Whenever I go abroad, I like to choose the destination based on whether I'll be able to see traditional textiles or visit handweavers there. Costa Rica was a bit different this year - we were really keen to see the wild landscapes and birds, to catch a glimpse of the Resplendant Quetzal - oh, and to find a sloth of course!
It's a region of Central America that isn't particularly known for its textiles, but I was eager to unearth something. With a bit of research underway, I learned about the Boruca people of south west Costa Rica who are still practising handweaving with naturally dyed cotton. We decided to stay within what we thought would be public-travel-worthy distance, but this time it wasn't to be - our plans had unfortunately deceived us. The Boruca people live very rurally and in order to arrive with public transport, you need to book an overnight stay. However, I was really delighted to meet some Boruca weavers selling their work in a market in the seaside town of Uvita. They were showing a selection of their striped purses and bags, which are sewn after weaving, on some of the very few sewing machines that they have in the village.
Their textiles are woven on backstrap looms, which has been consistent for centuries now. The patterns that they create are not written down, but have been passed down orally through the generations and they are very striking, linear designs. The cotton is grown in the surrounding fields and the women work together to spin it into yarn and dye with local plants. Their work aligns very much with the Fibreshed ethos of textile production, which of course it would as their methods have remained unchanged for centuries. The furthest the weavers travel to source the dyestuffs is to the Pacific coast - about 40km away. In January, the Boruca have a tradition of taking the bus to the coast on a mission for purple! They walk the coastline and collect the secretion of the Murex sea snails, which creates a vivid purple for their cloth. This is a process dating back to 200 BCE.
You won't come across the Boruca weaving very widely in Costa Rica; the textile scene is largely comprised of imported clothing from the US, other neighbouring countries and further afield. However, we did come across some Boruca pieces in the capital, San Jose. The Gold Museum shop had a small collection of purply place mats (presumably dyed with the Murex sea snail) and there were some beautiful pouches and purses in the fantastic store Galeria Namu. If you are visiting the capital, I would highly recommend passing by. The owner works closely with indigenous craftspeople in Costa Rica and the nearby surrounding countries, to create a platform for sharing their exquisite work. He is very knowledgeable and can share information with you in various languages. Some other incredible pieces that caught my attention were the Kuna molas from the San Blas Islands and a selection of applique dresses crafted by the Ngabe Bugle people in the far south of Costa Rica and into Panama. As the owner pointed out, the indigenous people do not notice borders. I was shocked to later read that indigenous people were only given the vote in 1994.
Another indigenous group, in the south east of the country are the BriBri, who have struggled (and continue to do so) with land rights for many years. We were lucky enough to visit a family who grow cacao among many other edibles in their incredibly verdant surroundings. We were shown how to toast, peel and grind the cacao beans on an open fire hob and a large stone metate (see below), which was fascinating and a real privilege. We booked this visit through an eco-tourism company, ATEC, that pays 75% of the cost of the tour to the host family. As well as making chocolate, the women of this family create beautiful hand carved gourds, embellished with native animals and plants.
There is a rich tradition of craft in Costa Rica, but it won't jump out at you from every corner - you need to seek it out for yourself. Rather like the Resplendant Quetzal!
Ngabe Bugle applique dresses at Galeria Namu, Boruca weaving exhibit at the Jade Museum
The BriBri homestead, toasting cacao (very hot on the fingers!), grinding the beans on the metate, resident turkeys, beautiful woven leaf roofing and a hand carved gourd close-up.