A Colonial History of Weaving in Ecuador

  • Under a system of organized forced labor in factories, called obrajes, the conquered villagers were put to work weaving. The first to be established was located in Otavalo in the northern Andean highlands. The craftsmen here who had long-standing weaving traditions on backstrap looms were taught to use the imported European treadle loom which could turn out finished pieces faster. There were roles for men, women and children in the many steps of culling the dirt and debris from the raw fleece, spinning it into yarn, dying it and finally weaving it into fabric. Weaving was arduous work before the Spanish arrived and more so after the factories’ long hours and poor working conditions were imposed.
  • The system worked so well, it was replicated elsewhere. By the end of the 17th century, hundreds of obrajes had begun operating. As the colony became established, more land moved into private hands which became structured as large self-sufficient entities called haciendas. The haciendas generated revenue from two sources, agriculture and an on-site textile factory. Workers were employed in the field or factory under a system that gave the indigenous inhabitants small plots of land called huasipungos. In return for laboring on the haciendas, here they could grow their own crops and raise a few head of livestock.
  • For centuries, weaving drove the economy of Ecuador, though the industry suffered major downturns due to drought and diseases introduced into the workforce by the European immigrants. Huasipungos remained legal until the passage of the Land Reform, Idle Lands and Settlement Act in 1964. Among other changes, the new law established a system whereby tenants could take title to the land they had been working.
  • Today an international crowd of tourists makes the famous craft village of Otavlo a must-see part of their travel to Ecuador, most unaware of what it took to become the center of South America’s crafts universe. Visitors on Ecuador tours may learn about traditional weaving techniques and the history of weaving at Otavalo’s Obraje Museum as well as by visiting with the weavers they encounter during their travel to Ecuador.
  • Passengers wishing to stay in a hacienda on our Ecuador tours have a choice of the nine-day Ecuador Highlights trip or the eleven-day Galapagos Islands and Haciendas trip as well as the four-day Haciendas, Hot Springs and Volcanoes tour extension. The Otavalo Market is visited on these trips as well as on our one or two-day Otavalo Market tour extension and our Otavalo day-trip that includes kayaking on the nearby crater-lake, Cuicocha.