Traditional Artistic Heritage

Wayúu are an indigenous culture that inhabit the arid El Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela along the Caribbean Ocean.

Over 400,000 Wayúu subsist on ranching and farming in a hot, dry and inhospitable climate, often traveling across borders to work or looking for better climate conditions.

A traditional Wayúu settlement is made up of five or six small houses or rancherias that remain isolated from each other, possibly to retain sufficient forage for their goat herds. According to UNESCO, the Guajira ranks second among the poorest regions in Latin America after Haiti. Wayúu are organized into matrilineal clans with land tenure and inheritance following women’s family lineage.

Guajira Women wear long floor-length colorful cotton dresses (wayuusheein), whereas men traditionally wore only a loin cloth guayuco supported by a belt called wayuwaite, intricately woven by women, practical for the hot dry climate. Although the women have retained their dress, the men have abandoned theirs, except for festivals. They are known for the textile traditions they have held for centuries—beautiful traditional designs in belts, blankets, bags, and hammocks.

The bags (mochillas) have attracted the attention of the US and European markets, but often the artisan receives only a fraction of the revenue that is generated with the sales.

Wayus are best known for their fine crocheted shoulder bags (Mochillas) of bright cotton embellished with bold ethnic designs and for their highly-prized woven hammocks (called chinchorros). Chinchorros are elaborately decorated with traditional designs that are passed down from generation to generation. The bright geometric designs with the strength of Osonuchi straps make them desirable as belts, guitar and camera straps.

Materials

These bags or mochillas have been made for centuries and used by indigenous farmers and fisherman of the Caribbean region of Colombia for gathering, storing and even carrying water.

Traditionally, they were made of hand-spun wool or plant fibers, especially the maguey plant, and in some regions they still are. In spite of innovations and their economic importance, textiles continue to serve a social and spiritual function

Techniques

Mochillas are crocheted by women and made with Colombian commercial grade cotton in bright colors, often with complex motifs. The artist starts the cylindrically-shaped bag with a small crocheted disc which is built up with a perforated blunt needle to form a round base, then the sides are crocheted and finished with a scalloped edge and a draw string with tassels. The bag can be made in different widths and heights depending on its intended use. The strap can be a simple woven piece to match the colors of the bags or a decorative macrame strap which is called Osonuchi also made with commercial cotton.

The Osonuchi strap is made by men using a wooden needle or spindle in a process called ply-splitting, whereby one fiber or cord is run through the ply of the others, creating a strong band. The hammocks are made on large outdoor vertical looms with commercial colored cottons. The sides are finished with elaborate crocheted edges.

Pre-Colombian symbols that reflect daily activities and important concepts are crocheted into the bags: the bright star (that announces the rain), the double-headed fly, the hook that holds the bags, "mother of all motifs" - earth mother, even traces of the goats hooves. Because these traditions are learned at a very young age, particularly in girls, they desire to reach a high high skill level.. The original use of the Osonuchi bands are as a cinch and headstall for the donkeys because the bands are so strong - the same that serve as the elegant shoulder straps of the bags.

Mochillas have been part of the Caribbean culture of South America for centuries and have been made by women using a make-shift needle. In the 17th century, missionaries introduced the crochet needle; that and the availability of commercial cotton has revolutionized bag construction. They are made in different sizes and used for everything from carrying change to carrying heavy objects. A bag can take from 6 to 18 days to make, depending on the number of threads crocheted (one or two). Likewise, in its early construction, men separated the fibers of the Osonuchi bands by tying them to their toes and plaiting by hand while seated. Their use as bag-straps is relatively recent, and today men use the Korompa (bow-driven spindle) to plait the fibers.

The new colorful plaited bands are enjoyed by the young people for jewelry and other decorative pieces. These items remain functional and both traditional and contemporary elements are passed down from Father to Son (the Osonuchi strap) and from mother to daughter at a very young age

Common Use

Mochillas continue to have a daily functional use and everyone--children, men and women, will use as many as three at a time, carried on their shoulder, on their head (as a backpack) tied to their waist, or tied to their donkey. Fine bags are reserved for special occasions like festivals. Woven textiles made on the vertical loom adorn the donkeys and mules at festivals--the same designs as are seen on the hammocks. These same symbols are woven into the bags. There are also clan-specific designs that are passed down through matrilineal clans from generation to generation.

The vertical loom used by the Wayuu is similar to the treadle loom, but the headle rope is pulled by hand, a much slower process. Nevertheless, it allows the weaver the advantage of weaving while either sitting or standing. Every household has a vertical loom outside their door and it is used for hammocks, special textiles, and festival decorations