On the trail of José C. and his tapestries

A worn-out pickup truck with a wide-eyed pig in the back sputters past my husband and me as we stand on the corner surveying the flurry of activity in the street. Tour buses, shuttling day-trippers from Quito and surrounding towns, deposit passengers. Taxis buzz in constant procession as they drop off locals with large, empty nylon bags.

It is Saturday, the biggest market day of the week, where fresh produce, grains, spices, and even live animals are for sale. But the main attraction that brings hundreds of people to this world-famous market about37 miles north of the capital city of Quito is the handicrafts made by local artisans.

Vendors set up along every street leading into the main plaza. Hundreds of sweaters, ponchos, tablecloths, and tapestries in brightly woven designs hang on display. Block after block is lined with booths and tables piled high with dolls, knitted hats, alpaca scarves, mittens, finger puppets, and woven bags. Other tables glisten with silver and beaded jewelry as well as pottery and wood carvings.

The indigenous people of Otavalo are some of the most noted artisans in the country and have been producing weavings since pre-Inca times using techniques handed down through the generations.

From Quito to Otavalo is about a two-hour drive along the Pan-American Highway, a well-paved, two-lane road.

Early on Saturday we ate breakfast at the Hotel Ali Shungu, owned and operated by an American expatriate couple, Frank Kiefer and Margaret Goodhart. The walls of the restaurant were decorated with masks, watercolors, and dolls. We especially noticed weavings embroidered with "José C." in the bottom left corner.

"Who's José C.?" I asked.

José Cotacachi is a master weaver and designer with a studio and gallery in Peguche, a town 2-1/2 milesfrom Otavalo, Ms. Goodhart explained as she removed one of the tapestries from the wall and gave us a quick lesson on what makes a quality weaving.

"See how this weaving has no visible threads running vertically through the piece?" she asked, as we leaned in to inspect the diamond pattern.

"A good, tight weave is what you want," she says. "Good quality yarn and a skilled master weaver make the difference."

She also warned us that José C.'s studio gets mentioned on many tourist maps and in guidebooks, so, to keep up with the demand, other master weavers from the Andean region now do much of the weaving that eventually ends up with an embroidered José C. signature.

"They are still José C. designs, though," she said.

With our weaving lesson stored in memory, we headed for the plaza. After buying sweaters, alpaca scarves, and handmade jewelry, we decided to make the short drive to Peguche and check out José Cotacachi's gallery. Inside the two-story stuccoed structure, every inch of wall space was covered by weavings of all sizes and designs in rich colors, much richer than the tapestries sold at the market.

A weaver in the traditional costume of Otavaleno men - white shirt, pants, sandals and black felt hat - is quietly at work at a large treadle loom. We ask if he is José. He peers through his glasses, smiles, and nods. He is swiftly weaving blue yarn through threads that will become a 15-by-40-inch tapestry, which will take four to five days to complete.

Many of the tapestries on display have contemporary designs reflecting his innovative style. His designs include weavings with nontraditional motifs such as fish, cats, and turtles. He also works three-dimensional elements into his tapestries, for example by attaching braided "ponytails" to the heads of women depicted in weavings and letting them protrude from the piece.

These weavings are better quality than those being sold in the market - and more expensive. We buy a small, square tapestry depicting three women of Otavalo, in traditional shawls and hats, sitting on the ground.

As we drive the dirt roads of Peguche back to the highway, we pause at a stop sign. Through the open window of the rental car I can hear the unmistakable sound of the humming and clicking of electric looms hard at work in an adjacent building. It's a reminder that automation is becoming more common in this region as the weaving industry continues to prosper.

The visit to José's gallery means even more to me as I clutch my shopping bag and feel a sense of joy that the tapestry I now own is not just a weaving but a piece of art signed by the artist.

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