Cuenca is still a small city – it has around 400 thousand inhabitants – and it is endowed with many delights: exceptional geographic location, beauty of landscape and harmonious architecture. However, the main attractiveness of Cuenca is the spirit of its honest, hard-working people who are able to overcome the greatest catastrophes and to keep living and creating. The soul of the Cuencano is filled with cordiality and a profound and inherited hospitable sense. Creativity is another value that is present in the character of the Cuencano, which is expressed in the multiple and colorful shapes of local handcrafts. Some people wonder, concerning the crafts from Cuenca, why its production is so important. Perhaps the strongest historical reason is that the ancient volcanic soils of the province of Azuay are not mainly fertile and the inhabitants were conscious of that always. That is where the pre-Columbian ceramic tradition starts, whose best expression seems to be found in the never well studied phase of Challuabamba which has left pieces of extreme fineness. The Colony knew, above all, the development of knitting, wood works, imagery and silver works. But in the Twentieth Century is when the artisan apotheosis occurs. Concerning stitching, the skillful hands of our people decorate dresses and other garments with total elegance; concerning works on fine metals, silversmiths and goldsmiths from Azuay develop their fantasy and job in pieces that decorate the religious images of cult as well as the beautiful women of the area; concerning ironworks, the artisans of the traditional neighborhood of “Las Herrerías” are very skilled with this metal; concerning all kinds of ceramic of imaginable sources such as fine, glazed, colored, domestic, industrial, artistic, inspired on ancestral background, influenced by European details, modern and traditional, it is an important item of our economy; concerning knitting and the use of fashion garments and objects, shawls from the areas of Bullcay and Bulzhún as well as bands and ponchos from Cañar. And of course, there are pieces on carved wood, embossed leather, glass, wax, objects made out of horns, stones, tin… it is an entire development of popular forms and sophistications that come from the shops of craftsmen and these never stop surprising us.
Ceramics is one of the crafts of greater roots in the history of the people of Cuenca. Its origins date back from the first pre-Columbian cultures of the region during the formative period (4.000 B.C – 500 B.C). Back in 2.500 B.C., the Narrío culture made already ceramic pieces of great quality, which even nowadays surprise us due to its fineness and exquisite decoration with geometric shapes or zoomorphism sculptures molded in the edges of the containers. Later, cultures such as Cazhaloma, Tacalzhapa and Challuabamba continued the tradition of ceramics in the region, modeling different techniques such as “hitter” or “huactana”, pieces such as anthropomorphous or zoomorphism containers, plates and glasses. The Incas introduced new techniques and styles at their arrival back at the end of the Fifteenth Century, with very representative pieces such as the “aríbalos” that are containers with a pointy base and two big functional handles on its sides. Currently ceramic in Azuay is the result of a mixture that combines aboriginal and Spanish techniques. Men and women work indefatigably to produce it, they make pieces that are characterized by their creativity and originality. Techniques like hand molding, hitting, “huactanas” and lathe are used. The process is long and laborious, including kneading the mud, molding it, baking it in the oven, glazing and varnishing it. However, apart from the artisan and/or artistic production, the industrial ceramic production is widely developed in Cuenca; pieces such as tile for roofs, floors and walls are acknowledged nationally as well as internationally due to their fine quality.
The art of fabrics is also a tradition of transcendent antiquity in the region of Cuenca. It is known that the Cañaris used knitting techniques that were very similar to those used currently in the rural areas. Garments made with vegetal fibers such as cabuya (string plant) and cotton (which was obtained in trade with cultural groups from the coast) were produced back in that time. Later, the Incas introduced the fleece of llamas and the Europeans introduced the fleece of sheep, diversifying this way the styles and designs of the fabrics. The tints were obtained from all kinds of plants, flowers and fruits, as it is done currently in some country communities. Typical garments draw the attraction in the city of Cuenca and the area of Azuay, especially skirts, shawls, blouses, bags, etc. All of these garments show beautiful works stitched in traditional folkloric style, with drawings of flowers, petals and leaves. To manufacture these garments diverse materials such as wool, cotton and velvet are used. Concerning stitching, the artisan women use a wireframe to hold the fabric when it is handmade, though many of them use machines nowadays. The fabrics that are most requested by national as well as foreign tourists, however, are those manufactured with the technique denominated “Ikat”, especially cloths or shawls called “macanas” whose manufacture is extended in the areas of Gualaceo and Bullcay. Shops where skillful artisans weave beautiful garments with diverse designs in looms are found there. These garments are obtained through a process of “binding and dyeing”. The colors can be natural or artificial. Among the natural tints are vegetal products such as fruits (grapes, blackberries, walnut), flowers, vegetables (carrot, onion) and even some animal products such as a type of worm denominated “cochinilla”. On these garments the fringe is a special detail; it is totally handmade in order to obtain designs of flowers, birds, animals, trees, etc.
The jewelry from Cuenca is acknowledged as one of the best of the country due to its quality, originality and fine design. Skilled goldsmiths, in Cuenca as much as in its surroundings, manufacture all kinds of earrings, rings, pins, bracelets, hanging symbols and necklaces in silver, gold and other materials. The designs that are manufactured keep, in most cases, a marked influence from pre-Colombian and Colonial art; however, contemporary symbols of all kinds are also used. Stones like emerald, diamonds, opal, aquamarine, topaz, saudas, alexandrites, garnets and legitimate cultivated gems are used to decorate them. Many of the materials used are imported from foreign countries. The filigree technique is without doubt one that raises interest within the art of jewelry in Cuenca. It is about obtaining thread of gold and silver of several thicknesses, which covers some spaces and leave others uncovered in order to form a translucent fabric. According to some writers, the origin of this technique is Asian and it was developed later in Spain and Portugal. From that place it was imported to America by frontiersmen goldsmiths. The traditional “candongas” are manufactured with said technique which includes the earrings used by the Cholas Cuencanas as an indispensable item of festive outfits.
Weaving shawl straw to manufacture hats and multiple crafts such as decorations, baskets, bags, purses and more is one of the activities of greater tradition in the regions of Cuenca and Azuay. This fiber comes from the palm of “Carludovica Palmata” which is also found in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, but only in Ecuador its use became an important financial source for many families, becoming this way into a significant exporting industry. In our country, “Carludovica Palmata” is cultivated in the coast, where artisan centers for shawl straw weaving such as Jipijapa and Montecristi have been developed. However, this activity has flourished also in the mountain range area of Ecuador and by the middle of the Nineteenth Century it became an important source of financial funds for many families of the provinces of Azuay and Cañar. The manufacture process of shawl straw crafts has many steps. It starts with the treatment to which the fiber taken from the palm is submitted to make it soft and clear. Generally, the fiber that is ready to be worked is sold in different shops or markets in the coast and in the mountain region where the artisans are able to purchase it. To manufacture the hat, the first step is to divide the straw: the finest the fibers are greater will be the quality of the hat. The weaving is performed by hand in a circular manner with the use of a mold to form the three parts: inner lining, cup and skirt. In the majority of cases the artisans sell their products half-finished to the mercantile markets, where the process of “repair” is performed, which includes the steps of cutting the remaining straw, washing, fumigating or whitening, pressing, macerating, ironing and adding morocco leather and bands; this way the hat is ready to be sold or exported. The shawl straw hat (also known as Panama Hat) is world wide known as a high quality product and it has become a synonym of elegance and distinction. Nowadays it is exported to countries in America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania where the finest hats can be sold in amounts over two thousand dollars.
The wealth of handmade arts in Cuenca includes other activities that are an expression of the creative and hard working spirit of its people. Among the main activities we can mention:
In uncountable shops scattered in the city, tin utensils such as jars, molds, watering cans, buckets, pitchers, pots, stills, etc. are manufactured. These are sold in weekly fairs in the surrounding areas or in the city in places like Plaza Rotary.
This art, which is practiced from the era of the Colony in Cuenca, is transmitted generation after generation and it is developed usually as a family business. On “Calle de las Herrerías” is where the smithies in which farming tools such as shovels, picks, as well as house decorations (especially crosses), lamps, lanterns and all kinds of fences and rails for doors, windows, balconies and handrails are manufactured with the use of plate, bar and iron.
Even today this activity is practiced in Cuenca and its surrounding areas. Carpenters, in the majority of cases, work in small shops using traditional tools to manufacture doors, windows, handrails, furniture and all kinds of decorative items. Wood like willow, seike, laurel, eucalyptus, romero, saraz and cedar are used generally. The sale of these items is done by request directly in the shop or it is performed in markets such as Plaza Rotary where there are also all kinds of handmade kitchen utensils (which are very popular among local housewives).
Bags, suitcases, purses, belts, seats, supports, benches and mounting items such as settles, picks, tortoiseshells, supporting structures, etc. are manufactured with animal skin, leather fabric and shoemaking materials. Saddlers in Cuenca sell their products by request or on direct sale.
In the city as well as in surrounding rural areas, some families have kept the ability and technique for the manufacture of all kinds of fireworks generation after generation. These are indispensable in traditional celebrations. These are manufactured with raw material such as reed, cabuya string, chillo string, construction paper and gunpowder. Items such as mice, rockets, wheels, multicolored hot air balloons, crazy cows, castles, etc., are made.