The “arpillera movement” started in Chile in the early years of the brutal Pinochet regime. In 1973, the USA backed a coup that ousted President Allende and replaced him with the brutal dictator, Agosto Pinochet. Women suddenly found themselves the providers of their families as their husbands and relatives had been killed or “disappeared”.
Suffering severe poverty, depression and oppression, a small group of women in Santiago began to stitch and express, in the form of arpilleras, their pain with the help of the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, a catholic church institution. The church then smuggled these tapestries out of Chile, where they were sold to provide some income to these wives and mothers. Their appearance on the world stage allowed the world to see and know what was happening under the dictatorship.
In Perú, the history of arpillera makers is less politically fraught. It developed because of extreme poverty. In the early 1980´s, a german artist and teacher who had learned and worked with the arpilleristas in Chile, moved to Pamplona, the then poorest area of Lima. She taught women to stitch the aprilleras and to sell them as a way make a bit of income.
Arpilleras are three dimensional cloth tapestries made by using the appliqué technique of embroidery. Arpillera means burlap in Spanish and was the initial backing material used for stitching these tapestries. Each tiny design element is painstakingly cut and stitched by hand to a backing which is no longer burlap, but a sturdy cotton colth. Some claim that these tapestries should now be called cuadros and not arpilleras, which of course, means burlap. However, the name remains as the world knows this folk art as such.
Our arpilleras are made by one of the oldest groups of arpilleristas in Pamplona. Today there are nine active women stitching who have honed their artistic abilities over the years. Each woman has a speciality: for example Edi sews jungle scenes. Usually, the scenes are idealized visions of the country side or of daily life.
There are markets, scenes of harvesting and planting and flower growing. Sometimes there are religious themes, such as nativities or El Señor de los Milagros, a major observance in Lima. Stitching is done in every spare moment as it is so easily picked up and put down.
Unemployment is extremely high in Perú and especially in areas like Pamplona. What work there is usually menial. The stitching of arpilleras allows women to have an income, to work with dignity and be at home to care for their children and families.