Stories of Craft
Words by Sophie Goodwin
Images from Magnetic Midnight, Colombia Collective and Hunting Season
Colombia's diverse craft traditions and highly skilled artisans offer a fascinating window into the country's cultural history. Sophie Goodwin meets three designers working to preserve and promote Colombian craft.
Colombia is a melting pot of creativity, a country where craftsmanship is not just a skill, but a form of local identity. A technique will develop in one town or village, and soon take over an entire community, while the origin of each craft tradition explains these microclimatic working patterns: necessity (hats for farm workers, baskets for the kitchen); and the availability of natural resources (leaves from the forest, clay from the ground).
Originally, the objects produced were purely functional – enabling locals to perform their daily tasks – but, with time, their commercial value emerged. In Colombia today, there are more than 110 workable natural fibres and 20 craft trades. Most are indigenous, which, thanks to expansion and modernization, has optimised their processes; while eleven crafts are protected with the ‘Denomination of Origin’ seal, since they are exclusive Colombian trades. These include: Wayuu mochilas (from La Guajira); the iconic Sombrero Vueltiao (made from cana flecha by the Zenu tribe); hammocks from San Jacinto; hand-painted ceramics from Carmen de Viboral (declared Intangible Heritage of the Nation); and mopa mopa (recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO).
Traditional weaving is highly respected within Colombia’s matriarchal communities – there is a Wayúu saying, ‘To be a woman is to know how to weave’ – and a symbol of wisdom, creativity, intelligence and status. Each clan can be distinguished by a particular woven pattern, and this rite of passage prepares women for leadership roles within their communities. Yet many Colombian crafts face challenges from globalization and commercialism, and it can be hard to encourage a new generation to train in this skilled, but laborious, work. Cabana speaks to three makers whose work preserves and promotes authentic Colombian values, making them sing in the modern market.
Kate Wrigley, a former architect, founded The Colombia Collective in 2019. While living and working in Colombia two years earlier, Kate spent weekends discovering local creatives and stumbled across a small group of artisans in the tiny town of Usiacuri. “After a few days I had fallen in love - with the people, the place and, above all, their incredible talent. I was amazed I couldn’t find their work for sale in the UK, Europe, or even Bogotá." She shared their work on her Instagram account, bringing back gifts for family and friends. "Before I knew it, I had left my job in the Mayor's office and organised a small sample sale at a friend's flat in London." The Colombia Collective was born.
By shadowing the artisans, Kate picked up invaluable design details - such as how the final thread of palm is finished off and tucked away - and logistical processes, like how orders are organised and distributed among the groups. She understands the challenges the artisans face, from incentivising young people to take up the craft, to balancing the books when buying raw materials for larger orders. "The aim of our collective is to give these creatives the ownership they deserve, while incentivising the next generation," she says. The Collective pays for orders in advance and provides loans, so artisans don’t suffer huge interest rates to cover materials. "Every day we work together to share the incredible people, places and traditions behind every single piece," Kate says.
Today, the Collective works with over 14 different communities, the majority of which are small rural villages or ‘resguardos’ (protected indigenous reserves). Some, however, have been displaced, forced to leave their homeland due to conflict, but still work with their ancestral techniques and materials from their new homes in the city.
SG: You were working for the Mayor of Bogotá when you fell for Colombia's craftsmanship. Is your main objective to share this talent on a global scale- and how has this mission developed over the years?
KW: "We see ourselves as the link between the artisans and the global market. Sharing and celebrating not only their work but the stories, cultures, opportunities and joy their crafts create. [Design is important, but by] acting as a collaborative tool we can also increase the value of the artisans' work. We may be able to scribble some shapes and colors on a piece of paper or computer screen, but it’s the artisans who bring these ideas to life!"
SG: You collaborate with over 800 artisans from 14 different communities: how do their practices and attitudes differ? And how are they the same?
KW: "Colombia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and as a result, the communities we work with are almost entirely different; in materials, size, technique, climate, culture, style and landscape. However, the common denominator is that they are all working with their ancestral craft techniques. They are predominantly organised within the same group structure and hierarchy, with a nominated leader who works directly with us and distributes the work evenly among the community. Most work from home, weaving in their spare time between raising children, grandchildren, animals and so much more; and source their materials locally. They end up knowing each other from the various small craft fairs that are hosted across Colombia each year!"
SG: Are there challenges in presenting age-old Colombian talent to a modern world?
KW: "We work every single day to share the incredible time, knowledge and love that goes into each creation, but it is difficult to compete with perfectly good factory-made pieces at a tenth of the price. However, this means that we have to find new designs that cannot be replicated, and are so beautiful and unique that the higher prices are unquestionably worth it for the natural imperfections and stories they hold.
Lucia Echavarria studied Literature and History of Art, working at Christie’s and the Guggenheim in New York, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, before setting up her celebratory accessories brand, Magnetic Midnight. As a native Colombian, Lucia feels compelled to work alongside local communities to help sustain crafts, showcasing the talent often overshadowed by Colombia’s complicated history. “Colombia is an endless source of inspiration due to its regional and traditional diversity, [which explains] the wide variety of techniques and materials,” she says.
Fascinated by festive traditions, "ethnic dress and adornment, beautiful textiles, weddings, religious processions and carnival", Lucia devised Magnetic Midnight during a trip to Iran in 2015. "In Shiraz, I visited the most beautiful mosque entirely inlaid with intricate mirror mosaics; I had the idea of making a costume, particularly a headpiece, out of mirrors." She started looking for Colombian artisans to work with, and the brand instantly took off.
Magnetic Midnight has now diversified into many other accessories, such as bags, belts, fans, and most recently, homeware. Furniture is next, Lucia reveals, involving 12 new design communities and over 30 artisans across ten different regions, including coiled hemp basket weaving from Guacamaya, Boyaca; Werregue palm weaving from Choco; and Cañaflecha palm weaving from Tuchin, Cordoba amongst others.
SG: Where are your pieces made and what have you learnt from the artisans?
LE: "The artisans we primarily work with are based in Usiacuri, in the northern coast of Colombia, where weaving the Iraca palm is the town’s main industry (children are even taught weaving in schools). We collaborate closely with a group of artisans, which has grown into a team of over a dozen over the last six years. Each one is an expert in a particular type of weaving. From them we have learned about every different type of stitch, how they handle the fibres, the effect of different thicknesses, the subtleties of the spacing.
SG: Which traditional Colombian techniques do you hope to protect?
LE: Colombians, whether due to the government's agency of craft, or designers, have been very conscientious about promoting their crafts and preserving traditional techniques. However, I do think there are important ways of ensuring they don’t disappear in the long-run. It’s important that older generations transmit to younger members of their communities, not only their knowledge, but also their long-standing love and dedication. Lastly, it is vital to procure materials in a sustainable way, both for the benefit of the environment, and the community.
In a rapidly changing world, Danielle Corona, founder and creative director of lifestyle and homewares label, Hunting Season, finds comfort in combining tradition with modern design. Based in Bogotá, her leather accessories use natural fibres and traditional woven techniques, and she is soon to launch homewares.
When she moved to Colombia with her young family in 2013, Danielle was instantly drawn to the unique way of life, tropical forests and majestic mountain ranges. "There is something truly special about the people of Colombia, their warmth and hospitality," she says. "It's a place where artisans thrive, and we have had the pleasure of working with many talented craftsmen who keep the country's rich history and traditions alive."
Through collaborations with ancestral artisans, Hunting Season – founded in 2006 with business partner, Lena Baranovsky – creates pieces that speak to a global audience, while sharing Colombia’s rich history and traditions. Danielle wants each piece to tell a story: “Who made this and how? I wanted to produce something [people would be proud to own]. Items are not just accessories but add value - passed down [through] generations.”
SG: Your design studio is based in Bogotá. Can you tell me about the local artisans you work with?
DC: “Craft is an art that speaks of tradition and culture, which our design studio captures beautifully. Through our collaboration with artisans from different parts of the country, we have created a range of weaves that showcase the unique techniques and local materials in each region. The focus is glorious natural fibres such as fique, plantain, Iraca, all from various palms, which are manipulated and treated in many ways. It is our privilege to work with such talented people and contribute to the preservation and growth of their heritage and rich history.”
SG: What led you to launch your new Homewares collection?
DC: "It felt like a natural next step, and a way for us to further embed ourselves with our pieces. We started with our moulded leather collection, made in collaboration with the Colombian artisan Edison Rodriquez...Using a time-honored technique, each piece boasts a seamless form and biomorphic silhouette that eliminates the need for stitches or supportive structures. The buffed finish is inspired by the elegance of Japanese lacquer-ware, making these pieces not just functional, but a true work of art."