Blog by Gerard Coffey
“Four generations or perhaps even more” says Miguel Andrango, master weaver, when I ask him how long his family has been in the trade. He himself can remember that far, but admits that there may have been more family members involved even further back. As for the present, he tells me that his four sons and daughters are involved in his ‘Tawantinsuyo Weaving Workshop’. “And the grandchildren are learning too”, he says with a natural mischievous smile that speaks volumes about who he is.
Miguel is now in his eighties, although he won’t tell me exactly how old; “about that” he says when I press him. He’s been weaving since he was seven years old, he declares proudly, here in Agato, a small community nestled between the placid Andean Lake San Pablo and the striking verdant mass of Mount Ibarra towering over the workshop yard. This is spectacular country. Today mist shrouds the top of the mountain, at more than 3,000 metres above sea level, but it still manages to take your breath away, and not for lack of oxygen. It’s easy to imagine that living at the foot of such a marvel would make you both humble and inspire you at the same time.
Given the mountain’s towering presence it’s not hard to understand why the now extinct volcano is part of local folklore. Taita Imbabura as it’s known here, or Taita Manuel Imbabura in full, is the ‘father,’ and they say he’s getting on in years; his white hair is now covered with the large hat he rarely takes off. Located on the other side of the broad valley is ‘mama’ Mount Cotacachi, or Maria Isabel Cotacachi, the volcano that overlooks the route down to the coastal plains. The two of them are the protectors of the lakes that can be seen all over this area and, according to legend, after many years of admiring each other Taita Imbabura finally declared his love for Mama Cotacachi, and they had a son called Yanaurcu who can now be seen to the right of his mother.
Like most of the people in the village Miguel is Kichwa, and speaks his native language with his daughter as they guide me around the workshop. The Kichwa are a pre-Hispanic people related to the Incas who survived the Spanish colonization, and now flourish here clustered around Ecuador’s pre-eminent indigenous town Otavalo, famous worldwide for its market, crafts and, above all, its weaving. The relationship with the Incas accounts for the workshop’s name. ‘Tawantinsuyo’ is the term for the Empire that before the arrival of the Spanish stretched from the South of what is now Colombia to the middle of Chile. “I wanted to make the connection,” he tells me proudly, “it’s important to us Kichwa.”
But while Miguel shares his heritage with most people here, not everyone here in Otavalo and the surrounding communities weaves like him, his family and the others involved in the workshop. “We use pure wool and Alpaca, card and spin it ourselves,” he explains as we chat outside in the sun, “and then dye it with natural inks made from mosses (for yellow) or seeds such as ‘Achiote’ (for red)” He leans over to me and says as an aside, grinning: “The sun is good for me. I’m not so young and the warmth makes me feel good; we had a rough winter.”
He shows me around the small store in the courtyard of the house. The walls are covered with bright designs, most with an indigenous motif. “They’re based on Inca patterns but they’re ours” Miguel says proudly, “and believe me, this is not about making money, of course we sell, but the real impetus is artistic, not commercial.”
Miguel’s Ecuador art has taken him abroad, mainly to exhibitions and fairs in the United States, he says, where he is recognized as a master weaver. He hasn’t been travelling these last years, his wife died four years ago and his health hasn’t been the same since, he says sadly. But he brightens when he tells me that maybe this year he will make the trip to New Mexico where he’s been invited to take part in a major fair in Santa Fé. “We’ll see,” he says with an infectious smile.
Be sure to include a visit to Otavalo for your clients to get to know Miguel and his Tawantinsuyo Weaving Workshop. He’s waiting to welcome them. Visit him on one of Tropic Ecuador’s programs to Otavalo and see his outstanding work firsthand or, even better, join Tropic’s Otavalo Lodge-to-Lodge walking program and take advantage of a special opportunity: have lunch with him and his family and enjoy a short weaving presentation and master class.