The Mapuche people, or “People from the Earth” in Mapudungún, is the largest indigenous culture in Chile. 10% of Chile´s population belongs to this ethnicity, but only a small part of it keeps their traditional language and ancestral traditions. Mapuches have populated the south of Chile for thousands of years, being central actors in Chilean history. They were the first natives to fight back the Spanish conquerors, in a war that lasted more than 300 years.
Under a deeply rooted belief in powers of nature –the Sun, the Moon, the Rain, and the Wind- Mapuches have historically lived from what Earth has given to them. Its society is traditionally comprised by men dedicated to hunting, agriculture, and politics, while women devoted their time to food recollection, care of children, and handcrafts, among other domestic activities.
The tradition of the Mapuche textile art has transcended over time because of its unique expression of traditional meanings and fundamental cultural values. Mapuches count with a wide variety of knitted garments, such as apparel, domestic artifacts, and horse riding implements. Each item has its own name, associated to its knitting technique, and tells a story about specific symbols and myths. Mapuche textiles are designed and built not only for practical purposes, but also for ornamental uses. In their objects there´s a subtle demonstration of ostentation, luxury, and a strong pride over their highly hierarchized society and lineages.Mainly due to the work of its women, this ethnic has developed a highly rich handcraft culture, characterized by its unique jewelry made in gold, silver, and copper, ceramics carved in stone and wood, and hand-woven textiles.
One of these items is the Pilgua, or market bag in Mapudungún: a hand-knitted bag commonly used for carrying fruits, grains, and vegetables and created by Mapuche women from Chilean coastal towns. Pilguas are made by creating a net of knots out of a fiber called chupón, a native type of plant. Chupón is used to make different type of Mapuche baskets. This fiber is highly elastic and resistant: they expand under water and shrink under heat or sun, but rarely breaks. This has historically made Pilguas an excellent tool for shellfish catching and potato harvesting. Its unique durability not only makes Pilguas useful and resistant, but also able to maintain the tradition of passing the same bags from generation to generation of women within a lineage.
While increasingly rare, it's still possible to see these days Mapuche women from the South of Chile continuing the noble tradition of knitting Pilguas.