Car­los Luis So­to­longo Puig

The Needlework Town­ship

On Cuba - - AUTHORS - Trinidad: The Needlework Town­ship

Jour­nal­ist by chance and pho­tog­ra­pher by in­tu­ition. My day is not com­plete with­out a glass of milk with cof­fee.

The time Niel­sis Ramírez ded­i­cates to knit­ting is sa­cred. “My hus­band and my son know this. I come home from work, start cook­ing and set to work on fray­ing un­til the News­cast be­gins on TV.”

With al­most half a cen­tury ded­i­cated to needlework, this Trinidad woman who doesn’t have a noble ances­try af­firms to the let­ter that the his­tory of the town­ship that the Spa­niards founded in the cen­ter of Cuba more than 500 years ago could be writ­ten through verses and in­tri­ca­cies, be­cause be­tween the very fine threads con­fined in the em­broi­der­ing ring lives one of the au­tochthonous tra­di­tions of great­est ex­cel­lence in the coun­try: lace trim­ming.

Like the other in­hab­i­tants of the city, Niel­sis learned from her grand­mother, who in turn was taught by her great-grand­mother, since for cen­turies the oral tra­di­tion was the only means of learn­ing crafts works.

These prac­tices come from Spain. At the be­gin­ning they were only for the young ladies from the so­cial elite; al­ready by Fe­bru­ary 1587 a mer­chant called Cristóbal Mar­tel in­cluded in his of­fers home­made threads and fine fab­rics. The ex­act data, how­ever, re­mains like loose threads that can’t be basted.

What to­day is one of Trinidad’s prin­ci­pal cre­den­tials was con­ceived in the sa­lons of the 19th cen­tury man­sions. Para­dox­i­cally, the mo­ment in which it was ex­panded out­side the noble spa­ces did not take place in the stage of splen­dor but rather in the heat of the eco­nomic ruin the city lived in the mid19th cen­tury.

Due to the in­stinct of sur­vival, need and ex­per­i­ment­ing to deal with the deca­dence that reigned overnight, the women who pre­vi­ously served the sugar aris­toc­racy saw in the nee­dles a source of sub­sis­tence that, while it didn’t re­port great ben­e­fits, at least served to guar­an­tee the day-to-day fam­ily econ­omy.

The thou­sands of craftswomen who to­day dot the com­mer­cial areas of Trinidad’s His­toric Cen­ter and of Manaca Iz­naga – a

dream sugar mill built in the heart of the Valle de los In­ge­nios – know lit­tle of such his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal ques­tions, but thanks to them the so-called Mu­seum City of the Caribbean weaves the face of its im­ma­te­rial her­itage.

While each de­signer builds her own hand­book, they all co­in­cide in two in­dis­pens­able re­quire­ments when “draw­ing” with nee­dles: pa­tience and good mem­ory.

The qual­ity and mas­tery of the works de­pend on the first. The real lace trim­ming, the au­thors in­sist, is that made with the same thread that is taken out of the fab­ric from which the piece is pro­duced, although at present col­ors have been in­cor­po­rated to the white sheets.

The one MOST SOUGHT by the BUY­ERS, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, is the TRINIDAD stitch, a very typ­i­cal NEEDLEPOINT which REPRODUCES im­ages of the COLO­NIAL GRILLWORK

That is why each cre­ation is a work of art that, ac­cord­ing to the size and com­plex­ity, can take up to 21 days to fin­ish. Such work, on the other hand, at times is not paid well; at oth­ers, it is. It all de­pends on the laws dic­tated by the tourism sea­son and the daily ur­gent needs.

A good mem­ory, on the other hand, guar­an­tees learn­ing the name and al­go­rithm to make more than 50 lace trim­ming needle­points. Ojito de la perdiz, barahúnda, avis­pero, solecito, en­re­jado, lace in­sert, jas­mine with fab­ric, spit curl, coil…are just a sam­ple of the won­ders that can be made with the turns, skills and ac­tions of the nee­dle on the frame.

The one most sought by the buy­ers, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, is the Trinidad stitch, a very typ­i­cal needlepoint which reproduces im­ages of the colo­nial grillwork, an ini­tia­tive of the town­ship’s em­broi­der­ers, an evo­lu­tion­ary step whose date has been lost in time.

Trinidad is a city in cen­tral Cuba, the third town­ship founded by the Spa­niards on the is­land. It is known for its well-con­served colo­nial city and its cob­bled streets

Belén González de León, a woman from Va­len­cia vis­it­ing the town, has just bought a table­cloth with 10 nap­kins at an out­let lo­cated close to the Plaza Mayor. “I had some ref­er­ences of the won­ders made here, but see­ing them first­hand sur­passes all ex­pec­ta­tions. This table­cloth, for ex­am­ple, re­minds me a lot of what the older peo­ple in my fam­ily used to do. It has an ex­quis­ite fin­ish, a very del­i­cate and el­e­gant de­sign, but in ad­di­tion one per­ceives the cen­turies-old his­tory be­hind the prod­uct. As a tourist, I con­sider my­self for­tu­nate see­ing that this tra­di­tion is kept alive. That’s what we came in search of: get­ting to know what is typ­i­cal of places in Cuba.”

The land­scape of nee­dles in Trinidad has also re­ceived the bo­nan­zas of the is­land’s open­ing to new forms of non-state work, while to­day the his­toric cen­ter has pri­vate spa­ces where pieces of high aes­thetic value are ex­hib­ited for a more de­mand­ing pub­lic. In ad­di­tion, renowned craftswomen in the town­ship have pro­moted cour­ses and work­shops for the city’s ap­pren­tices and the ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

“Many peo­ple make a liv­ing from this, I’m not go­ing to deny it, but it is also a ques­tion of a spir­i­tual sat­is­fac­tion,” Niel­sis Ramírez con­fesses. “You’re not talk­ing to an ex­pert. I’m a woman from the bar­rio, a Trinidad woman like any other, but when I sit down with the ring and start fray­ing I drift away, I re­lax, I feel like a lady from yesteryears,” she jokes.

In a ges­ture of open­ness, Niel­sis looks at the clock. Out­side the sun has started go­ing down. Niel­sis says she is about to serve din­ner; a sub­tle way of re­mind­ing me that our con­ver­sa­tion has ended be­cause af­ter cook­ing she will again en­ter the sa­cred space of the warp.

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