Cestería en ñocha: técnica ancestral con nuevas formas y colores

Nocha basketry: ancestral technique with new shapes and colors

It is easy to fall in love with the baskets, individual baskets and other pieces woven from plant fibers by Ana Iturra. Their creations are distinguished by their fine finishes and a compact and elegant fabric, in which different shades of white and very soft green are intertwined, which are unique in each piece. The artisan is originally from Los Angeles. When she got married, she moved to the countryside to Nepi -located on the coast of the Bío-Bío Region-, where she put down roots. It was there that she learned the art of basket weaving from an aunt born and raised in the area. Currently, crafts are an important part of Ana's life, as well as her main source of income.

The cultivation of ñocha

In the Province of Arauco, traditional Mapuche basketry has remained in force over time, where ñocha ( Bromelia sphacelata ) is mainly used in the creation of pieces . As Ana points out, this native species was formerly harvested in the mountains, but with the eucalyptus plantations it began to disappear. Currently, the artisan, like many other families in the area, grows this plant in her field: “We made a greenhouse, but instead of nylon it is made of black mesh. It is about 9 meters long by 3 ½ meters wide,” he explains. After five years, Ana was able to harvest the first leaves: “The plant grows slowly. She needs a lot of water and shade. Where I live, there is not as much water or as much shade, so it is more complicated,” he points out. Despite the difficulties, today the artisan has enough material for her work.

Enthusiastic, Ana details the main steps in harvesting and preparing plant fibers:

Take out the leaves that are deeper inside, the softest ones, because the ones on the outside are very stiff and are useless because they break. From there, a stock is put to boil with water and ash. The leaves are passed through water and ash. They are then left in the sun until they whiten. The leaf when you take it out is green and when it is good it is white. For the gnocha to dry and turn white, it takes about three weeks, if there is sun... Then it is stored like a humita in a bag so that it does not dry out. From there the work goes on.

The gnocha has thorns on both sides, so it is essential to remove all thorns with special care. Another important step is obtaining the ñocha strands. To this end, the craftswoman adapts needles to sew bags with which she splits the leaves.

Spiral weaving

Ana learned the traditional aduja or spiral technique, one of the simplest and oldest, which requires two types of plant fibers: a more consistent one, used “to form the skeleton or interior and the plant strands to cover and tie, whose quality “Flexibility must be essential .The artisan uses the ñocha on the outside and as a filling the amophila, a plant that she collects on the seashore, whose drying requires special attention : “That takes longer than the ñocha to dry because they are like little sticks and are thicker. If you work wet, fungus will grow on your work,” he points out.

In the aduja technique, the amophila bundles are covered with ñocha strands, which are woven in a spiral around them, while giving the piece its shape. Ana also works with a log and a hammer: “The log is used to give the shape. You have to hammer the piece with the hammer,” explains the artisan. Weaving is a process that requires time and patience, as Ana highlights: “You have to wait for everything to be dry and everything to be even.”

The secrets of a well-made and durable piece

For Ana, the correct preparation of the fibers is key to a well-made and durable piece. Before starting to weave, the ñocha must be moistened, for which it is hosed or left outside in the dew the night before. The next day, the fiber is cleaned and only then acquires a soft texture, necessary to start working. In this regard, the artisan points out: “A job well done turns out white. When the ñocha is not dried well it turns yellow. The ñocha is green-green and leaves white tones with green tones. When you look at the works from a distance, they look like various shades, that's how it should look.” Ana pays special attention to the finishes, for which she uses scissors with a fine tip.

The artisan considers it very important to explain to her clients how to care for their pieces, which is closely linked to the characteristics that both fibers have:

The piece can be cleaned with a damp cloth and then placed in the sun or where it is warm. If you wash it, it kills it, because the filling absorbs the water. The work cannot be in a humid place, such as the kitchen, for example, where there is steam. When it gets wet it starts to blacken and fungus grows. Therefore, these works must be done in places without humidity. It is good to put the pieces in the sun from time to time, not always if they don't turn yellow. Change the color.

New shapes and colors

Over the years, Ana has perfected the technique and explored new shapes and colors. Among its most traditional pieces, the llepu stands out , a circular and compact fabric, used for centuries by Mapuche communities to winnow grains. As the artisan highlights, her creations “are more for decoration, because in the countryside they are used to clean potatoes and other things and they are thicker.” The artisan makes many other pieces, such as fruit bowls, place settings, flower pots, stationery holders, lampshades and custom-made items. “If someone asks me for a special shape, I do it. For example, if you make me a drawing of a special bread box that you want and give me the measurements, I'll do it,” Ana says proudly. Among the innovations, the bread baskets with brightly colored edges stand out, for which the artisan dyes the ñocha with a special aniline for vegetables.

A job that requires patience and affection

Ana is the only one in the family who has dedicated herself to basket weaving. Laughing, he remembers that some of his relatives tried to learn: “I'll help you,” they tell me, “but nooooo… They leave me in the mud! You have to have patience and you also have to like the work. Because if you don't like it, it doesn't work," she highlights and adds: "My three children help me collect the material, but none of them sit down to work... They don't want anything with the ñocha!" she says, laughing.

Thanks to her job, Ana has an important source of income: “I have three children, two studying at university. Crafts generate lucas for me to support them. There are people who work hard, but I like it, it entertains me and the time passes quickly, especially in the winter.” The artisan works throughout the year: “We prepare the material in the summer and work in the winter,” she clarifies. Ana takes advantage of her free time to knit. Rainy days are ideal for moving forward as you can focus on work.

Regarding the sale of pieces, the artisan points out with some concern:

In the winter nothing is sold, because no one is around. They are all locked up! It is the problem of the artisans: they cannot sell in the winter, unless they have an order. There are places where crafts are sold, but they are few, they cannot buy from all the artisans and they do not sell in the winter either.

Cordillerana is currently the main buyer of Ana's creations. Thanks to these orders, the artisan can work with the peace of mind of having a stable income and the satisfaction that the pieces she knits with so much dedication and love will adorn more than one home.

Article by: Christine Gleisner

  1. Noelia Carrasco and Valentina Cisterna, Mapuche basket: uses and cultural practices , Bajo la Lupa, Research Subdirectorate, National Cultural Heritage Service, 2019. Available at: https://www.museomapuchecanete.gob.cl/sites/www. museomapuchecanete.gob.cl/files/2021-09/Cesteri%CC%81a%20mapuche-%20usos%20y%20pra%CC%81cticas%20culturales.pdf [date of consultation: August 2023].

  2. Loreto Rebolledo, Huentelolén Mapuche basketry . Cedem Editions, Santiago. Available at: https://biblioteca.org.ar/libros/210331.pdf [consultation date: August 2023].

  3. Amophila or barron ( Ammophila arenaria ) is a herbaceous grass that was introduced to Chile in the mid-1950s. It was used successfully in the following decade in the first dune control program developed in Arauco. Santiago Barros and Juan Orlando Gutiérrez, Control and Forestation of coastal dunes in Chile , 2011. Available at: https://revista.infor.cl/index.php/infor/article/download/358/360/400 [date of consultation : August 2023].

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