I doubt many people outside Bolivia have ever heard of Tarabuco. This ethnic group lives southeast of Sucre, in central Bolivia, and represents one of the country’s prominent traditional cultures. Throughout the centuries Tarabuqueños have woven their own clothes using distinct weaving patterns.
Typical Dress of the Tarabequños
It’s easy to spot a Tarabuqueño. Most conspicuous and intriguing are the monteras, or morriones. These leather hats are patterned after the helmets worn by the Spanish colonizers. Tarabuco men are recognizable by their k’uychis, ponchos woven with rainbow-patterned stripes – the tones of these stripes indicate the place of origin of a poncho. Women traditionally wear an aqsu, two pieces of cloth, one worn as a cloak and the other draped over the shoulder – its edges embellished with colorful weaving designs.
Although I liked the designs from the start, it wasn’t until I visited the Museo Textil-Etnográfico de Arte Indígena in Sucre that I became fascinated by the art and its history.
Typical of the Tarabuco weaving patterns are the clear band segmentation and symmetry, contrary to for example the Jalq’a textiles, produced in an area west of Sucre, where elongated rectangles are less prominent. The light-colored bands are filled in with darker-colored patterns.
The weaving patterns of women are a representation of real life as well as symbolic figures, whereas men weave according to personal imagination and male vision. The representation of real life is expressed in, for example, farming scenes such as harvesting, sowing and farm animals, marriage rituals and the production of chicha (corn beer). Another recurring pattern is that of religious celebrations, such as Pujllay (carnival), and Todos Santos (All Saints’ Day).
Since the revival of the traditional weaving techniques in the 1990s many new patterns and color schemes have been developed, leading to a much wider choice of fabrics than in the old days.
Tarabuco Weaving Techniques
The design of women’s looms dates from Pre-Columbian times, which allows for the typical design called pallay. In the Bolivian Andes, men traditionally weave on pedal-looms which is a technique inherited from the Spanish.
The latter, however, doesn’t allow for the typical type of design of the Tarabucos and so from 1994 on male Tarabuqueños started working on recovering the ancient tapestry techniques from 2000 years ago as well. Their focus is on weaving modern designs inspired by Pre-Columbian examples.
The Tarabucos weave with the wool of sheep and cotton dyed in bright colors, creating intricate patterns in various color gradations. An important difference between the weaving techniques of men and women is the fact that women choose the colors of the warp whereas men change the colors of the weft.
To me the visit to this museum couldn’t have come at a better moment. My partner and I were about to start a project for an NGO in the region, which included visiting a number of communities where many residents still wear these dresses on a daily basis.
Instead of looking at them with a mere ‘oh, what beautiful’ thought I now appreciated more what they were wearing, why, and where it originated. It gave a deeper sense of understanding of the place I was visiting.
Buying Tarabocu Weavings
You can buy textiles in Sucre but on Sunday Tarabuqueños sell their wares on the market in the rural town of Tarabuco, which is popular with foreign and local travelers who often visit on a day trip from Sucre. Tarabuco’s woven textiles are used to make clothing, blankets, and bags among which ch’uspas – bags especially made for coca leaves.
Unfortunately, prices have gone up considerably, so another option is to visit weaving villages in the area, for example Candelaria, Ravelo or Potolo.
- To learn more about Tarabuco weaving techniques and patterns, visit the extraordinary Museo Textil-Etnográfico de Arte Indígena in Sucre – arguably one of the best museums in Bolivia. An interesting feature is that local women sit on the balcony demonstrating their weaving techniques. The museum has a shop where fabrics are sold.
- Address: Calle San Alberto 413, Sucre. Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8:30am-noon & 2:30-6pm.
- To visit the Tarabuco Sunday Market, take a bus from Sucre, which ply constantly, or if you like to go organized you can easily find a travel agency in Sucre that organizes these trips.
- Note that photographing people in Bolivia is a sensitive issue, especially in tourist areas like Tarabuco. To prevent problems, always ask permission first.