The Matsés are master weavers of various cultural objects such as woven bracelets and anklets, baskets, hammocks and fishing nets.
It was during a village meeting in 2016 when a Matsés woman, Carmen Rodriguez Lopez, stood up to address the assembled chiefs from all their villages in Peru. She pointed out that the economic program has centered so far on activities done by men, but that women, too, have valuable skills and want to contribute to develop generating economic opportunities for their families. She held up a fistful of beautiful woven friendship bracelets, so called ‘uitsun’ by the Matsés.
The Acaté team then contacted ourselves at Xapiri with an ambitious goal to not only develop a sustainable and economically viable handicraft project led by the Matsés, but one that involves and engages all the Matsés communities as participants.
Shortly after, the first sample of 10 cotton uitsuns arrived at Xapiri, now 2 years on our latest purchase was for 400 uitsuns, involving 10 different Matsés communities and around 50 female artisans, generating sustainable income and ensuring the craft is being passed on to younger girls.
Uitsuns are specific to the Matsés, taking over a day to construct, they are woven from natural home spun tree cotton or chambira palm fibre on a rustic loom. In Matsés culture, these woven ornaments are tied on the wrist or ankle. A sister puts on her little brothers ankle ornament by slipping the knotted ends through little loops. As she grows, a girl will weave for her brother, her husband and then for her children, just as the boy will grow to ask for ornaments from his mother, his sister, and eventually his wife.
Although these bracelets are still worn as accoutrements of daily wear, the knowledge of their craft is not being passed down and learned by the younger Matsés women. This is why the initiative was created to provide Matsés women the opportunity to earn income on their own while preserving their inherited traditions.
'We have witnessed many conservation organizations in the Amazon launch well-meaning handicraft projects in partnership with indigenous groups. Unfortunately, most fall short of reaching true economically viability in the real world market past the supported investment and development stage.
Handicraft initiatives with other indigenous groups living remote areas of the Amazon typically source from only a small handful of individual artisans located in the most geographically accessible villages. Although marketing for such projects may claim that the purchase of handicrafts benefits an entire tribe, in actuality the benefits in this setting are focal and may not extend to families in communities deep in the heart of their territories where economic opportunities are even more scarce. The Matsés are a remarkably egalitarian people. At our community meetings, the Matsés reiterate that it is important to them that projects involve as many members of their community as possible so that the benefits can be as inclusive and be widely shared.
Since the first order of uitsun bracelets from the Matsés, the order has expanded across over 10 communities and involved dozens of Matsés artisans. The project has brought renewed interest and economic opportunities from the Matsés and over the past two years has expanded to many handicrafts including chonta wood spears crafted by Matsés elders and warriors to beautiful ceramics created by the last remaining artisans who hold knowledge of the art.'
Dr. Christopher Herndon, President and Co-Founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation.
Uitsuns are made from either cotton or chambira fibre and then natural pigments are added for a variety of colours. Cotton plants and chambira palms are abundant around Matsés villages. For cotton, the buds are collected from nearby plants until a substantial amount is gathered ready to be spun.
The cotton buds are then cleaned and flattened before they are spun into a tight ball of string. This string will then be worked on to the loom as the uitsun weaving begins.
The second material which the Matsés use to make their uitsuns is chambira palm fibre. To prepare the fibre the leaves are pulled down from the spikes palm and sufficient material is collected. The leaves are then stripped, taking the toughest part. Microscopically thin fibers with impressively high tensile strength are peeled away from the surface of leaflets of new unopened fronds (new unopened fronds are also called 'spear leaves') of chambira palms.
Chambira palms (Latin name: Astrocaryum chambira) grow wild in the forest. Some mestizos plant them, because they can become scarce in the wild due to overexploitation, since the only way to get at the new frond of adult palms is to cut the whole tree down (they can be harvested from short ones without hurting the palm). The Matses never plant them, but Acaté is planning to do a reforestation project that planting useful species including chambira. Meanwhile, the cotton is planted by the Matses and does not grow wild, at least not in lowland Amazonia.
Chambira fibre is often dyed with natural pigments. One red pigment which is used frequently is found using the bark of the ‘bëpushudte’ or in Spanish the 'loro caspi' tree. This tree is found in the nearby forest and the Matsés take a thin layer of the white bark before cutting into smaller pieces. Once cut, the bark is taken home and with time the bark releases its dark red juice. Once the chambira has been sun dried it is then added to a bowl of the red bark, soaking for a few hours before the fibre has taken on it's colour. This pigment is more commonly used than the Amazonian favourite annatto as the dye is stronger and lasts longer.
Once dried in the sun the chambira fibre is twisted into a thin but extremely durable twine of different thickness, now ready to weave uitsuns, hammocks and other artefacts.
Made with chambira fibre, the full making process can take weeks but the result is a beautiful and strong hammock which will last years even in the most humid of rainforest conditions.
In the majority of Matses households you will often find an array of fishing nets in different sizes. Made with chambira fibre these everyday objects are used in traditional fishing practice.