Tightly Woven Community

By Mariela Vallejos  |  Photos courtesy of Fundacion Artesanias de Chile

A unique craft intertwines the lives of grandmothers and granddaughters

Artisans from a remote rural area of Chile make the most stunning handicrafts: miniature flowers, animals, butterflies, birds, angels, and witches, woven out of crin de caballo, dyed or natural-colored horsehair. Their delicate creations are unique to this part of the world, largely due to their geographic and historical isolation.

Horsehair weaving uses strands from the horses' tails — thicker, longer and sturdier than that of their manes — combined with the imported vegetable fiber ixtle to keep the structure more firm and durable. The decorative pieces come almost exclusively from two neighboring rural villages, Rari and Panimavida, located 22 kilometers east of the town of Linares in the Andean foothills, roughly 300 kilometers south of Santiago.

Sitting in their doorways or under a tree, during the evening or between domestic tasks, some 150 women carry out the intricate labor of weaving the horsehair, a tradition that has been passed down for over two hundred years, using only their hands and a needle to finish off their creations. The results are delicate ornaments—often made into necklaces, bracelets, earrings—and decorative pieces inspired by nature and legend.

Rari-Panimavida exemplifies Chile’s efforts to safeguard its folk arts, and by extension, the artisans who carry forth the traditions. Although the future of such crafts is uncertain, the community in these villages demonstrates the power of transferring skills from one generation to the next and the benefits to both young and old during the process.

According to historians, the origins of woven crafts are closely linked to pre-Columbian basketry in the area. The tradition of making miniatures began, however, at the end of the 19th century when the village of Panimavida, famous for its hot springs, began to attract wealthy tourists and personalities from the cities. These visitors were always eager to buy a unique souvenir. Local women began using fine poplar roots to braid into small figures to sell. When poplar roots became scarce, they tried the natural fiber ixtle, already widely used to make brushes, and combined it with horsehair from the animals’ tails. These materials woven together produced a new tradition.

A crin handicraft, produced in the town of Rari in Chile's Maule region

Crin handicrafts like the one above are produced in the town of Rari in Chile's Maule region.

An intricate crin butterfly made with many shades of dyed horsehair

This intricate crin butterfly is crafted from many shades of dyed horsehair.


"Solidarity butterflies" are among the best-selling crafts in Artesanías de Chile's online store.

For several decades, selling horsehair souvenirs was an essential contribution to families’ subsistence. “In the 1950s, when I was young,” remembers artisan Guadalupe Sepúlveda, 84, “there was a lot of poverty here, and crafts were traded for food. Our dad worked all day in the field. We children had to help our mother weave.” Sepúlveda had 10 siblings. “My mother was already too busy. She did domestic work. She did horsehair weaving and knitted with sticks and on a loom. She was also a seamstress and the midwife around here, too. There was no doctor, no electricity. Life was hard.”

In the late 1960s, agricultural development and public policies brought progress to the region. Children began to attend school regularly and the girls (mostly) took to weaving in their free time, regarding it as a profitable hobby. In the 1990s, with the support of various government entities and NGOs, a generation of artisans began to organize their work. “From weaving alone in our homes, trying to obtain raw materials and selling our products individually, we switched to importing ixtle together and increasing our sales with the help of Artesanias de Chile,” acknowledges artisan Margarita Cabrera, 71, referring to a fair-trade, government-funded nonprofit that works to promote and disseminate traditional Chilean crafts. Cabrera is a retired accountant, mother, and grandmother who has proudly passed on her expertise to two generations. “Now we weave because we like it.”

This is a skill that is passed down from a grandmother or an older woman in the family. Older women have the patience and time to teach you when you are a girl. Grandchildren have a more complicit relationship with their grandmothers. 

Nowadays crafting is a family and social experience that women enjoy. The older women regard getting together to weave as a chance for conversation, especially with the young. “I talk a lot with Carito, my granddaughter,” says Cabrera. “She has been my darling since she was little. Weaving together is a chance to talk over ideas with other people and listen to them. In general, it is like group therapy, an opportunity to share, and you come away enriched. It helped us especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have shared this activity with my daughter and granddaughter. We talk and plan for hours while we work. They come up with new ideas that we incorporate, and that makes the future look brighter again.”

Weaving horse hair by hand

The art of horsehair weaving is unique to Rari-Panimaveda.

Artisan Guadalupe Sepulveda, 84, demonstrating some of the techniques she has learned over the years

Artisan Guadalupe Sepulveda, 84, demonstrates some of the techniques she has learned over the years.

“My grandma taught me”

Although the tradition gets passed on in several ways, it is usually the grandmothers who teach their granddaughters. Artisan Milisen Sepúlveda, 38, explains: “This is a skill that is passed down from a grandmother or an older woman in the family. Older women have the patience and time to teach you when you are a girl. Grandchildren have a more complicit relationship with their grandmothers; the mother-daughter relationship is a bit more rigid. With the grandmother, everything is a gift. When I learned from mine, it felt like playing. She made large dolls and I made their accessories — hats, umbrellas, and baskets. We complemented each other. Similarly, my mother and her granddaughter (my daughter) are accomplices and enjoy working together while they talk.”

Isabel Sepúlveda, 57, whose little horsehair animals get exported all over the world, says her children and grandchildren have been a great help to her. “They always come up with new design ideas. And they know more about how to use technology for selling,” she admits. Though older artisans are proud of their many achievements, they worry about the future. “Young people are not as attracted to doing this work anymore,” Margarita Cabrera worries. “It is painstaking and time-consuming, and they want immediate results for what they do.” Professional designers from big cities represent a threat, too. “They may buy many small pieces from an artisan, rings for example, and make them into new objects, such as a lamp, and then claim authorship for themselves,” says America Escobar, Regional Head from the Subdepartment of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). “This is an appropriation we try to counter with education,” she adds.

Though older artisans are proud of their many achievements, they worry about the future. "Young people are not as attracted to doing this work anymore," Margarita Cabrera worries. "It is painstaking and time-consumig, and they want immediate results for what they do."

Detailed handwork, passed down through the generations

Detailed handwork, passed down through the generations.

Artisan Milisen Sepúlveda, 38, and her mother Margarita Cabrera, 71, in a room attached to their home where they exhibit and sell their crafts

Artisan Milisen Sepúlveda, 38, and her mother Margarita Cabrera, 71, exhibit and sell their crafts at home.

A gathering of Rari-Panimavida artisans of all ages

Rari-Panimavida artisans of all ages gather to weave.

Government Support

Like Escobar, other government officials are also aware of the role of public policies to prevent the weaving tradition from disappearing. In 2010, the entire artisan community of Rari-Panimavida were recognized as “Living Human Treasures” by the National Sub-department of ICH. The acknowledgement is bestowed on individuals and communities who represent a highly significant intangible cultural heritage, and their recognition has set in motion a chain of significance both within their communities and in Chilean society as a whole. This recognition, which complies with a UNESCO convention that Chile signed, includes the incorporation of artisans into the Registry of Living Human Treasures of Chile. They are issued a public certification and given an economic incentive and government support to maintain and disseminate their tradition. 

Rari’s craftsmanship is permanently exhibited in a museum in the nearby city of Linares. The government also provided Rari with a Seal of Origin for its handicrafts and backed the community in their petition to have Rari declared a “City of the World Crafts” by the World Crafts Council. This recognition was obtained in 2015. These distinctions, along with government-provided marketing and IT training for local artisans, as well as public spending on promotion (including road signage to facilitate tourism from outside the area), have helped to highlight the Rari-Panimavida heritage.

In addition, Artesanías de Chile certifies the delicate Rari products as genuine Chilean crafts, markets them, and sells them through its four brick-and-mortar stores. These include one shop in Santiago's international airport and another in a cultural center and museum next to the presidential palace. Every sale directly supports the artisan. “Artesanías de Chile has been a big help to us. They place their orders with us each month for ten months of the year. We dispatch, and they deposit the payment into our accounts. Due to the pandemic, orders were smaller in 2021, but at least they kept our business going.” explains Amanda Salas, 84. During the pandemic, Artesanías de Chile also launched an online store and campaigned through social networks to promote craft sales from Rari within Chile, especially the highly regarded “solidarity butterfly.” Their platform has been successful and will soon allow international shopping. In the meantime, foreign customers can write to ventas@artesaniasdechile.cl to place orders.

According to the authorities, targeted public policies and professional involvement have borne fruit. “Chile has made significant progress in the field of ICH training and education. We are also advanced in the promotion of intersectoral strategies to provide social support to local communities that, in their great majority, are home to the most vulnerable population in the country,” says Rodrigo Aravena, national undersecretary for ICH, “especially in rural, indigenous, or traditionally feminized areas.”

As the shadow of COVID-19 fades, senior artisans from Rari-Panimavida, who were all vaccinated in early 2021 and enjoy good health, are timidly allowing themselves to be hopeful. “I trust that our tradition will continue,” Guadalupe Sepúlveda reflects. “As we once did, the young will find new ways of expressing themselves with our materials. We don’t know what their creations are going to look like, but that’s okay. We mustn’t fear their creativity.”●