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This unremarkable small town about two hours north of Quito on the Pan-American Highway, is nonetheless one of the most popular destinations for visitors to Ecuador. Its world-famous market for indigenous crafts, textiles and clothing ranks among the best in Latin America . The population of the town is around 50,000 people, most of whom are mestizos, but about twice as many Quichua-speaking Otavalenos live in the surrounding areas and flood into town on market days.


Indigenas in the Otavalo area have been spinning and weaving for longer than anyone can remember. Following the Inca conquest 500 years ago, despite a long and fierce resistance by the Otavalans, the victors from the south extracted a textile tribute. Though the Incas were only in control for about 40 years, this was long enough for them to leave their mark. The Quichua language spoken by the Otavalan Indians comes from the Incas and the elegant women's costume, which is still universally worn, is said to be closer to Inca dress than any in the Andes today. After the Spanish defeated the Incas in the middle of the 16th century, they set about exploiting the weaving skills of the Otavalans by setting up textile workshops [obrajes] where hundreds of indigenas were forced to work unbearably long hours. Some of the workers were less than 10 years old and committed suicide to avoid the intolerable conditions.

The Spanish introduced modern machinery, including treadle looms, as well as sheep, wool and techniques of production weaving. From the early 18th century many haciendas operated weaving workshops, and at the beginning of the 20th century Otavalan weavers began making imitation British tweeds. Land reforms in 1964 gave weavers more independence, tourism began to develop in the area and the weaving industry started to take off. Today the Otavalo indigenas are considered to be the most prosperous indigenous group in Latin America. They own many businesses in Otavalo, including craft shops, restaurants, bars and travel agencies, and they have developed an international network to sell their products to neighbouring countries as well as North America, Europe and Japan .

More than three-quarters of Otavalan indigenas are thought to be involved in the textile industry in some way, whether weaving and spinning at home or working with one of the larger production houses or retail outlets. Others have become lawyers, doctors and engineers. The head of the prestigious Archaeology Department of the Banco Central is an Otavalan indigena. The Otavalan weaving phenomenon is a fascinating story of how a small indigenous community has pulled itself out of the trap of poverty and developed its own successful, world-wide business operation.

While achieving commercial success the Otavalan indigenas have also managed to maintain their cultural identity and traditions. Most visibly, they still wear their unique traditional costumes. Otavalan men favour calf-length white trousers, grey or blue ponchos, rope sandals and dark felt hats, while women display embroidered white blouses, dark skirts and shawls, masses of golden glass beads around their neck, red bead bracelets and cloth headgear which is folded in various significant ways. Most distinctively, both women and men wear their hair in a long single pigtail that is often tied back with a bright woven band. The traditional costumes are worn daily at home and in the villages, not to impress tourists in the market.

Last updated 20th July 2006


|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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