The Qom communities, also known as Tobas, are the oldest peoples of the current territory of Formosa Province in the Argentine Republic and the south of Paraguay Republic like the Pilagá and Wichí. Together with the Abipones, Mocovíes, and Pilagá, they lived from the XVI century – Pilcomayo River in between – in front of the Republic of Paraguay.
They live in rural, urban, and peri-urban communities (on the outskirts of cities), mainly in the provinces of Formosa and Chaco.
The term Qom derives from the personal pronoun of the first person plural (qomi, qom: people, -i: suffix that pluralizes) and encompasses, in a restricted sense, those who speak the same language, share the same cosmology and a way of relating to the environment.’2
They are gatherers and hunters, although migration to urban areas and climate change have forced them to change their habits and livelihoods.
We mainly support craftswomen from the Qom community ’14 de Julio’ that lives northwest of Formosa, in the mountainous region called ‘El Impenetrable,’ 62 km away from National Route 81, on a dirt road. During the rainy season, it is not accessible.
Until the beginning of 2018, many communities in the area lived on the banks of the Pilcomayo River. The last great flood that began at the end of 2017 forced the definitive relocation of the communities to higher areas inland.
The main source of genuine work for women is handicraft activity. However, the marketing of products is hampered by the difficulty of access, the dispersion of families, and the lack of public transport to urban areas, which is why support is essential.
The weaving process begins with elaborating the design and the choice of colors. Before starting, like any artistic creation, the artisans create the design and define the color palette. It should be noted that despite the complexity of the designs, they often do not make sketches or calculations in writing; everything is in their heads. It is impressive to see geometric figures woven without any previous sketches.
The next step is to get the wool. The Qom communities are gatherers and hunters; they do not breed, so the wool must be bought. Given the remoteness of the area where they live, it is not easy to get it and, above all, to transport it.
They buy dirty sheep fleece, which is paid for by the kilo and generally yields between 70% and 80% per kilo after washing. They generally have to do at least four washes.
The yarn is made by hand by stripping the wool to obtain the strands and then joining them together (twisting them in pairs) to form the yarn.
The stripping is traditionally done as the yarn is spun, although nowadays, some women do it before spinning, which speeds up the spinning time. However, according to research work carried out by the Fundación Gran Chaco, the traditional method is healthier 1′ ginning and spinning at the same time allows maintaining longer spinning rhythms, with less fatigue (ginning is a practice that rests the spinner’s spine, relaxing the tension on the arm that carries the yarn with the spindle).’ 2
Spinning is done with a hand tool called a ‘spindle.’ Some have incorporated another tool known as a spinning wheel.
Traditionally, women have used the spindle for spinning. This work instrument is made with a piece of wood (iscayante -Mimoziganthus carinatus-, palo santo -Bulnesia Sarmientoi-), sharpened and polished, about 50 cm long. It has a lower end wider than the upper end, in which a stone or iron donut is inserted that works as a counterweight during spinning. This is the technology that all women know, and the one that historically has been passed down…
The spinning wheel is a new work tool that women are just getting to know and use. Adult women (especially the elderly) are not interested in incorporating the spinning wheel; the younger women and girls have quickly adapted to its use and know how to use it.
The work time depends directly on the thickness of the thread; the finer the thread, the longer it takes to spin and disassemble. The Qom women use fine and medium yarn.
Dyeing is done mainly with fruits and plants from the bush.
The dyeing process consists of boiling the dyeing plants or fruits. After a period of boiling, the skeins of wool are placed in the dye to absorb the dye.
Generally, the wool is only left a few minutes in boiling to prevent it from burning. Then it is removed from the fire and left to rest. Depending on the color you want to obtain, it can be left for up to 2 days.
They managed to obtain 32 colors with natural dye. Some of them are:
|Color||Name in Qom language||Plants|
|Yellow||Yocoví||Coviyi Penagadí+ alum Yerba|
|Dark yellow||Iachi Yocoví||Coviyí + alum|
|Light yellow||Yocoví Tegué Yocoví Telegue||Coviyí + ash gualagañic fruit|
|Light blue||Malcatelegue||Gelvae Fruto del guayacán + mud|
|Reddish brownish||Tomcalegue||Casacaic Todolokik|
|Dark green||Iachi Dadála||Yerba|
|Light green||Dadála Telegue||Penagadí Poleo claro|
|Violet||Pitaladic||Gelvae + alum|
|Brown||Todoloquic||Todoloquic + ash|
|Black||Ledagaic||Peladiji + mud|
|Grey||Cuchagaic||Wool in its natural color|
Harvesting is done by women and, in some cases, by men. Sometimes, they go several kilometers to find them.
When extracting the plant or dye tree bark, they care for the environment: The bark that the women recognize as “ready to use” must have a robust reddish color and be very humid. If it does not present these characteristics, they consider that someone has already removed the bark from that tree and that it is regenerating (generally, this pattern is identified by a discontinuity in the trunk between the area of extraction that is regenerating and the old bark that surrounds the surface), or that the tree is already “old” or “dead” -yileu- with no possibilities of giving new bark.
In the research work of the Fundación Gran Chaco, two problems were raised at this stage: ‘…the scarcity of some dyes, the distances that must be walked to look for them (that is why men are often in charge of this task), and finally the fact that some dye plants hurt women’s hands (such as the gelvae -uva de monte- from which the blue and violet color is extracted, which causes an intense burning when in contact with the hands).
THE DYING AND THE WINDING
After dyeing, the yarns are put to dry. Depending on the climate, the drying time can sometimes take several days.
Once the yarns are dry, the weaving process begins.
THE WEAVING TECHNIQUE
The weaving is done on a vertical loom.
A frame is used where the warp (a set of threads placed parallel to each other on the loom to form a fabric) is assembled, between which the thread is passed to form the fabric.
The Qom women use two weaving techniques:
1.- That of the vertical loom with warp and lance (the one drawn above, the lance is “nánagala”), by means of which two kinds of weaving can be done:
a. Of one side, “onolec nepala” (one side, one back literally).
b. Two-sided, “nepalapîgat” (=one back, that is, one back against the other, there are two backs), “yedapîgat” (=round, circular, it refers to that it turns around, that is, the fabric turns around and has a complete drawing, on both sides, in that sense complete or that it turns around) or “napiágala” (=it is generic for “carpet,” a place where one passes from one side to the other, it is also used for stairs, bridge; it is also registered as usual for the double face; possibly there are differences in technique; it is probable that there are at least two ways of achieving the double face in the weaving and it is noticed in the quality of the weaving and the quantity of wool used The girdle (“játagaiqui”) is a product of this loom and has the two possibilities enunciated. The same applies to ponchos (“napotó”) and blankets (“netalá”).
2. The vertical loom with warp and weaving technique.
This technique, which is used in carpets with drawings, unlike the previous one that only allows weaving with stripes or borders, is similar to the one used in Persian carpets; the weaving is done by tying knots.
Women find this technique more accessible, mainly because they have traditionally incorporated it. However, it takes much more time since the weft is woven by passing the thread through the warp and then tying a knot; thus, for each thread that forms the warp, tying knot by knot. It requires a lot of time, considering that they use medium or thin yarn.
In the different indigenous communities of Latin America, iconography or symbology usually represents figures from nature or stories from their mythology (generally associated with their genesis).
However, although the drawings and figures have endured in the memory of the original cultures, their meaning has been lost.
In the participatory research work of the Gran Chaco Foundation, young women stated that they did not know the meaning of the symbols or that they responded to some stories told by the elders. The drawings of animals are taken from the bush.
According to them, they are not associated with any story or ‘tale of the elders’ and have no more meaning than the concrete fact of tracing it on the tapestry as another motif.
However, one older woman stated:
‘” According to what I was told, the old toba old women weaved because it was a gift from them. The new ones, the old women observe, know new things: the quality of the wool, the colors of the mountain… The drawings have names in the language, as do the figures.”
Looking for some record that would allow us to understand the generational absence or forgetfulness about the meanings of weaving in indigenous groups, groups where weaving has been a primary element in the gender socialization of women and men, there is the work of Seligman and Zorn (1981), anthropologists who investigated the history of weaving in Peru, where something similar to that of the Toba is cited. Speaking of the stylistic changes in indigenous communities during the colonial period, they mention that the disappearance of the Inca state and colonial domination did not imply the disappearance of domestic or traditional weaving. The weavings made with the traditional Andean loom acquired importance for preservation and cultural safeguard; they contained critical information inaccessible to the Spaniards. However, these meanings and motifs were relegated to a subconscious level and silenced due to the experiences of violence the communities had suffered. Subsequently, ‘the generations that came after could no longer easily understand the symbolic meaning of the puma….’
The more abstract motifs, such as those that appear on the roads, possibly date back to a distant past if we consider that the ‘old women’ only knew how to make roads, not tapestries. Specific geometric motifs are also reiterated: such as the successive short stripes or the rhombuses arranged in a row one above the other in the middle of the paths -similar to the skin of a viper-limited by two stripes with small squares or another motif. Somewhere, the successive short horizontal stripes drawn along a path (in its central part or as a lateral stripe) could resemble carob pods.