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Weaving a niche in the economy.

AS THE CENTURY of ever-advancing technology comes to an end, two thousand women with minimal formal education are reviving an ancient tradition in the interior of Brazil. Working together in an artesan cooperative, they recreate with their skilled hands the ancient art of arraiolo rug weaving. These rugs originally came from the small Portuguese village of Arraiolos, where Moors, who had been expelled from Lisbon, established weaving workshops during the fifteenth century.

Historians of Oriental rugs believe that the court of the Persian Empire was responsible for perfecting and promoting the well-known Persian rugs and for subsequently opening the markets in Europe. In a similar fashion, over the past twenty years, the Cooperativa Artesanal Regional de Diamantina (CARDI) has made the region around Diamantina famous for the production of the magnificent arraiolo rugs.

Diamantina was a center of European culture with a thriving economy during Brazil's colonial period. Incalculable fortunes in gold and diamonds were virtually plucked from the ground. Once the mines were depleted, all that remained was the beauty and mystique of the old colonial town. In due course, the economic activity of the region dwindled to little more than a trickle.

However, in recent years, the town has experienced an economic resurgence of a different type. Twenty years ago, when CARDI began the production of the arraiolo rugs, there were thirty women artisans. Today they number over two thousand, grouped in nuclei of 20 to 100 weavers throughout the 26 municipalities of the Jequitinhonha River Valley in the state of Minas Gerais. As members of the cooperative, the women weave the arraiolo rugs at home and are paid for their producr in addition to receiving medical benefits and social services.

In the early 1970s, a study carried out by the Planning Board of Minas Gerais, at the request of the Catholic Action group, recommended this domestic rug weaving activity as a way of integrating women of the region into the labor market. With a permanent salaried job, the women would be able to support the family while their husbands looked for jobs. The scope of this project was such that it brought together Ambassador Paulo Tarso Flecha de Lima, a descendent of one of the families of the region, and the Most Reverend Eugenio Sigaud, then bishop of Diamantina. Ambassador Flecha de Lima invited a Portuguese couple, Milton and Rosa Muniz, to Diamantina to teach the art of arraiolo rug weaving. At the same time, an announcement was posted in the Cathedral of Diamantina to recruit "young talented women looking for work and interested in learning to weave rugs." Initially, the two instructors taught and trained a group of thirty women. Once the training was over, the couple returned to Portugal, leaving behind the original rug designs.

Before long the first results were seen: on August 10, 1975, the ten arraiolo rugs from Diamantina were put up for sale. Three years later, the Cooperativa Artesanal Regional de Diamantina was established with Maria Jose dos Santos, one of the original weavers, as president, and Father Caio Alvim de Castro as administrative director.

The project developed in two directions: on the one hand, it was necessary to increase the production and sale of the arraiolo rugs and, on the other, it was essential to obtain financial support from Brazilian and foreign institutions to expand the social phase of the project. According to Father de Castro, who is currently the cooperative's president, there has been no lack of support. A donation of a small herd of Swiss goats was the direct result of Father de Castro's taking the pulpit during six consecutive masses to explain CARDI to the faithful.

The Swiss goats proliferated and today there are two hundred in the breeding area near Vila de Arraiolos, which was ceded to the cooperative for ten years by the Minas Gerais Technological Center. The plan developed by CARDI allots a mixed-breed nanny goat to weavers with children under six years old. These goats graze freely and need only a daily handful of corn as a supplement. The weaver, in turn, gets approximately a half-gallon of milk daily and is allowed to keep the male offspring. The two first-born female kids are handed over the CARDI and a new cycle beings.

The buildings at Vila de Arraiolos were erected with the financial assistance of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, D.C. Six large hangars and a chapel are not in use. In two of the buildings, looms to make rami cloth, which serves as a support for the rugs, have been installed. The remaining buildings are occupied by six hundred weavers working in different phases of production. The complex also contains a day-care center, medical and welfare services, and a drug store. CARDI's administrative headquarters house offices, workshops where "elite" weavers work on special commissions and supervise quality control, and a training center for beginners. There is usually a waiting list for the training program, since those accepted into the program are guaranteed work. The CARDI project includes the construction of 200 additional houses for weavers with the greatest economic needs. Father de Castro, however, is not satisfied. Besides housing, he would like a vocational school for the weaver's children.

Production starts when the distribution center, which controls the stocks and output, assigns orders and furnishes materials to the leaders at headquarters and the outlying nuclei. Each order includes the name of the weaver, size specifications, model, and color selection. The material provided includes the pattern design on milimetered paper, specifying the stitches and their color, the yarn in each color and the cloth. The leaders distribute these specifications to the assigned weavers in their units, and then join them in the execution.

The rug is woven on rami cloth which consists of horizontal and vertical threads running one milimter apart. Each tenth thread has been dyed so as to form 10.5 centimeter squares throughout the cloth. The dimensions on the cloth have to be exact because the weaver works directly from the milimetered paper. While working at home, a weaver can be helped by members of her family and at times can produce eight square meters per month. Many of the current weavers who are daughters of the original group learned their skill at an early age. Others were trained at the Diamantina headquarters.

The rugs leave the outlying centers unfinished, that is, only with the design and background woven in. At Diamantina their underside is treated with a special solution to ensure durability. They are then stretched to the specified dimensions and the tassles are added. Finally, they are inspected for quality before being transferred to the sales department. Here they are tagged with a trademark certificate which guarantees authenticity and distinguishes them from other rugs in the market claiming to be from Diamantina. According to Antonio Eustaquio Barbosa, production and sales manager, the arraiolo's excellent quality is due, in part, to the use of rami cloth, which is far superior to the jute cloth employed by other producers, including the Portuguese. Another factor is the care devoted to a task executed entirely by hand. Barbosa explains that there are seventy-two-thousand stitches. per square meter.

The next step for the cooperative will be to establish a showroom where rugs of all sizes and models can be displayed for buyers. "The production and sale of the rugs is fundamental to the survival of the cooperative," the manager explains. Normally CARDI manufactures 12 different models, with a variance in size only. It has the capacity to produce 2,000 square meters a month, but in reality the production varies according to market demands. Currently, CARDI distributes to retail outlets in Sao Paulo, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte.

For specially commissioned orders, "elite" weavers with similar stitching techniques are selected in order to assure uniformity. This is essential because the rug is divided into sections and each section is given to a different weaver in order to streamline productivity. These "elite" weavers are capable of producing totally new designs. For example, CARDI manufactured a rug with the logo and colors of the Bank of Brazil for the Bank's main branch in Belo Horizonte. Weavers can also reproduce a pattern brought by a client, or adapt an existing pattern to a client's specifications. Currently CARDI is weaving a 23-square-meter rug for the Othon Palace Hotel and has a standing order of 150 pieces for firms associated with the Manchete television network.

The success of the arraiolo rugs led CARDI to further expand its operations. It is now manufacturing other items which have proven successful on the market, such as smyrna rugs and pieces of linen embroidered with patterns typical of the Island of Madeira. The smyrna is a wooly rug manufactured in the Persian tradition where a number of lamb's wool threads are woven and knotted individually to the vertical threads on the rami cloth. For this type of rug, the Turkish knot is employed. (This knot and the Persian knot are the two most employed in the weaving of Oriental rugs.) The loose ends on the surface of the rug become the pile after they are cut to the desired height and the colored woolen threads form the pattern. The smyrna takes longer to execute than the arraiolo because the threads have to be cut to the exact length and tied tightly one by one.

Barbosa takes pride in the cooperative's success. "In the last three years we have exhibited in Buenos Aires as part of a promotion of Brazilian products. Our sales to Portugal, which are modest, have great significance because although the arraiolo originated in that country, production there has declined sharply."

In a world where sophisticated machines overshadow standards of production, it is refreshing to find that Vila de Arraiolos has not veered from its original purpose. The cooperative has succeeded in maintaining a traditional art form while at the same time providing employment opportunities and opening up new markets for the exquisitely woven arraiolo rugs.

Mauricio Pedreira is an architect and freelance writer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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Title Annotation:arraiolo rugs from Diamantina, Brazil
Author:Pedreira, Mauricio; Garffer, Pilar
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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