Ester Chiliguano gently twists the spindle and fine, glistening string pours out of the matted bunch of wool she holds in her left hand. Lo!, with the quiet self confidence of a craftsman at one with her work, the head instructor of La Escuela Taller Federico Ozanam demonstrates to this modernity-addled homo-urbanis the age old art of spinning.
Looking at Ester, it is hard not to believe that she had personally maintained the tradition since its misty beginnings. With her creased face and coal black hair, she seems as constant as time itself although, in reality, her career spans a mere 56 years. Those years were all spent in the weaving school, where she arrived one year after its foundation in 1955. Then 75 boys and girls learned, spun and warped at the institution. Now, that number is 8. When I arrived on a Thursday afternoon, most of those were out to lunch.
The decline was partly to do with the mechanisation of the textile industry and partly a question of demographics. The school was founded when waves of immigrants arrived in Antioquia and Caldas to work in the regions’ booming mills. In Salamina, where it is based, newly arrived workers sought a place to educate their children in the trade. Now any immigration goes in the opposite direction – towards the cities of Manizales or Medellín.
Yet, despite the low numbers Ester is optimistic about the future. Interest in the school has been increasing and it has begun to sell its products outside Salamina, with particular success in Manizales. This is unsurprising. The rugs and blankets on offer in the school’s shop are exquisitely soft and so voluminous you could make a sail out of them. There are also a number of woven religious images and flags, carried in the town’s processions on festival days.
Ester now oversees all of the weaving, as well as instructing the now purely female workforce. Recently the school purchased an electric spinning machine, but the weaving is still done on ancient looms which, in their tangle of panels, hinges and springs, threaten broken fingers for any amateur foolish enough to give it a go themselves. To produce a rug can take as little as a day but this, Ester tells me with a wry smile, depends on the ability of the weaver.
The school has also always served a charitable function, once training and providing a living for some of the orphans that were housed a few streets away by the Sociedad Laica San Vincente de Paul. Now its vocational training is free, and workers share in the profits generated by sales. It is just one seam of a rich tradition of craftsmanship in Salamina, a town perched on a hill in the breathtaking mountain scenery of northern Caldas. As well as weaving, the town is known for its fine wood carvings.
Houses are adorned with elaborate palisades and doorframes made from the cedar, walnut and oak trees that grow on the surrounding hills. A particularly notable example is the ‘devil’s house,’ above whose entrance sits the head of the eponymous hellion, complete with diabolic grin. That sculpture was made by Eliceo Tangarife, Salamina’s most celebrated woodworker, in the late 19th century. Flush with coffee and textile money, the colonizers of Salamina hired artisans from Medellín and Bogotá to beautify their new town and imported the fountain for the plaza mayor from France. It had to be dragged over the mountains by mule from Honda.
Shortly afterwards, industrial modernisation and political instability left Salamina’s economy behind, and the place has changed little since. A monument to the architecture of the period as well as Colombia’s local artisanship, it is surely one of the best examples of a 19th century town in Latin America. But the antiquarian atmosphere hasn’t dampened Ester’s ambitions. Now linked up to Colombia’s online marketing forum for artisan products, Ester tells me the school will soon be seeking out markets abroad, helped by Salamina’s apparently large global diaspora. If globalization can help La Escuela Taller Federico Ozanam, now that is progress.
Additional reporting by Carolina Gómez