Shigras are made from different plant species, one a gigantic, succulent of the agave family that grows in high elevations of Ecuador. During their travel to Ecuador, visitors may hear these succulent plants referred to by various names, including cabuya, fique, penca and maguey. The plant’s growing conditions are very different from those that produce the other major source of fibers used in the making of shigras, the chambira palm which grows in the Amazon Rainforest.
For centuries, cabuya fibers have been used in textiles and for many other uses, edible and otherwise. Some visitors on Peru tours may recognize the fiber used in the bath accessories sold in the US as natural fiber lufas and bath mitts to exfoliate. Because of its durability, the plant makes strong rope and has been used to make bridges in South America. Because the plant fibers expand when wet and can be woven so tightly, a shigra can hold water without dripping. Items made of such plant fibers have long been an important export for Andean communities, though the invention of nylon vastly reduced the market for these products.
The plant’s leaves are chopped at the base and the pulp removed before being laid out to dry in the sun. Once dry, the leaves are cut into fine strands and sold to individual weavers or weaver cooperatives that will dye the fibers either with natural or synthetic dyes and spin them like yarn on to a spindle. Riobamba in Tungurahua province is a major center for the buying and selling of the fibers.
Various looping techniques are used to weave the fibers which determine the final look and strength of the product. Weavers use a needle that is blunt at the tip, unlike pointed knitting needles or hooked crochet needles, weaving the bag in an outward circle as one piece without seams. Shigra bags have two long narrow woven straps. The strength of the fiber itself gives the bag its structure.
A common sight for visitors on Ecuador tours is laborers in the fields carrying shigra bags to hold the seeds or seedlings they are planting. In cities, one may see smart dressers in high heels carrying them as stylish handbags on Quito tours and beyond.
Shigras come in different sizes. The larger shigra bag that is typically purchased by women as a souvenir from Ecuador travel is sometimes referred to as a mochila. Shigras are usually woven in simple patterns, abstract, zigzag, geometric or human figure designs, making them at home in the fields as they are on a city street. Shigras are often woven in a variety of vivid hues or in a striking black and white motif.
The villages around Cotopaxi are a great place to search for just the right bag or bags during your travel to Ecuador. Saquisili, southwest of the park is known for its shigra finish work. We offer a two-day tour extension to Cotopaxi National Park that stops to take in an indigenous market day along the way where shigras and other articles woven of cabuya will be plentiful.
Visitors on Ecuador tours north of Quito will find a multitude of shigras to choose from as well when they visit the famed Otavalo crafts market and nearby villages. Southern Explorations’ Ecuador tours that visit this region include the Ecuador Highlights trip and the eleven-day Galapagos Islands and Haciendas trip. We also offer three tour extensions from Quito that visit the Otavalo Market, a day-trip as well as a two-day option, and for visitors who have more time for their travel to Ecuador, a four-day Haciendas, Hot Springs and Volcanoes trip that may be added to any of our Galapagos Islands tours or trips to other regions of the Ecuador mainland.