’t they boil the cloth with the dye? Why didn’t they hang the dyed cloth on the clothesline to dry? A little bit of patience, observation, and simply doing as I was instructed led me to a better understanding… ImageFirst, corteza, bark is collected from three different trees and boiled in the evening for a number of hours. The next day, the arduous dyeing process begins. Fabric is soaked briefly in the dye, wrung out a little, and then laid as flat as possible on the ground to dry. Why? Here comes the magic: As the sun dries the fabric, it darkens and sets the dye, so that the sunny side of the fabric becomes a few shades darker than the back. ImageTo get the fabric to the desired shade, it is soaked and dried in the sun a total of eight times, which usually takes two days. This dyed cotton cloth (usually bleached muslin) is called tocuyo. Dyeing, as well as other textile projects take place in the midst of all other daily chores, such as washing laundry, tending to children, cooking lunch over outdoor fires or indoor stovetops, and chasing chickens away from the cooking lunch. ImageOnce a fabric is sufficiently dyed with bark, it is painted with barro especial, a clay slip that is grayish white in color. Here comes more magic: When the clay touches the dyed cloth, it turns it jet black almost immediately, and once dry, the clay can be rinsed off, but the black remains permanently.ImageAdelia works on a complex and meandering kené pattern using a stick tool to move the clay across the fabric.ImageTeresa works on a  different variation that involves painting kené with bark dye onto an un-dyed fabric. ImageOnce this pattern dries, the whole cloth can be rinsed briefly in clay slip, and then immediately rinsed with water. The clay instantly turns the pattern to an indelible black. ImageImageAdelia puts the final touches on a large embroidery that is used as the traditional patterned skirt called a pampanilla. She uses colorful wool thread that costs a lot less than cotton thread, and the loosely woven, white cotton base cloth is called cayamasu. Behind her, the house is also decorated with kené patterns. Most women around the age of Teresa and Adelia wear black wrap skirts and tee-shirts while they are at home working, but when they head into town to get groceries or sell their crafts, they dress in vibrantly embroidered skirts, colorful frilled blouses, and an immensely heavy, white beaded belt.ImageTeresa is about sixty, and Anastasia, her mother, is around seventy-two, but their hair is kept a glossy jet black with the use of another natural dye, the fruit of the huito tree that was also used in the past for painting semi-permanent kené patterns on the face and body. Teresa’s palms and the tips of her ears were usually black from hair dyeing, but I saw no one use this for body tattoos while I was there.

For anyone who is interested in further information on natural textile dyes of the Amazon, there is a great article on Yanesha culture and natural dyeing that can be read in both English and Castellano. The Yanesha are a different indigenous group from the Shipibo-Konibo, and their traditional dress and patterns are distinct. They use an amazing, colorful range of natural dyes as well as native Amazonian cotton. This article also highlights the potential of textile art for increasing cultural visibility as well as providing an economic outlet, which is the focus of my research as well:

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