ES_6 | Esparto crafts
In the arid landscapes of south-eastern Spain grows the atocha or espartera, a perennial plant with long, thin leaves which develops feather-shaped spikes. The leaf, known as esparto (grass), is a fibre that has been used for weaving in the Iberian Peninsula for at least 4,500 years.
Its resistance to humidity made esparto cordage widely popular in the mining industry among both the Phoenicians and the Romans. The export of esparto proved fundamental for the city of Alicante during the Muslim period, and only Spaniards could trade with it in the 16th century.
Fibre preparation follows a laborious process of harvesting, drying, soaking and chopping (removal of the leaf’s woody part). In the past, some professional guilds were in charge of collecting and transforming the plant, but this activity also formed part of the domestic economy in many families, involving all their members, from children to the elderly.
Esparto serves to make ropes or farming and household tools, e.g. baskets, saddlebags, scouring pads, torches or espadrilles. Halfway through the 20th century, it was replaced by plastic fibres, even though some craftsmen still preserve these thousand-year-old techniques and designs.
No wonder numerous towns in Spain have a street called “Esparteros” (esparto craftworkers).
(Image: © Museo de la Biodiversidad)