When you’re in the homeland of the traditional Ecuadorian ikat shawl, known as the macana, you must search it out–which is what I did on a recent trip. It quickly became my pick for the ClothRoads scarf of the month (I figured you wouldn’t mind that it’s a shawl). This fine cotton beauty is handwoven using natural dyes in the artisanal workshop of José Jiménez.
José’s home and workshop sit off a back road that connects to the main highway leading to the town of Gualaceo, 35 km east of Cuenca in Ecuador. It is here that he and his family (his wife Ulloa and their four children) are dedicated to weaving ikat, a tie-and-dye resist process of a highly intricate and complicated hand weaving technique practiced in a number of cultures around the world. But in Ecuador, particularly in the Cuenca region, José and his family are just a few remaining weavers still practicing this art.
The Traditional “Macana” Ikat Shawl
Sr. Jiménez is a master weaver of “macana” (or makana), the traditional ikat cotton shawl with a knotted fringe. For centuries, the macana, was a key element of traditional clothing along with the Panama hat, an embroidered, pleated blouse, and two skirts, one an undergarment whose lower embroidered edge peeked out from underneath the outer, pleated skirt. While the macana is no longer considered fashionable, José and his work is sought out and aided by government tourism efforts to keeping this art form alive.
Preparing the Warp
The fine tightly-plied cotton is measured on a fixed warping frame which determines the final length of the shawl; this frame makes a shawl about 72” long including the fringe. The number of threads wound is determined by how fine the cotton is and how wide the piece is. These shawls are warp-faced (none of the cotton weft is visible) so the warp sett can be 80 to 100 ends in an inch.
Once the warp is wound, the pattern for the design is lightly drawn onto the threads. Next comes the wrapping of sections using the pliable leaves from the fique plant, also known regionally as penca. The wrapping acts as a resist, so wherever the wrapping is, the dye can’t penetrate that section, leaving the area its undyed color. Wrapping the warp can take a few days or a few months depending on the fineness of the weave and complexity of the pattern.
The next step is the dyeing process. José uses only natural dyes which are available nearby. Walnut gives shades of brown. Indigo for many blues. Lichens for greens. Cochineal for reds and oranges. And minerals from rocks producing greys.
This particular pattern used in the ikat striped shawl was created using both a white as well as a naturally-dyed brown warp.
Once the warping and dyeing process is completed, in some ways, the weaving is the easiest step. Care must be taken that the warp-dyed pattern doesn’t shift on the loom, thereby throwing the pattern out of sequence. But since the weaving is all done on a backstrap loom, once the warp is taut around the frame and the body of the weaver, the pattern is secured and weaving can begin. The woven structure is a warp-faced plain weave so the weaving itself can go pretty quickly.
After the hand woven shawl is completed, it is removed from the loom, and ready for the knotted meshwork fringe. Depending on the complexity of the fringe’s design, the finishing alone can take months to complete. Both ends are knotted into patterns that are simple, like this one, or with wide bands of knotting forming birds and/or flowers.
You can see on this white and black ikat woven shawl (left), that there is quite a bit of warp ready for the knotting stage to begin.
José Jiménez is quite the showman and salesman. He took great pleasure in wrapping this exquisite macana around my shoulder and having our photo taken.