Asociación Chimichagua began in 1995, in a region of northern Colombia that borders the Caribbean Sea. Named after the town of Chimichagua, this artisan-run network began as a loose group of craftspeople until the town’s mayor urged María Concepcíon Flores and others to form a structured organization with legal status in order to reach more people. Soon, the Asociación traveled to craft fairs, allowing the group to turn what was once seen as a utilitarian craft into a way of sustaining themselves. Today the collective boasts almost 40 members, each working in an array of tasks, from harvesting the indigenous palma estera—to gathering natural pigments, dyeing, and weaving.
Each item is made by hand, beginning with the fiber extraction process. This is most often performed by men, who harvest the thorny palma estera with machetes. The cogollos—or fronds—are left to dry overnight. During this period, the plant fibers whiten, which later helps them absorb dye.
The weaving process is one in which the artist injects her own vision. Using stick looms whose essential design has remained unchanged for centuries, artists make a sturdy satin-faced weave from the seemingly unyielding palm fronds. Once finished they rub it with a flat stone to make it shine and to remove any loose fibers or splinters.
The tradition of weaving with palma estera dates back to colonial times when the territory known today as Chimichagua was occupied by the natives of the Ette Ennaka, Chimila or Shimizya group. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, native peoples used patterns designed on palma estera fabric as an ingenious means of communication, by which coded messages were embedded—literally—into everyday items.
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Photos courtesy Artesanías de Colombia