Ruanas are making a comeback. Not the sort of comeback you might expect from platform shoes, but rather a major leap from being a 15th century Muisca garment which fell from grace, to its present claim to a righteous place in modern fashion.

Let’s be clear. It’s a ruana, not a poncho. Think of it as the cold weather cousin of the poncho, which is mostly worn in Mexico and warmer regions of the Andes. The ruana is a square and thick virgin wool piece of fabric, with a hole in the middle, from which your head sticks out, leaving your upper body covered and warm. If needed, the ruana can play the part of a blanket, a pillow or small cushion. So how does one bring this woolen shawl back into the spotlight?

Oscar Teatino, Mayor of Nobsa, Boyacá, the number one ruana producing municipality in Colombia, came up with an idea: the third Sunday of every May would be dedicated to honoring the ruana. He added the word “International” to his “Ruana Day,” set up a stage in the middle of the plaza, invited local musicians, put together a fashion show, motivated artisans to create the world’s biggest and first Guinness Record ruana to be laid on top of the main church, brought in food and beer, and…. voila, he created a comeback!

Indeed, the festival has attracted some international attention. The town celebrated the third edition of the event in 2010 with ruanas sporting the flags of the 32 countries participating in the World Cup. Mayor Teatino personally delivered them to the ambassadors of each nation in Bogotá and hopes to draw media attention. “Marketing,” he explained.

Nobsa doesn’t need to make much of an effort to be the ideal International Ruana Day host. This small town in the Colombian Andes is as unassuming and comforting as the ruana itself. Only a three-hour drive from Bogotá, Nobsa has the charm of Boyacá’s colonial villages with a twist: its stores around the square offer ruanas  in every possible size, color and style. One might feel tempted to just look around and perhaps get a glimpse of the looms and the artisans, but when the sun begins to set over the Andes and the chillness of Boyacá creeps into your bones, you will want to reach for one of those ruanas  and bundle up, hot chocolate and spongy almojabanas in hand.

“Behind every ruana there is a family,” says Teatino, who acknowledges the intention behind International Ruana Day is to guarantee the financial stability of the 320 families fed by the ruana industry. The municipality of 15,000 residents used to be known for the manufacture and export of the wool garment, but two huge factories dedicated to steel and cement now offer other means of making a living and Teatino wants to make sure the trade of the artisans lives on.

But the ancient art of ruana making is more than an industry. It’s part of Colombia’s heritage. When the Spanish reached this region of the Andes, they were in for a surprise. As opposed to most of the indigenous people they had met and conquered along the way, the Muiscas who lived in what we now know as the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, were not barely dressed.

On the contrary, they wore heavy cotton over their shoulders, colorful and delicately woven. For the Muiscas, the garment was so valuable it was used, like salt, for trade. Red ruanas were worn by religious leaders when honoring the sun, white ones when adoring the moon and green ones where saved for the wealthy and powerful. Wedding arrangements were sealed when the groom offered ruanas to the bride’s family. Local chieftains – “caciques” – demanded ruanas as a form of tax payments and the dead were buried wearing their ruana in case it got cold in the afterlife.

The Spanish were impressed by the craft of the Muiscas. They taught them how to work with wool instead of cotton and how to raise and care for the sheep from which the wool was spun. Thus, the ruana, as we now know it, was born. As history would have it, the Europeans conquered the Muiscas,  who became their servants, and the ruana, faithful to its people, became the garment of the poor and peasants.

But along came the Independence and ruanas regained their status worn on the shoulders of the liberating creoles. While crossing the Andes on their horses and gaining support along the way, the garment of the Muiscas helped Simón Bolívar and his rebel army win the trust of those they intended to liberate.

Slowly but surely, the ruana made it to Bogotá to be worn again by the wealthy and powerful. The ruana  from Boyacá was no longer a symbol of the conquered and oppressed, but rather a garment that all of Colombia would recognize as its own.

Now the ruana wants to go international. It’s aiming for a major comeback and its got its own festival to back it up. And why not? Just as you would like your cashmere pashmina to be from India or Pakistan, or your silk scarf from China, make sure your ruana says: “Made in Nobsa, Boyacá.”

 

By Dora Glottman