Ethical Fabric

Arpilleras: when personal memory becomes collective narration and act of Resistance

Italiano (Italian)

“Dóndeestán”, Chile, early 1980s, Fotografo Martin Melaugh, copyright Roberta Bacic

Arpillerasis the name given to particular textile works typical of the Chilean tradition, created from old salvaged cloths enriched with embroidery and/or figures in appliqué (the term arpillera or rough canvas, in Castilian means precisely, a raw fabric used to pack goods and protect from the sun).

When we talk about Arpilleras, we can be led to think of the embroidery-tapestry of Violeta Parra[1], or of the Bordados of Isla Negra[2] (Chile), richly woven and entirely hand embroidered by the women of the island using wool yarns.

[1]Here the term arpilleras indicates more than anything else “an artistic hybrid that merged traditional subjects (religious, historical scenes…) with the rustic aesthetics of embroidery” (Lorna Dillon).  Violeta Parra was the first Latin American artist invited to exhibit her works for a solo exhibition at the Museè des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1964.Images of Violeta Parra’s arpillers can be viewed on the website of the Fundación Violeta Parra and current artworks  are exhibited in the Violeta Parra Museum in Santiago, Chile.

[2]“The story of Isla Negra changes after the birth of embroiderers. This city of monotonous dynamics made of fishermen and farmers, begins to awaken thanks to a group of women who improve the economic situation by helping their husbands. Embroiderers are the female milestone that awakens the strength of a completely genuine way of making people believe in their skills and the aesthetic value of their work”

“El Circo”, 122 x 211 cm, embroideredfabric, 1961,Violeta Parra Museum Collection

Bordados Isla Negra, embroidery inspired by the Poetry “Presentation Florida” by Pablo Neruda. Copyright

But , when we talk about Arpilleras, we refer mainly to the works of folk textile art created since the mid-1970s by Chilean women as an instrument of denunciation and act of resistance against the abuses and violations of human rights perpetrated by the military government of Pinochet.

The history of the Arpilleras, in fact, has its roots and draws its raison d’être from the events related to the coup d’état that, on September 11, 1973, dismissed the then president Salvador Allende, bringing to power the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Tens of thousands of Chileans were brutally tortured and thousands forced into forced exile.

“Sala de Torturas”, Marjorie Agosín’s private collection, photographer Martin Melaugh, copyright Arpillera Marjorie Agosín

“Aquí se Tortura”(Here They Torture), private collection Germany,photographer Martin Melaugh, Arpillera Gaby Franger

The oppression generated by the authoritarian regime of Pinochet laid the foundations for the birth of opposition movements to the policies of the regime and non-negligible was the role of women who managed to create an autonomous movement that exploited the social role traditionally attributed to them, to challenge the dictatorship.

One of the most important groups was the arpilleristas, a collective women’s organization whose aim was to provide shelter and create a source of income for women left alone and denounce, at the same time, violations of human rights. The widespread poverty and unemployment caused by Pinochet’s economic policies, the murder and disappearance of thousands of Chileans, mostly men, had left women alone both economically and psychologically (Garretòn 2003). 

“Homenaje a los caídos”(Homage to the fallen ones), photographer Martin Melaugh,copyright Arpillera Fátima Miralles

In the craft workshops organized by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad (Vicariate of Solidarity) thanks to the Catholic Church, women met in search of protection and began to produce arpilleras, fabrics embroidered in appliqué depicting the political struggles of human rights activists, telling the stories of the desaparecidos, and representing scenes of daily life. These workshops played an essential role in education and collective dialogue and allowed the enhancement of the social role of these women, going beyond the stereotypes of a patriarchal society that wanted them relegated to the roles of wives, mothers and caregivers.

The first arpilleras workshop was organized in 1974 by fourteen women who arrived at the Vicariate of Solidarity in search of refuge and of support for disappearances and for the economic crisis. (Agosin: “Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love : The Arpillera Movement in Chile”, 2008).

Thanks to the arpilleras a narration, a story is created, a personal memory is transformed into collective and shared history, because art has the power to create immediate emotional connections, stimulating empathy and compassion.

“Nuestra Vida en Chile”(Our Life in Chile), Created by Elena Cerón Sandoval in Santiago de Chile 2007,courtesy Roberta Bacic

Thanks to the apparently harmless appearance of these simple textile works made by women, arpilleras escaped regime controls and censorship and could be exported and sold overseas in large numbers, creating a form of support for their creators and eventually representing an important testimony of what was happening in Chile: they became a means of international cooperation at a time when freedom of speech and freedom of the press were severely endangered.

At the end of the 1970s, people went to art galleries in London, for example, to look at these works, Amnesty International used them in their calendars, and all this contributed to the dissemination and sharing of these memories that took on the political value of subversive acts and Resistance.

Alla fine degli anni ’70, la gente andava nelle gallerie d’arte a Londra, ad esempio, per guardare queste opere, Amnesty International le usava nei propri calendari, e tutto ciò contribuiva alla diffusione e alla condivisione di tali memorie che assunsero la valenza politica di atti sovversivi e di resistenza.

“Paz Justicia Libertad” (Peace Justice Freedom), photographer Martin Melaugh, Courtesy of Alba Sanfeliu

Sometimes, in the back of the arpillera, a pocket was sewn in which important written testimonies and messages of the creators were hidden: “My son disappeared in 1974. I wonder where he is” (AgosinTapestries of Hope, Threads of Love : The Arpillera Movement in Chile, 2008).

Today, these textile works continue to be produced in Chile and tell stories of hope and desire for justice. For an example of the contemporary production of arpilleras, click on the following link:

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The photographs published in this article refer to arpilleras exhibited at the 2008  at the Harbour Museum, Derry.  Curator Roberta Bacic. To view the entire collection you can access the link:

Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love : The Arpillera Movement in Chile di Marjorie Agosin, Rowman & Littlefield , 2008

Adams, J. (2000), “Movement Socialization in Art Workshops: A Case from Pinochet’s Chile,” Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 41.

Boldt, Kelley and Timothy J. White (2011) “Chilean Women and Democratization: Entering Politics through Resistance as Arpilleristas”

Maria Rosaria Roseo

English version Dopo una laurea in giurisprudenza e un’esperienza come coautrice di testi giuridici, ho scelto di dedicarmi all’attività di famiglia, che mi ha permesso di conciliare gli impegni lavorativi con quelli familiari di mamma. Nel 2013, per caso, ho conosciuto il quilting frequentando un corso. La passione per l’arte, soprattutto l’arte contemporanea, mi ha avvicinato sempre di più al settore dell’arte tessile che negli anni è diventata una vera e propria passione. Oggi dedico con entusiasmo parte del mio tempo al progetto di Emanuela D’Amico: ArteMorbida, grazie al quale, posso unire il piacere della scrittura al desiderio di contribuire, insieme a preziose collaborazioni, alla diffusione della conoscenza delle arti tessili e di raccontarne passato e presente attraverso gli occhi di alcuni dei più noti artisti tessili del panorama italiano e internazionale.