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Shigra shopping in Ecuador

Bargaining hard in Quito.

Bargaining hard in Quito.

Oh, I am so sorry. I just got back from a trip to Ecuador and now you’re going to have to hear all about it and look at my pictures and EVERYTHING! But mostly, you’re going to have to hear about shopping for shigras and how they just don’t make them like they used to – because they don’t!

Let me backtrack a bit and confess to you that I am a bit of a shigra junkie. I don’t have piles and piles of them, though I do have three very nice ones. I do love them, however, and when my husband and I decided to go to Ecuador, I knew that I would be doing some serious shigra shopping. There is something about the labor intensity of removing the fibers from an agave-like plant, dyeing them in fantastic colors, and the delecacy of weaving them all together with a blunt-ended needle to create remarkable figures and geometric patterns as the bags take shape. I feel like they’re on trend and timeless all at once. Off to Ecuador and off to market!

The first market of opportunity was Quito’s El Mercado Artesenal La Mariscal. Stalls and stalls of booths with handcrafted items from Ecuador and beyond. I saw flutes. I saw embroidered blouses. I saw handwoven belts and table runners and hair ties. I saw knitted sweaters and scarves and ponchos and mittens. I did not go away empty-handed, but I saw no shigras.

On to Otavalo, home of the largest indigenous market in all of South America. But it was Wednesday

Hidden waterfall near Laguns de Mojanda.

Hidden waterfall near Lagunas de Mojanda.

when we arrived and though the market runs every day, THE market day is Saturday so we waited it out, hiking beautiful mountain lakes and waterfalls in the meantime. (A wonderful diversion, incidently!) We also toured a few local artesan workshops, among them Artesania El Gran Condor in Peguche, where we watched wonderful weaving demonstrations as well as how wool is carded and dyed. (See a video from the shop here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQErDubP4ho )There were piles and stacks and oodles and boodles of textiles of every Andean kind and in a small stack in a remote corner of the third floor I found three shigras. Just three! They were fine. They were nice. They were not extraordinary, but they would make good gifts to bring home so I bought them all. When we got to the market on Saturday, we saw more shigras, but more of the same. Nice enough, but not extraordinary.

Here’s what I’m talking about. These  vs. THIS. Casey got her shigras for It’s Cactus when she was travelling to the Andes regularly 15-ish years ago and luckily still has a number of great ones in stock.  Notice the fineness of this one; the tightness of the weave and  how even it is? Notice the bold, well-formed figural and geometric patterns? That’s what you don’t see anymore. You’ll see bags that are fun, colorful, and functional, but not great. Nope, they just don’t make ’em like they used to…

Now this is a fine shigra, with tight, even weaving and bold, complex design.

Now this is a fine shigra, with tight, even weaving and bold, complex design.

My nice new shigras.  Nice, but not extraordinary.

My nice new shigras. Nice, but not extraordinary.

Stellar Shigras

Andean textiles have the longest historical record in the world, with scholarly estimates dating them back to 3000 B.C.

This shigra is particularly valuable, both because of its size and because of the pictoral as well as geometric aspects of its design.

 One marvelous example, still being woven today in the highlands of Ecuador is the shigra. Traditionally utilitarian, shigras were carried to market as produce bags or in the high Andean fields as seed bags for planting. It has been theorized that shigras were originally woven in standard sizes and used for measuring and carrying seed units. While still in agricultural use in remote areas, shigras have recently taken their place in the world market as a fashion accessory.This shigra is particularly valuable, both because of its size and because of the pictoral as well as geometric aspects of its design.

Despite their emergence on the contemporary style scene, the method of producing shigras has changed little since ancient Incan days.  Leaves from the succulent plant known variously as cabuya, penca, fique, or maguey (similar to agave) are harvested and cut into slender strips.  Next, they are soaked for a period of 15 days to separate the pulp from the fibers.  Once they are separated and dried, the fibers are cut int

o fine strands and dyed.  Originally, vegetal dyes were used, but as they are not colorfast, aniline dyes have largely replaced them.  The colored fibers are then wound onto spindles and from there, the weaving begins.

Starting at the base, the weaver – who is almost always female – uses a blunt needle and begins a looping sequence rather like crocheting.  Round and round she goes in an ever-widening circle, eventually forming the seamless bag.  She will create wonderful patterns of color as she works her way through the piece.  Prior to 1970, human and animal forms were very typical, though those are rarely seen now, having

given way to a trend of geometric shapes.  The finished bag will have two long, braided, cross-body fiber straps.

That’s how mine looked, the day it was given to me. A beautiful shigra with bold geometric patterns, animals, trees, numbers, and letters in pink, red,orange, brown and black and two long fiber straps. Two days later, however, it had been altered by my dog, who decided to add a little fiber to her diet, I guess.  She had a mouthful and my straps were a tattered mess. I said, “Oh no, no, no, you naughty Little Darling,” or maybe something a tiny bit stronger, and saved what I could.   I retied the ends and that worked well enough for a while, but admittedly, they were a little short. Eventually I replaced them entirely with leather.  This was at no small expense, but in all honesty, I think it was worth the price. The new handles nicely preserve the integrity of my shigra and I happily carry a fantastically functional and fashionable Andean textile everywhere I go. My basset hound too, is pleased with my shigra’s stylish utility and she is very glad she didn’t eat the whole thing after all.

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