Wounaan Baskets


from the Darien Rainforest in Panama


Presented by Basket & Art

Weaving Process and Techniques

Raw chunga palm

Raw chunga palm

To weave a Wounaan basket, two fibers are needed: chunga and nahuala. Chunga is the softer fiber that acts as a thread to wrap around a bundle of harder fiber, nahuala.

Nahuala bundle

Nahuala bundle

These two plants are native to the Darien Rainforest. The Wounaan and Embera have utilized these plants for many things including the roofs of their homes. The chunga fiber is very strong.

Preparing Materials

Chunga with removed center rib before dyeing

Chunga with removed center rib before dyeing

Dyeing chunga

Dyeing chunga

Before starting to weave, the weavers have to prepare the materials. It takes months to collect and prepare them. First they harvest the chunga palm leaves and separate the soft fiber from the center rib. Then the chunga fiber is dried under the sun. Various plants are collected for dyes. Now they dye the chunga fiber by boiling it with the various plants to get the color they want. The chunga fibers are left to dry, and are then split into sewing threads.

Dyed Chunga

Dyed chunga

Nahuala fiber is harder than chunga. The weavers use a bundle of nahuala as the inner coil to hold the shape of the basket. This inner coil does not need to be dyed.

Weaving Process

Basket in progress

Basket in progress

The weavers tie a knot at the end of a bundle of nahuala. They use a sewing needle threaded with chunga fiber to secure the bundle. Using chunga threads, they continue to wrap around the bundle in a circular motion and secure the coils.

By using different color threads, they create the pattern they have formed in their mind.

Two Techniques

Coil stitch

Coil and silk stitches

There are two different stitching techniques: coil and silk stitch. For the coil stitch, the weavers place the needle on top of the previous coil. This technique gives the distinctive ribbed look of the basket. For the silk stitch technique, the needle is placed at the bottom of the previous coil. This method, silk stitch, covers the edge of each coil consequently creating a smoother surface.

Both of these stitching techniques are beautiful. It is a weaver’s preference.

Challenges

Weaving with a sewing needle

Weaving with a sewing needle

Weaving with chunga fiber as a thread

Weaving with chunga fiber as a thread

For me, it is hard to keep the symmetry of the basket shape. Skilled weavers are able to do this on any size baskets. There is no formula for it except by feel, therefore the weaver’s experience is essential.

Secondly, to weave a pictorial basket such as parrots on tree branches, the weavers must anticipate where the parrot's tail would be since they are weaving from the bottom of the basket and coiling it upward. If the tail is forgotten, the only way to fix it would be to take out all the stitches to where the tail should be and then insert it. You can see that there is not much room for error.

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