PIRIBEBUY, Paraguay – Female artisans from the Paraguayan city of Piribebuy, 70 kilometers (40 miles) from Asuncion, are making every effort to preserve the “poncho de 60 listas” (60-striped poncho), a traditional article of clothing they hope will be added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.
Among Piribebuy’s 25,000 inhabitants, only 15 women still possess the knowhow to transform meters upon meters of cotton thread into this traditional poncho – hence the urgency to pass along this knowledge to the new generations.
In 2019, thanks to the backing of the Paraguayan Handicrafts Institute (IPA), Rosa Segovia converted the patio of her home into the “60-Striped Poncho Preservation School.” Her goal is to transmit to younger artisans the techniques for making the complete item of clothing, as opposed to the weaving of just one of its three sections – the body, the trimming and the fringes, which have traditionally been produced separately.
Segovia, like many other weavers, first started making ponchos as a young girl under the watchful eye of her mother, but now she is the one passing along this knowledge to others.
“I taught my sister, my nieces, and then the other women who are learning with me. That way we get more people involved, because this work is a team effort,” the master artisan told EFE while crafting a white and black poncho with her waist loom.
Four women typically work together over nearly 12 days to make a 60-striped poncho, with more than 10-hour daily sessions and nearly 16 cones of thread needed to complete one garment that Segovia sells for 2.5 million guaranies ($383).
Segovia took over responsibility for teaching this craft in Piribebuy from Teotista Salinas, now 92, who told EFE that when she was younger she weaved for six hours a day without neglecting her other duties, such as cooking and washing clothes.
Today, the signs of that work are visible on her hands. And although she cannot say how many ponchos she made over a lifetime she clearly remembers her most famous buyers.
“The musicians would wear them. I had a lot of customers ... There was that really famous one ... Luis Alberto del Parana was my customer, Juan Cancio Barreto,” Salinas recalled.
On the porch of her home, Marlene Marin makes a white and black poncho using the same technique that her teacher, Audelia Santacruz, utilized when she went to her workshop at age 11.
“I wanted to get into the (workshop) and I didn’t have the money. Girls can’t get work so easily in other people’s homes, and my mother was poor. So (Santacruz) helped me get into the school and that’s how I learned,” Marin told EFE.
Now aged 32, she makes the ponchos with some help from her husband, who prepares the fringes, and their two daughters, a process that takes more than a month for each item.
Marin said she would like to have the support of other weavers, but nowadays “the girls go to Asuncion and make money more quickly.”
In an effort to preserve this traditional craft, IPA and Paraguay’s National Culture Secretariat is seeking to have it included on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.
IPA’s director, Adriana Ortiz, told EFE that the 60-striped poncho is emblematic of Paraguay national handicraft tradition.
“Not only for its history ... but for the handicraft work involved in making it,” she added.
Ortiz also stressed the importance of creating the Poncho Preservation School, saying it is training women who will be responsible for preserving the legacy of this garment of 60 stripes.
“It’s a life choice. Those who become artisans are national heroes. They say they could be something else, but they don’t want this to die out,” she said.