The Spinners at the 'End of the World'

Known as hilanderas, the group uses methods of working with sheep's wool that have been passed down among women for generations.

Photograph by Luján Agusti, National Geographic
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Esther Condori, one of the "Hilanderas del Fin del Mundo," holds a local plant in her hand.
Photograph by Luján Agusti, National Geographic
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At the southernmost tip of South America, a group of women are working together to keep alive their cultural tradition of spinning and weaving wool for clothing.

These women call themselves hilanderas del fin de mundo, or “spinners at the end of the world,” and they spin, stain, and weave local sheep’s wool in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego region, where the process has been passed down through generations of families.

The women are mostly between 40 and 80 years old, though some of their younger siblings have shown an interest in learning and participated in the process. In many cases, the women learned techniques for spinning and weaving sheep’s wool when they were young, making their own clothing when they were girls.

Patricia Lamas spins sheep's wool onto a drop spindle.

Their hands weave garments that reflect the colors of their surroundings, which can be harsh and unpredictable. They use white to represent snow and red, orange, yellow, and green to represent autumn.

“Each piece of clothing and object we make carries with it a story that refers to the place where it was made—its landscape, its nature, the warmth with which the hands of these women spin and weave despite the inclement weather in the end of the world,” says Norma Enriquez, the leader of the hilanderas community. “Each garment carries with it the immensity of Tierra del Fuego, a big respect for nature and for our own history.”

Some of photographer Luján Agusti’s family lives in Ushuaia, the city close to where the hilanderas are located, so she was inspired by the hilanderas’ culture and history as she got to know their work.

“It is a group of women united by a common cause that is weaving, a very symbolic practice throughout our continent, which contains very important stories for our culture,” Agusti says. “They are … working hard to change certain paradigms and returning to practices that were almost lost, and doing it all with one form of production [that is] respectful to the environment.”

While documenting the hilanderas, Agusti honored their work and traditions by creating anthotypes, images of the weavers and their work layered with the same colorful plant-based dyes they use on their wool.

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Sheep are herded after being bathed at Estancia Viamonte, a farm in Tierra del Fuego. The farm, which houses around 6,000 sheep, was founded in 1902 by the sons of Reverend Thomas Bridges, the first European settler to the region.

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Wool soaks in water for cleaning before it is dyed.

The dyes for the wool are made from leaves, flowers, fruits, barks, and roots the women collect, taking care to protect nature as much as they can and use their knowledge of native plants to gather the best local materials possible. The materials are then boiled and mixed to make vividly colored dyes, and the women use their time-tested process of soaking the wool in the boiling dye to achieve the colors they want. The wool, which is washed and spun before it’s dyed, is then rolled up and left to dry before the hilanderas will begin weaving with it.

To make the anthotypes, Agusti grinds extracts from the same plants and vegetables using either a mortar and pestle or blender. She mixes in a little bit of alcohol to create an emulsion, or photo-sensitive substance, that will be used on the paper where the images are printed.

“A transparency is placed with a positive image on top of this dry emulsion,” she says, explaining how she places the undeveloped film sheets on top of the emulsion-covered paper where she creates her final image. “Finally, everything is exposed to sunlight.”

She says the exposure time can vary between a few hours and several weeks, depending on the dye and the conditions of each day.

While the regional tradition of spinning, dyeing, and weaving with local wool is usually passed down from older women to younger women, some of the hilanderas learned the skill as adults. There are also some families in which both men and women spin the wool and make the garments. In the case of Patricia Lamas, one of the hilanderas, her entire family—both the women and men—has dedicated themselves to this craft.

“Within the group, women who come from a family tradition are the ones who know most and have been teaching the rest of the group,” says Enriquez.

Rosa Ayanquituy works the wool through her hands as she spins it into shape.

Husbands and sons of the women in the group also play an important role in the process, Enriquez says, contributing to this tradition by transporting wool from the ranches to the places where it is stockpiled. They also build the structures used when spinning, weaving, showcasing, and promoting the products.

The women have been industrious in selling their clothing and wool at local markets, receiving support from INTA Ushuaia (Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria) members who provide logistical and technical support, training, and education about the diverse qualities of sheep’s wool. In addition, the project was founded with support from the Tierra del Fuego government.

Enriquez says it was hard at first to insert the group’s products into the life of the community in the region, but after working at fairs, using radio and television to advertise, and making two short films about the group’s beginning, their reputation became more widely known and they’ve experienced more success.

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Weaver Esther Condori sits on the shore of Playa Larga.

“Today, our product is known and especially valued by our community and by visitors,” she says.