By Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino
Matías began to weave in front of the stunned group of people who had come to Cucunubá to witness the creation of the fine, beautiful objects artisans of the region make from wool. Such was his skill, and so great the precision of his hand movements, that some watched him as people watch a magic show. They say that the residents of the Valley of Ubaté, especially those from this dairy and mining population, possess a lyrical predisposition, a sublime and ingenious vision of life. They say that each and every one of the items manufactured there subtly expresses the past, the daily life, the customs, the table manners, the imagination, the delicate sensibility, the religion, the environment, and even the eroticism characteristic of this area of Cundinamarca, in Colombia.
Matías is a four-year-old boy with a beautiful face and lively eyes. Since he was born he has heard the murmur of the looms, the voices of the spinners gossiping as they work, the endless tantrums of the sheep in the pastures resisting being shorn, the soft music of the milk in the wandering canteens, and, even more importantly, the stories that are told in the evenings about how the first looms arrived in the Valley of Ubaté. So this child, Matías, began to show signs of craftsmanship as early as his first steps.
Now his relation with wool is like a fruitful friendship, where an ancient and revered profession remains undefeated. The boy’s family is a clan, an “artistic society,” led by Blanca Stella Pérez (a matriarch of wool known in the community as “Mamá Osita”). It includes his sisters, Elizabeth and Margarita, who are sheepshearers and spinners, and their daughters: Blanca Stella, Gloria, Nelly, and Nilsa. To see them gathered in the doorway of their house is like stepping into the secrets and ways of “the people of wool.”
“This is part of our life. Like a shelter against bad times and a way to feel, to express ourselves, to tell the world all the dreams that one carries inside like a relic. When we are happy, melancholy, worried, or simply have the desire to add more beauty to the beauty of the world, then, we make our crafts.
When the great designers arrived for the first time in the region, they were surprised that we, all of us who work here, could also be inventors and that, like them, wanted the creations that come out of our patios and workshops to have the power to surprise,” says Mamá Osita while she shows her large home near Cucunubá. Her home is a laboratory of ideas, inventions, and treasures that travel throughout Colombia, Latin America, and the United States. People who are unaware of the life and miracles of Cucunubá probably wear her creations proudly.
“Wool has played a big role in our lives,” Mamá Osita continues. “I, for example, started my craft when I was just eleven. I remember fondly our early morning parade to Ubaté to buy materials or carry products. It was a long way and even a bit painful, but we did it amidst laughter and songs. We have never forgotten that this gift of weaving is a true godsend.”
“Everyone invents their own designs; we are all artists. We embroider wool, sisal, leather. Each material has a soul that must be discovered. Only in this way can our clothing or accessories cede and begin to show us their infinite range of possibilities. Yes, we are a true dynasty whose most recent heirs are my grandchildren: Natalia, Kevin, and the very skilled Matías.”
And like them, many of the homes in Cucunubá have a loom and someone who maneuvers it like a marathon runner. To handle these bulky and seemingly inaccessible instruments, one must be in good physical condition and full of the sternest discipline.
This population has produced important public figures, such as Jorge Eliécer Gaitán; courageous miners who risked their lives in the deep black pit of the tunnels; cooks expert in the most appetizing gastronomic techniques of the cold lands; ranchers; and judicious farmers. But in recent years they have also gained renown for the work of the humble and discreet artisans, who work with creole or merino wool. For example, Enrique Contreras inherited the profession from his parents, who first wove with wooden instruments. In 1963, they bought a horizontal loom for the sum of 800 pesos, which is the same one he still uses in his hectic working hours.
The Festival of Beauty
As useful and lovely items were being spontaneously generated, so was an awareness that these products could compete in the marketplace with their peers around the world, and, even more importantly, that the stock could be enriched with the expertise, meticulousness, and lyricism of those who have elevated the question of dress to the category of art and poetry.
Then entered another of the area’s most famous sons: Pedro Gómez, a successful entrepreneur who has contributed to Cucunubá in many ways.
Gómez decided to support Festilana and that was when top-tier fashion designers came on the scene, in search of a beautiful adventure: Julia de Rodríguez, Juan Pablo Socarrás Mercedes Salazar, María Luisa Ortiz, Ángel Yáñez, and Laura Laurens. These names of distinction from the world of haute couture found, in the delightful runways of Festilana, new paths for their inventiveness.
“The influence has been reciprocal among the artisans and the fashion designers: they exchange ideas, share experiences, and have become a big family touched by an unexpected love. You could say there is familiarity and camaraderie. The experience proves that worlds that seem so different really aren’t and shows that art takes precedence over social differences and the dissimilar worlds in which these two groups live,” says Luz Ángela Cortés, assistant director of Festilana. Throughout the year, with an attention to detail worthy of those who plan to do something approaching the celestial and sublime, they all work together harmoniously. The great luminaries set out for Cucunubá and talk with their accomplices, comparing ideas and designs.
The result is a runway worthy of London, New York, or Milan; audiences are overcome with amazement at the ways in which such a humble and seldom sought after material as wool is reborn and reinvented. One after another, the fantasies of the masters of haute couture and simple artisans parade before the incredulous eyes of the visitors, filling the region with pride.
Recently, when Prince Carlos of England and his wife visited Bogotá, some artisans brought blankets made of alpaca and merino wool to the embassy. The sovereigns were so happy with their gifts that they asked for the telephone numbers of the manufacturers, believing that other royals would like more of these well-made objects. It is the new, amazing, and magical contemporary story of our wool.
On November 7 and 8 —like a marvelous film by Federico Fellini, with its own beautiful, poetic, and somewhat quirky cast of characters: village poets and musicians and artists, massive and fit weavers, and elders still infused with light— the latest version of this event takes place.