Why you should care
Because fragility can be precious, and this intricate craftwork has become a symbol of a mysterious South American nation.
In the capital city of Asunción, you can hear the buzz of change in the new hotels rising out of dirt, or in the crackling renovations to the National Pantheon of the Heroes. But if you want to feel the adaptable, living history of Paraguay, then walk over to the Plaza de la Independencia and ask the artists there about ñandutí, an embroidered lace that has become a symbol of this mysterious nation in the heart of South America.
Traditionally used for tablecloth and linens, the Paraguayan fabric has been practiced since colonial times, woven with a needle and threads of cotton or silk that form a matrix of squares, rectangles and circles across a radiating warp. The name is taken from the indigenous language of Guarani and means “spiderweb” or a spider’s “aura,” as one ñandutí expert, Mariano Celso Pedrozo, interprets it. Its weblike pattern marks a creative departure from the circular Spanish “sun” laces called teneriffe, which originated in the Spanish Canary Islands and influenced early Paraguayan tribes.
After the devastating 19th century War of the Triple Alliance, in which Paraguay reportedly lost nearly nine-tenths of its men, the marketable craft became essential to survival for many girls and young women. “Women had to raise their children, and thanks to the ñandutí, they could do it,” says Annick Sanjurjo, who, in the ’70s, wrote the first book formalizing the ñandutí techniques that previously had been passed on only orally.
Buoyed in part by the documentation of the process, ñandutí is evolving from simple, black-and-white patterns to complex colored designs used in everything from pottery to dresses. A recent ñandutí exhibit at the Paraguayan embassy in Washington, D.C., showcased some of its more modern iterations: an American flag made from the thin lace; a fruit bowl of ñandutí patterns turned glazed ceramic; a dress of luminescent greens, blues, pinks and yellows.
If you want to get your hands on some spiderweb lace of your own and you’re in Asunción, artists sell their work at the airport and markets for anywhere between $6 to $30. And if you’re not in Asunción, more adventurous takes are available at online marketplaces like Etsy, where handcrafted pieces sell for as much as $90. The renditions are vibrant, although they sacrifice the practicality that ancient ñandutí required, says Albert Casciero, an Argentine scholar who translated Sanjurjo’s textbook, Ñandutí: Lace of Paraguay. “It used to be in white or ocher, a yellowish color, and now the modern ones are in color — how could you wash this?”
Both Sanjurjo and Casciero agree commercialization has diminished the average quality of the lace. “You can’t wash it in the washing machine; much of it is thin,” Casciero says, and after hand-washing “you have to put it in a stretcher and hang it to dry it in the sun. Nowadays, who is going to do that?”
“When you want good lace, it takes days, months,” Casciero adds. The best ñandutí isn’t just of high quality, but also carries the beauty stirred from Paraguay’s tragedy. “It’s a very poor country that doesn’t deserve the history it has — we were eaten by our powerful neighbors,” Sanjurjo says. Much of that quiet fragility amid chaos is passed on in the ñandutí, an art intrinsic to the tiny rural nation.