This article, Ropa de Género: To Knit, Unknit, and Knit Again, is the fourth in our series of longer reads and was written by Katy Bevan.
Across Chile there is a great tradition of weaving and knitting dating back before the Incas. The indigenous populations and traditions span in other countries too, unrestrained by the modern political boundaries between Chile and Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Patagonia.
Like many of us, María Eugenia Ibarra learned her craft from the women in her family so that the tradition became embedded in her psyche, while she herself is not afraid to cross boundaries and conventions. "I’ve always been used to creating with my hands, deconstructing and yet again constructing; I knitted, unknit and joined joints of different materials from different origins, sweeping away everything I found on my way."
Ropa de Género, or ‘gendered clothing’ is Ibarra’s Chilean label. Forget everything you think you know about South American knitting, or even just knitting, this is a designer that thrives on breaking the old rules and making up her own. The first thing that strikes you is her irreverent approach to knitting with clashing colour combinations, and many different techniques and yarn thicknesses in one garment: Ibarra is not afraid of challenging conventions. She explains, “My creations manage to rescue techniques of generations and traditions in classic knitting, which when worn in the present, work.”
Having studied as a textile designer in Chile and after working in the industry for three years, Maria travelled to Europe, studying for a diploma in Fashion Marketing and Communication in Barcelona, Spain. It was contact with an Italian company, Future Concept Lab, who analyse global trends in fashion, enterprise and consumerism, that motivated her to return to Chile to investigate what was happening at that time in the city of Santiago. “I realised that there was a huge shortage in the local fashion design industry and that they were losing the textile traditions and everything handmade, which helped me to make the decision to follow my own path and create in 2006 my brand Ropa de Género (RDG).”
Chile was hit by the Asian financial crisis around this time, which badly affected the local craft industries such as knitting and weaving, so finding artisans to work with wasn’t straightforward and Ibarra spent time seeking out skilled workers. She found them amongst the Mapuche, or indigenous population, famous for its long standing textile traditions, where being a skilled weaver or knitter was valued and could bring status to a family. “I lived in a Mapuche community in the south of Chile where I learned to spin the wool, to dye with natural dyes and find new ways to compose the designs inspired by the worldview of the native peoples and the earth.” Later Maria worked with weavers in Chinchero, the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru, and designed fabrics, “taking as inspiration the landscape they inhabit and the connection with nature in crops and plantings.”
The town of Navidad, Christmas in Spanish, is in a rural area of Chile where mountains meet the sea. Maria says moving here a year ago, “...has allowed me to expand the network and work with new knitters, incorporating techniques of textile knots, as fishing nets and macramé, in addition to the traditional knitting.” The latest collection from RDG is South Node, inspired by this coastal region, named after the lunar nodes, which in astrological terms relate to where you come from and can symbolise going home.
Her knitted garments do follow tradition in that they begin with a yoke on circular needles that Maria calls a "Scapular knit”, concentrating on the shoulders, which is the base of each piece, but that’s where convention ends, giving way to unexpected colour combinations and different thicknesses and yarns worked together. She begins the organic design process by making herself, she explains: “Learning by doing, to knit, unknit and knit again until accomplishing the direction of the structure with the different fibres utilised for the piece and the language they have with each other.”
Another member of the team distills this initial shape into a pattern and the final piece is worked by a knitter, with much feedback and many conversations before the design is finalised. “It is about understanding the basic structure over the body, its dimensions and materiality,” she says.
Her materials are natural, with wool and alpaca sourced from nearby, sometimes grown and spun by the local knitters themselves and coloured using only natural dyes. “My designs have always been characterised by respect for the essence of the materials of each area, from a harmonious relationship with nature and its productive dynamics,” she says. An exception to this is the use of recycled materials, cast offs from other processes or the nylon fishing line used in some of the latest experimental pieces. “Materials are recycled, mixed with new ones, there are new combinations, new patterns and different densities in the fibres and needles used, being able to run a risk in the final result, where the experimentation and the creative process go to the foreground and other ‘art in the fabric’ formats are discovered.”
The whole process is worked locally, inspired by and respectful to the region, built on local craft traditions and forging a new enterprise for both the craftspeople and a contribution to design in general. As she describes the whole process you hear the essence of the brand. “It is low scale design, sustainable, exclusive and non-mechanised where handmade has prime value in the final piece.”
Written by Katy Bevan
Ropa de Género are exhibiting at this year's Selvedge World Fair which is being held on 1 - 4 September 2021.