Chilean traditional crafts and design: preserving the inheritance

SANTIAGO – Chile has a great heritage in its traditional crafts. Passed down from the country’s ancestral peoples, these artisanal works are rich in materials and techniques. Many of the techniques have been lost over time, but some are being rediscovered by a new generation of designers, who seek to preserve Chile’s past and enrich its future.

Throughout Chile, there are various organizations and individuals dedicated to maintaining the heritage of certain traditional crafts that have been carried out in the country for millenia.

These traditional crafts have been elevated as icons within Chile, where “ferias artesanales” (craft fairs) and handmade works stands can be found everywhere: from dedicated spaces in town squares to tourist stands at resorts and beaches, to impromptu setups on city streets.

Even so, many have lost interest in the ancestral trades, forgotten about them, or even developed a snobbish contempt for them.

For a while now, though, new waves of Chilean designers have set their sights on these techniques, seeking to enrich their own work while, at the same time, preserving and promoting these forgotten traditions.

Chilean traditional crafts

But what do we mean by traditional crafts? Chile Artesanía (Chile Craft) defines crafts as pieces or objects made individually or collectively, primarily by hand, or with, at most, hand tools and instruments. Traditional crafts are crafts that are part of the memory and heritage of a culture—crafts that manifest a continuity of aesthetics or symbolic forms.

History portal Memoria Chile (Chilean Memory) explains that “unlike popular art, crafts are not an occasional and disinterested activity.” Instead, the works are usually “the result of a manual skill oriented towards a utilitarian and lucrative purpose.”

Pueblito Los Dominicos – Santiago’s Heritage Artisan Market

Chilean handicrafts, which have their roots in the various indigenous peoples of Chile, fall into several different categories based on materials used, including:

  • Ceramics
  • Basketwork
  • Textiles
  • Woodworks
  • Metalworks

Because these millenia-old techniques are passed down from generation to generation, primarily through direct person-to-person contact and teaching, these ancestral works are a living, breathing link to Chile’s past. If the technique is lost, the history and tradition risk extinction.

Crafts and design

Today, many of the traditional crafts are in flux, because the underlying techniques are being revisited, with a new perspective, thanks to an increasing awareness of their importance, and they are being intermingled with more modern and commercial expressions, such as fashion, furniture, and decorations.

This artisan-designer relationship can be summarized as the mixture of “know-how” with “know what to do”—at least that’s how “La Asociación Andaluza de Coolhunting” (The Andalusian Association of Coolhunting) describes it.

As La Asociación further explains, the relationship is often a very productive one because the artisans master their crafts, while the designers focus on the market for the works.

This new perspective not only benefits the world of design, as explained by Diseña, (Design) magazine, craftwork also presents a “revaluation of manual doing” as a strategy of reducing environmental impacts and increasing sustainability, because the work and techniques are usually in and of themselves eco-friendly.

Manza: The twist in the tradition

A perfect example is Manza, a Chilean accessory brand, created by Camila Polette Prieto, a 28-year-old designer. Manza’s luxury designs mix in the traditional and ancestral practices of the Chimbarongo mimbre (Chimbarongo wicker).

Prieto told Chile Today that Manza was born out of the observation that “traditional trades in Chile are devalued.” “Chile,” she said, “has many techniques throughout the country, of which many are abandoned; no one cares about them and actually many are becoming extinct,” so the idea of creating this brand was to “value and realize the potential that we have as a country in manufacturing.”

The designer also explained that these traditional techniques were abandoned and lost because for a long time the vision was “outside”—it was focused on importing things from Europe or other places,” which caused Chileans to forget that “in the end Chile still has labor, and work and great things,” so the idea of her work was “to enhance the traditional trades.”

On top of that, though, working with crafts, Prieto said, is “super entertaining,” because it generates a collaborative atmosphere, which enriches the design. As she explained, the artisans spend a lifetime developing their techniques and working with their materials, “so they become experts, which improves everything.”

The development of their star product (a bag made with wicker) required four artisans: a wickerworker, a leatherworker, a seamstress, and a bronzeworker, in order to have a more luxury distinction, with the aim of having quality and good finishes,” to achieve a product “linked to the traditional but at the same time with a ‘haute couture’ vibe.”

Prieto said that tourists value their work more than Chileans. In fact, “in general, the crafts in Chile are frowned upon, because people associate them with products that are rough and not well-made, which is not the case.” She stressed that the artisanal works incorporated into Manza’s products are a reason to be proud of something made in Chile.

 Ingrato: A more modern work

The brand Ingrato is another example. Although it is also linked to the work of costume design mixed with crafts, this Chilean brand has a more modern vision and more distant from the “traditional” use than Manza. It’s main expression material is also different: wool.

The creator of Ingrato, Sebastián Plaza, a graphic designer, told Chile Today, that the aim of the brand was to “transfer this historical burden that has the wool” and introduce it to the wardrobe and at the same time “express passively-aggressive” his way of seeing the world.

Plaza explained that this process of creation was “a long process of crafts research.” He had to learn the technique, not only of the fabric, but how to use the sticks, the crochet, the loom, the knot, the braiding, and the yarn, among many other things. This knowledge came through the family as an “inheritance.” As he explained, “people acquired this knowledge from generation to generation, for example this knitting thing was taught to me by my grandmother and mother.”

At the same time, Plaza clarified, that although, his work is linked to the artesanal job, his clothes and designs comes from many techniques and materials. He not only works with wool and fabrics, but also with recycled garments and interventions in order to create new costumes. He invests a lot of time in his work, because he created everything, from the fabrics to the final product.

A protest voice

Plaza said that the goal of Ingrato’s products is to “protest” against many things, and the main focus is on the fight against stereotypes, because through his designs he eliminates the idea of “clothes for women or for men.” At the same time, he fight against consumerism, by “doing everything by hand” and by not needing outside help to generate his products, “is a way of changing things.” But, he explained, he falls into a “contradiction”: “I continue to contribute to the world of clothing, but in the same way I think that is the way to make the change, from the inside.”

Regarding the public’s response to Ingrato’s styles, where the artisan mixes with more modern proposals, and where the “ugliness” stands out in terms of aesthetics, Plaza says that people tell him that his work is “bacan” (cool) and that they “identify” with his work. “My clothes recall childhood, that nostalgia that we all have and that we have forgotten . . . memories are important, we do not remember our past, because we are to busy all day, stuck on the phone,” so Ingrato comes to generate a protest to this.

This is how these two expressions, Manza with its vision more linked to the traditional crafts work and Ingrato with its work of fusion of ancestral techniques with a speech of protests and a more modern visual, come to show that there is still ground for the heritage of the ancestors, through the recollection of these trades and crafts, in order to preserve the past and enrich the future.

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